Remembering Burchard J. Mansvelt Beck

A message from Paul van Els:

Recently, a widely beloved Leiden University teacher of Classical Chinese, Burchard J. Mansvelt Beck, passed away. He introduced many generations of students to the Mencius, the Analects, and other texts. He also translated into Dutch the Laozi and the Four Canons of the Yellow Emperor, and wrote an introduction to Confucianism. I wrote a (rather lengthy) obituary to honor the memory of this special teacher, which also includes a list of his publications. Please see here.

5 thoughts on “Remembering Burchard J. Mansvelt Beck

  1. Very moving and beautiful, thanks, Paul! Well-written obituaries are rare, but this one is very good. One regrets never having had the opportunity to meet him.

  2. Dear Paul van Els,
    Thank you for making Burchard’s obituary available.

    Would you be so kind as to inform me of the title of the poem of Bai Juyi relating to the death of his infant daughter. I’m afraid that I’m only able to read it in English.

    Thanking you in anticipation.
    Heather Fletcher

    • Thanks Heather. Here is the poem:

      Remembering Golden Bells

      Ruined and ill—a man of two score;
      Pretty and guileless—a little girl of three.
      Not a boy—but still better than nothing:
      To soothe one’s feeling—from time to time a kiss!
      There came a day—they suddenly took her from me;
      Her soul’s shadow wandered I know not where.
      And when I remember how just at the time she died
      She lisped strange sounds, beginning to learn to talk,
      Then I know that the ties of flesh and blood
      Only bind us to a load of grief and sorrow.
      At last, by thinking of the time before she was born,
      By thought and reason I drove the pain away.
      Since my heart forgot her, many days have passed
      And three times winter has changed to spring.
      This morning, for a little, the old grief came back,
      Because, in the road, I met her foster-nurse.

      Bai Juyi (772-846), translated by Arthur Waley

  3. Thank you for writing this. Burchard and I became pen pals around 1960. This was arranged by our mothers. After World War Two, people in the U. S. were encouraged to donate money to send European children to England for a while until living conditions in their own countries improved. Because my mother’s maiden name was Van Sickle (her ancestors came to New York when it was still Nieuw Amsterdam), she designated her gift for a Dutch child, Burchard’s older half-brother. My mother and Burchard’s mother corresponded after that and then decided Burchard and I should correspond.

    My parents invited Burchard to spend 1964-65 in the U.S. at the boarding school I was attending, Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. When it wasn’t in session, he spent time with our family in rural Hartland, Vermont, but he also visited a Phillips Academy classmate in Oklahoma and visited Boston and New York City. A friend and I met him in Montreal when he debarked from his ocean liner. As soon as we reached our hotel, he turned on the TV so he could watch American commercials because Dutch TV had no commercials at the time. He was also fascinated with Vermont animals that didn’t exist in the Netherlands.

    When he arrived in 1964, Burchard spoke perfect Oxford English. He immediately began to switch to American English and, by the end of the first semester, he could speak it with very little accent. His proudest achievement was being able to understand the American comic strip Pogo, which was written in Southern dialect and could be fully understood only if one knew a lot about American politics. After the first semester, he switched back to Oxford English. Why? An uncle had bet him that, when he returned, he would be speaking American English. Burchard won the bet.

    Burchard shocked Americans by wearing the sort of Nehru jacket fancied by the Beatles; he loved their music before most Americans paid any attention to it. Even then, he enjoyed surprising people.

    Burchard easily won academic honors at Phillips Academy. After returning to the Netherlands, he enjoyed keeping in touch with Andover., as it is popularly known.

    When I arrived in Europe to study in Munich in 1967-68, I began by visiting Burchard. He came to pick me up at the railroad station in a small motorbike. Somehow he got me and my large suitcase on the back ot it. I was terrified but we made it to his apartment without injury. He brought home to me what had happened in the war. Sitting in a cafe in Rotterdam, I tried to practice German with him. He refused to speak German in public, pointing out that the Germans had destroyed most of the city. in the war. Burchard’s mother and stepfather kindly had me celebrate Christmas with them and Burchard in England. We spent New Year’s in Holland dodging horizontally discharged fireworks and drinking with neighbors. Only then did he tell me he was gay. He probably had had a relationship with a German student at Andover. Unfortunately this student killed himself while at the university in Freiburg.

    When he was young, Burchard joked that he was saving up for a round-the-world trip and said that, in only a few years, he might get as far as London. Later, however, he took an African tour with his mother. As far as I know, he never reached China though he did get as far as San Francisco.

    Burchard and I kept up a lively and voluminous correspondence, mostly in English but sometimes in German, French, or even Dutch (which I learned on his account). Until he switched to email, it was always interesting to see what sort of scrap paper he used for letters, too. We also competed in making English puns. Over the years, I visited him several times in Leiden and Amsterdam. He was always a good host. When my wife, my 11 year old daughter and I visited in 2000, he played tour guide and also delighted in finding Kinder Eggs for my daughter. We last saw him in 2018. COPD, no doubt caused by years of smoking, had taken its toll, but he had learned to live with it quite well. He last emailed me from the hospital where he died. I still think of things I’d like to discuss with him. I miss him.

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