From Red Book to classics: Chinese don recalls pioneering French visit

From Red Book to classics: Chinese don recalls pioneering French visit

RENNES, France - Fifty years ago, Paris made the momentous decision to launch full diplomatic ties with Beijing, prompting Chinese leader Mao Zedong to dispatch a group of eager and spiffy students to France for a pioneering sojourn.

Just over two years later, wearing dowdy Mao suits and carrying little red books full of their leader's revered quotations, they departed in haste to take part in the decade of bloodshed and chaos that was the Cultural Revolution.

But for some, the trip would have a lasting impact on their lives and careers.

"I have very happy memories," said Li Yumin, who was then 25 and later went on to translate into Chinese famous French novels such as Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables".

"The French were very curious about China and about Chinese students. For our part, we were extremely polite." Li was one of around 100 Chinese students who arrived in the northwestern city of Rennes in the autumn of 1964 after France became the first Western power to recognise Mao's communist government in January, paving the way for Beijing's global recognition.

Fifty years on, the number of Chinese students in France has ballooned to 30,000, but for Li and his friends, the trip was a novelty.

Cold War, language shock

Speaking on the phone from Beijing, Li recalled that for all their eagerness, the students were also on their guard as their trip came in the midst of the Cold War.

"We were a little tense," he said. "We had be on guard: in Rennes, there were Taiwanese and Americans. It was during the Vietnam war and there were people who could harm us." There was a language shock as well.

"I had been chosen by the Chinese government because I had studied French for six years at Beijing University. But after coming to Rennes, I realised that I could barely speak," he said, laughing.

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