Upholding polishness in East Asia?: The polish school in Harbin, 1915-1949


Research output: Contribution to conferencePapers


Contribution: In the last decade of the nineteenth century, Poles as Tsarist subjects arrived to Manchuria, the north-eastern-most part of China. They were employed in the construction and running of the Chinese Eastern Railway, a tool of Russian imperialism in East Asia. Over the decades, a Polish community of several thousand individuals formed out in Harbin. The city of Harbin, sometimes called the ‘Paris of the East’ had a genuinely multicultural character where Chinese, Russian, other European and later Japanese influences merged. The political status of the city shifted over the decades, especially with the foundation of the Japan-controlled puppet state of Manzhouguo in 1932. The Second World War and the subsequent communist take-over put an end to Polish life in Manchuria.
A Polish school (Gimnazjum im. Henryka Sienkiewicza) offering both primary and secondary education was founded in Harbin in 1915. It was the only Polish school in Asia. The school developed into the key institution for Polish cultural life in Manchuria. After the re-establishment of a Polish state in 1919 and the creation of a Polish consulate in Harbin, the school received official financial and organisational support. The school survived until 1949.
Based on a variety of published and unpublished sources, this paper outlines the history of the Gimnazjum im. Henryka Sienkiewicza in Harbin and puts it in its transnational context. Firstly, the schools’ governance structure, curriculum, teaching staff and student body will be analysed. Secondly, it will be explored how key actors tried to position the school within East Asia. Some administrators saw the school as a genuinely ‘Polish’ institution that should primarily link the diaspora to the homeland. Others tried to stress the ‘Catholic’ character of the school and went so far as to suggesting to place the institution under French authority, the French being the protecting power of Catholicism in East Asia. Others again rather urged that the school should prepare youths for life in the transnational enclaves of treaty port East Asia and laboured for the integration of Asian elements in the curriculum. Thirdly, the Polish will be compared to similar institutions of other nationalities in Harbin and other foreign settlements in China. It will be asked to which extent the experience of Polish children in Harbin differed from British, French or German youth in Chinese treaty ports and colonies, such as Tianjin, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Method: As a historical research project, this paper is based on the analysis of published and unpublished text documents. Holdings of the Polish National Archives in Warsaw (Archiwum Akt Nowych) constitute the main body of sources for this research. In particular, the records of the Polish consulate in Harbin offer an extensive documentation on the local Polish school. Additionally, newspapers, contemporary publications on the Polish community in Manchuria as well as memoirs will be exploited.
Expected Outcomes: Generally speaking, this paper makes a contribution to the transnational dimension in the history of education. It adds an educational dimension to the study of “transnational lives” or “global biographies”, a recently extremely popular field of historical inquiry. It also resonates with research on the question of education in diasporic communities. Most importantly, the paper addresses international education before the formalisation of this field, for example by the creation of the International Baccalaureate in the 1960s. In the long term, this research will make a contribution to the East Asian beginnings of international education. Copyright © 2017 ECER.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2017


Dittrich, K. (2017, August). Upholding polishness in East Asia?: The polish school in Harbin, 1915-1949. Paper presented at the ECER 2017: Reforming Education and the Imperative of Constant Change: Ambivalent roles of policy and educational research, Copenhagen, Denmark.

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