A New Petőfi Statue in China

Charles Balintitt Jr.

A New Petőfi Statue in China

Dedication of Petőfi statue in Chongqing; Petőfi statue in Shanghai

This month when we think of one of Hungary’s greatest national holidays, the commemoration of the beginning of the uprising against the Habsburgs on March 15th, 1848, we also have to think about Petőfi Sándor.  While Kossuth Lajos was the voice of the Revolution, Petőfi Sándor was its spirit.  It was his poem, “Nemzeti Dal” (National Song), which was recited over and over from the beginning and throughout the Revolution as the anthem of the rebellion.  The powerful words of this poem became the battle cry of Hungarian patriots as they roused their fellow citizens to take action.

This past December 2nd, a new statue of the great Hungarian poet, Petőfi Sándor and his wife, Szendrey Júlia, was dedicated in the city of Chongqing in western* China   It is a bust showing the two of them embracing each other.  This was done in memory of the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.  The sculpture, by Szórádi Zsigmond, was a gift from the Hungarian Foreign Ministry.  The event included speeches by Szőcs Géza, a chief advisor to Prime Minister Orbán Viktor and by Zhang Ling, vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

You may be asking yourself:  Why place a statue of a Hungarian poet in a park in China; and why this poet in particular; and why in this city?  Well, there are a few reasons:  First of all, there are new Hungarian courses being offered in a few Chinese universities, including Chengdu, Xi’an and Chongqing.  Second, a direct flight from Budapest to Chongqing will commence in the near future.  Third, currently the main signs of Hungarian culture in China can mostly be found in coastal cities, such as Beijing or Shanghai, and Hungary wanted to establish a presence in the interior of the country.  Another reason is that most Chinese students already have some knowledge of Petõfi, because his poem “Szabadság, Szerelem”, is part of the curriculum in most Chinese primary schools:

Szabadság, Szerelem!

E kettõ kell nekem.

Szerelmemért föláldozom

Az életet,

Szabadságért, föláldozom

Szerelmemet.

 

                                                       

                                                                            Freedom, Love!

These two I need.

For my love I sacrifice

My life,

For Freedom, I sacrifice

My love.

 

When I went to Hungarian school on Saturdays, from the mid-1960’s until the mid-1970’s, at the end of each school year a number of students had to learn and then recite a poem in front of all of their fellow students, parents and teachers.  I remember that at least 2 of the poems that I recited were written by Petőfi Sándor.  One of them, of course, was “Nemzeti Dal”; the other was “Szeptember végén” (At the End of September).  By the way, the New York Hungarian School was named after another famous Hungarian poet, Arany János, who was also a contemporary of Petőfi Sándor.  In fact the School which, when I was a student, had been housed in the classrooms of the former St. Stephen of Hungary Church and School, is still going strong a half century later, but now at the New York Hungarian House.      

As it turns out, the statue in Chongqing is not the first statue of Petőfi Sándor in China.  Another statue was dedicated 3 years ago in Lu Xun Park in Shanghai.  The Chinese poet, Zhou Shure, who was known by the name, Lu Xun (9/25/1881 – 10/19/1936), translated many of Petőfi’s poems into Chinese.  Lu Xun’s poems were also translated into Hungarian and his statue can be found in Kiskőrös, Hungary, the town where Petőfi was born.

Even though Hungary has remained a more homogenous society than many other areas in Europe, there is still a conglomeration of other nationalities in the country.  There were probably few greater Hungarian patriots than Petőfi Sándor.  But many years ago, it was actually my late father-in-law, Milutin Petkovich, who told me that Petőfi was really Serbian.  As it turns out, he was born Alexander Petrovic, to a Serbian father and a Slovakian mother, yet he grew up to be an exceptionally proud Hungarian.

It was truly amazing how many beautiful poems he wrote during such a short lifetime.  He joins some of my other favorite poets, who all left this world way too soon.  But each of them still managed to leave a legacy of wisdom, culture and beauty, worthy of one much, much older than they:  Lord Byron was 36, Percy Bysshe Shelley was not quite 30 and Petőfi Sándor was only 26 and a half!

*Chongqing is referred to as western China probably because of its distance from the coast, but it is really more south central China.

Charles Bálintitt Jr. is a working Customs Broker in Lawrence, NY and a member of the Magyar News Online Editorial Board.