Updated: Wednesday, 12 March 2014 17:42 | By Agence France-Presse

Chinese don recalls pioneering French visit

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.

Chinese don recalls pioneering French visit

Professor Li Yumin, one of the first Chinese students to arrive France after Paris launched diplomatic relations with Communist Beijing 50 years ago, is shown March 4, 2014

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.

Former Rennes mayor Edmond Herve, who was a young university professor at the time, remembers the students as a lot "that kept to themselves and only went out as a group".

Li confirmed that the students were very "disciplined" -- and had to be.

"We had no freedom to do anything. I couldn't go out alone, there was always at least one comrade who accompanied me."

- 'Total Maoists and critical' -

Then in the spring of 1966, Mao set in motion the Cultural Revolution, aimed at violently removing "bourgeois" elements he claimed had infiltrated the government and society at large -- a "catastrophe" according to Li.

Millions were persecuted, there were flagrant rights abuses and a large part of the population was forcibly displaced, while Mao's personality cult grew to immense proportions until his death in 1976 brought an end to the chaos.

Yves Merrien, one of the professors in Rennes at the time, remembers the students as being totally wedded to Mao's teachings and philosophy and closely following events in their country.

"They were all total Maoists and very critical of what they saw in France," he said. 

"I remember one student who began a paper on Le Nouvel Observateur (a left-leaning French news magazine started in 1964) by describing it as a 'little bourgeois intellectual newspaper of the left'," he said.

"Whatever the subject, they always harked back to the thoughts of Mao," Merrien said.

When they left in January 1967 to join the Cultural Revolution, Herve remembers the group labelled their teachers as "bourgeois."

When asked why he was leaving, one of the students at the time took out Mao's Little Red Book -- a must-read tome for Chinese Communists at the time -- and read out a citation by the leader.

But on their return to China, many were considered as having been contaminated by their exposure to the West and suffered.

Li was herded off to a re-education school in the countryside and had to remain there until 1978.

"Twelve years, it's really very long," he said.

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