Words of passion
Updated: 2010-12-31 12:26
By Patrick Whiteley (China Daily European weekly)
Maciej Gaca has been busy in 2010 promoting Poland's most famous composer, Fryderyk Chopin. Cui Meng / China Daily
Linguist Maciej Gaca is explaining the difference between the Chinese and Western concepts of time and space. It is a profound topic but the Polish Sinologist asks a simple question to make his point. "Where is the past? Where is last week? Don't think about it, quickly point."
He nods, saying that people from the West point behind their backs because they consider time runs on a horizontal line and the past is behind them.
But in the Chinese language, last week is "up week" (shang ge xingqi), revealing that the concept of time runs vertical and the past points up.
The reason, according to Gaca, is when the Chinese language was first being developed thousands of years ago, there was the belief that the creator of all things, Pangu, was up in heaven where time began and the future flowed down from there.
Gaca is passionate about sharing his knowledge about China and has studied the language and culture for more than 25 years.
Today he works at the Polish embassy in Beijing assisting with cultural activities after spending the past few years in Poland as a director of the Confucius Institute, a nonprofit group that aims to spread language and culture around the world.
The fruits of his labor will blossom in 2011 when the first Chinese language course will be taught in Polish high schools. "The Confucius Institute was set up in 2008. We had a Polish and a Chinese team and we taught the language not at an academic level but for adults, teenagers and children," he says.
"There are about 30,000 Chinese living in Poland, there are actually more Vietnamese, but there were no schools teaching Chinese so next year is a good start."
Gaca, 43, says there is still a high level of ignorance about China in Poland and he was continually reminded of the knowledge gap when he worked as a tour guide in China between 2000 and 2006.
"I tried to find opportunities for Polish people to study Chinese and learn more because I was fed up with the cliches: Men in the paddy fields with the bamboo hats, and that everything was backward," he says
"We were getting very well-educated people, such as doctors and executives from the pharmaceutical companies and it only took two weeks for their minds to completely change.
"People had only been focusing on what was in the media and the headlines.
"Polish investors want to come to China but they struggle with the stereotypes."
Gaca's fascination with the Chinese language began when he was a boy growing up in the city of Pozan. His uncle was a doctor and scientist and would often travel through Asia where he would collect books, especially dictionaries.
"I didn't care if I could read them, I just liked the look of them, they were so different," he says.
"My first contact with China was through one of these dictionaries. It was a great big book and I didn't understand anything inside it, but the characters fascinated me and I wanted to know more.
"When you finished secondary school who knows what they want to do so I started Sinology."
After studying in Poland, a long-haired Gaca arrived in Beijing and after his Chinese teacher took one look at him, she christened him Mei Xiya, which means West Asian Plum.
"For the next 20 years I'm paying for my long hair. Everywhere I've gone people expect a woman," he laughs.
Later, he decided to specialize in one of China's minority languages and considering China has 55 minority groups accounting for 8.5 per cent of the population - 100 million people - there was a lot to choose from.
Finally, he embarked on a PhD in the Naxi language called Dongba, one of the few languages which use pictograms. In Dongba, characters can be made up of stick men fighting (conflict) or leaves falling (changing of the seasons). Six or seven pictograms can make up a story of 50 words or more and have been used in Chinese culture since 5000BC.
Gaca says the Naxi people have another concept of time and space.
"A Dongba priest asked me where the past was, and I pointed back as people from the West do, but he asked me: 'Why are you looking back? The past is in front of you'," Gaca says.
"He told me: 'If you look ahead you can see everything before you and your eyes have already seen these things in the past. Everything you know is in front so it's the past."
Gaca has many strings to his bow and this year returned to Beijing to help improve cultural relations with China. He says moves are underway to set up a Polish Culture Institute in Beijing and the first meetings have been held.
But what took most of his time was a special project promoting the 200th anniversary of the birth of Fryderyk Chopin, Poland's most famous composer. The bicentenary of Chopin was a major event celebrated throughout the world with 2,400 events.
Across China there were 30 events including music concerts performed by Polish and Chinese pianists, exhibitions, documentaries and feature movies. "In one of the stage productions we had a young Polish pianist playing Chopin but had Chinese actors, using the Chinese language, letting the audience know how much he loved his country. He was so passionate that he asked his sister to cut out his heart after he died, and bury it back in Poland.
"In the 1800s, Chopin lived at a time when Poland was occupied by foreign powers, and the Chinese relate to this," Gaca says.
"The Chinese love his music but were also touched by Chopin's passion for his country."
It is the kind of cultural connection Gaca hopes to repeat in the future, no matter what direction it may be pointing.