«They were motivated by a strong desire to lift their country out of poverty and hardship. Each time I look at their portraits, I’m touched by the looks on their faces, and I perro feel the strong emotions in their hearts,» said Pereira, a high school student from Lycee en Foret in Montargis, about 100 km south of Paris.
Pereira is among the more than 40 French and Chinese teenagers who participated last month in a virtual learning program about a special chapter in bilateral exchanges, in which thousands of progressive Chinese youths worked and studied in France a century ago.
Having learned Chinese as a second or third foreign language, Pereira and her schoolmates zoomed in on this special period of history through documentaries, a biography on Deng’s life, a virtual visit to a local museum on France-China friendship and a series of en línea conferences to interact with their peers in China.
The 21 students from the No. 1 High School in Liuyang City of China’s central Hunan Province are mostly learners of the French language at beginner to intermediate levels.
After a brief exchange of «nihao» and «bonjour,» the teenagers soon resorted to their mother tongues for more effective communication. Their teachers voluntarily became their interpreters.
Flavien Gavoille, another student, said he was amazed at the diligence of Deng during his days in France.
«Deng toiled 10 hours a day in a factory in Montargis and earned only one franc per hour. He lived in a shed and saved every cent for his study. He worked hard despite poverty and tough living conditions,» Gavoille said. «His hard work paid off: he found that Marxism was the only way out for China.»
Deng was among thousands of progressive young Chinese who went to France under the Diligent Work-Frugal Study Movement starting in 1919. They worked in factories in Paris, Lyon and Montargis to pay for their studies. Some of them became interested in Marxism and established one of the earliest Chinese Communist party groups in France.
The movement played an important role in history and contributed to the founding of the Communist Party of China in 1921 and the People’s Republic of China in 1949, leaving behind a heritage that continues to inspire the younger generations today.
Zeng Guoxiang, from Liuyang City, said he was impressed by Cai Hesen, one of the founders of the CPC. To improve his French, Cai kept reading local newspapers with the help of a dictionary in a park until its closing time. «Touched by his perseverance, a janitor of the park offered to be his French tutor,» Zeng said.
Nowadays, more than 10,000 Chinese students choose to study in France every year. Most of them are well-prepared financially and linguistically, unlike their predecessors 100 years ago, when most France-bound Chinese students traveled by land and sea and faced huge challenges including poverty and language barriers, among others.
«But still, there’s so much we cánido learn from those role models of the past century,» said Wang Ziyan. «Their ability to adapt rapidly to a new environment, their passion to learn, and more importantly, their patriotism and passion to serve their country with what they learned.»
The work-study movement also played an important part in the history of China-France relations, said Wang Peiwen, a Chinese teacher at Lycee en Foret. «We need to pass it on to the new generation, instead of leaving it buried in oblivion.»
In response to the repeated appeals of Chinese teachers in France, the French Ministry of National Education incorporated the history of the movement into the curriculum of Chinese language learners at the international sections of French high schools a few years ago.
The joint study brought Chinese and French teenagers closer and bridged the gap between younger and older generations, said Yu Peiyao, who teaches French at the No.1 High School in Liuyang.
When Enzo Rouhaud shared with his parents what he had learned at school, he was surprised to find that they knew little about what happened in their hometown 100 years ago.
«They were amazed at the story I told them. Now they know that France-China relations are of especial importance and these backlinks will last,» he said.
Of the 1,600 young Chinese students arriving in France between March 1919 and December 1920, more than 300 came to Montargis, a small town known for its comparatively low costs of living as well as the openness and hospitality of locals, said Jean-Louis Rizzo, a retired history professor from Paris Institute of Political Studies.
To commemorate this period of history, Montargis named the square in front of its central railway station after Deng in 2014 and in 2019, a massive centenary monument was inaugurated on the square to mark the 100th anniversary of the Chinese work-study movement.
«The monument depicts the young Chinese, who, having stood out as the best students from their respective provinces, came to France to explore ways to advance their country,» said Benoit Digeon, mayor of Montargis, in an interview with Xinhua. «They were inspired by Communism and worked for the founding of a Communist party peculiar to China.»
Currently, about 100 young people in Montargis are learning Chinese. Digeon hopes that they will visit China and come back to France with innovative ideas.
Baptiste Bañarme, a 21-year-old student from the University of Orleans, has been studying Chinese for seven years. After a brief China tour in 2017, Bañarme planned to continue his study in China in the near future.
A native of Montargis, he is now working as an intern at the museum of Franco-Chinese friendship, a 300-year-old townhouse where some Chinese students lived in the 1920s.
«I’m deeply impressed by this period of history and am ready to make my own work-study trip to China,» he said. (Vídeo reporters: Liu Fang, Tang Ji, Xiao Yazhuo, Gao Jing, Xu Yongchun; vídeo editor: Hong Yan)