Ancient book reinvigorates modern China-France cultural exchanges


"The twin books, one in the BnF, the other in China, are serving as the bridge connecting the two civilizations — Chinese and French."

XinhuaUpdated: December 15, 2020

The National Library of China (NLC) added a new treasure to its trove by the end of 2019 — an ancient book with a brownish marbled calf cover, a golden vignettes-imprinted spine and russetish edges.

The left parts of this combo photo taken on Dec. 11, 2019 show an exterior view of National Library of China (NLC) in Beijing, capital of China (upper left) and the French-language version of "An Introduction to The Analects of Confucius" collected by the NLC (lower left); the right parts of this combo photo taken on Nov. 27, 2019 by Han Qian show an exterior view of the Arsenal site of the French National Library (BnF) in Paris, France (upper right) and another French-language version of "An Introduction to The Analects of Confucius" kept at the BnF (lower right). [Photo/Xinhua]

Light pencil marks run gracefully on the title page. A few leaves in, a line of curly writing in old French reads: "To readers — the book serves as the key or introduction to reading Confucius."

The book, a precious copy of the original French version of "An Introduction to The Analects of Confucius" published in 1688, is a national gift Chinese President Xi Jinping received in March 2019 from his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron.

That ancient literary work serves as not only a testament to the long-standing cultural communication between China and France, but also a witness to the increasing bilateral cooperation in cross-civilizational exchanges.

Twin books

In the French seaside village of Beaulieu-sur-Mer stands a century-old house in ancient Greek style, Villa Kerylos. It is at this historical site that Macron offered the book to the visiting Chinese president.

The early translations of "The Analects of Confucius" inspired French thinkers Montesquieu and Voltaire, Macron told Xi. The only other remaining copy of the same version is now kept at the Arsenal site of the French National Library (BnF).

A visitor looks at The Analects of Confucius of different language versions at the National Museum of China in Beijing, capital of China, Dec. 27, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]

"The book is the first complete foreign manuscript from the Age of Enlightenment collected by the NLC," said NLC Curator Rao Quan. "It marks the beginning of China-France cultural exchanges and language communication."

The gift, added the senior librarian, shows the French president's respect for Xi and Chinese culture, as well as his wish for closer cultural exchanges and cooperation between the two countries.

"I've heard that President Macron himself is highly interested in Chinese culture, and that he likes to read Chinese classics," he said.

To Antide Viand, administrator of Villa Kerylos, the meeting between Xi and Macron at the villa, which itself is a miniature of the cradle of Western civilization, bore special significance.

"It was the first time that the villa welcomed two presidents at the same time. That was a great honor," he said. "It was an excellent memory."

Cultural bridge

In the eyes of Olivier Bosc, director of the Arsenal site of the BnF, the original French version of "An Introduction to The Analects of Confucius" is a "beautiful symbol" of the French people's love for Confucius over the past three centuries.

Olivier Bosc, director of the Arsenal site of the French National Library, views an ancient book in Paris, France, on Nov. 27, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]

Its birth had much to do with the cultural activities in France during the reign of Louis XIV, as "that period was marked by an attraction for China," he said.

He went on to say that French missionaries in China "were surprised to find a history even older than what they knew of, and that was how they started to learn and spread Chinese knowledge."

"Louis XIV was also very eager to know what happened in China," and he invited Chinese celebrities to visit the Palace of Versailles from time to time and encouraged translation of Confucian classics, added the director.

Yet Bosc pointed out that the book Macron presented to Xi, authored by Francois Bernier, endowed China-France cultural exchanges with a new meaning.

"Bernier was not a missionary, but a doctor," Bosc said, adding that having spent 13 years in the East, Bernier recognized the differences between civilizations and the need for mutual learning among cultures.

"Bernier was the first to bring the study of Confucius out of the religious field and recognize all the philosophical, moral and even political significance of Confucian classics," he noted. "That is why the national gift is so important."

"The twin books, one in the BnF, the other in China, are serving as the bridge connecting the two civilizations — Chinese and French," Bosc said with a big smile.

New chapter

On a warm and pleasant October afternoon last year, a booting ceremony was held in Paris for "Versailles and China," a documentary to be co-produced by Chinese and French media organizations.

The work draws inspiration from the very gift Macron gave to Xi last March. It will tell the long history of exchanges and mutual learning between China and France since the 16th century, covering the areas of culture, arts and education.

"This gift has opened a new chapter of China-France cultural exchanges and cooperation," said Rao, the NLC curator.

Last November, China and France agreed to join hands in restoring the world-famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and launching training programs on the protection of the Terracotta Warriors in the northwestern Chinese city of Xi'an.

A woman looks at the Notre-Dame Cathedral under restoration in Paris, capital of France, April 27, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

Additionally, the two countries are also working together to promote global cross-civilizational dialogue and cooperation, a cause Xi has championed for years. For example, both took part in the preservation and restoration of Cambodia's Angkor Wat, and their leading museums are among the world's first "heritage refuges."

The growing China-France cultural cooperation is further cementing the bond between the two peoples. France is the first major Western country to have established official diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China, and one of the earliest to incorporate Chinese language teaching into its national educational system.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, Xi and Macron have had five phone conversations, and the Chinese and French people have been supporting and helping each other.

During the latest phone conversation on Wednesday, the two leaders held discussions on the bilateral and multilateral cooperation in the next stage, reached a number of important consensus and instructed relevant departments of the two countries to step up implementation of those items.

The bilateral friendship "is a valuable asset that we must inherit and carry forward to keep China-France relations at the forefront of the times," Xi said in his trip to France in March, 2019.

For Bosc, the China-France friendship will only get better in the future. The year of 2021 will be "very promising" for China and France, as they have designated it as a year of cultural and tourism cooperation, he said.

Bosc said he believes that the gift book will play a big part in the event. "The book will certainly be at the center of the year. It must be seen by all," he added.