‘A mind broader than the sky’: Xi and French culture

President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping at OR Tambo International airport South Africa to participate in the XV BRICS Summit from August 22-24, 2023, in Sandton, Johannesburg. Picture: Yandisa Monakali / DIRCO

President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping at OR Tambo International airport South Africa to participate in the XV BRICS Summit from August 22-24, 2023, in Sandton, Johannesburg. Picture: Yandisa Monakali / DIRCO

Published May 6, 2024


By Xinhua writers Ni Siyi, Shi Xiaomeng, Shang Jun

Every time Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers New Year address, his office bookshelves inside the Zhongnanhai compound have always been studied by curious bookworms across the country and the world.

As the camera pans, careful viewers can find that in Xi's book collections are some quintessential French masterpieces, including The Spirit of Laws, Les Miserables, The Red and The Black, and The Human Comedy.

"I developed a keen interest in French culture and particularly French history, philosophy, literature and art when I was a young man," Xi once recalled.

Xi has been an avid reader. His extensive reading has helped shape his global perspective. After taking over the helm of China, he has made cultural interaction a trademark of his diplomacy, which empowers a better understanding between China and the wider world.

As China and France celebrate 60 years of diplomatic ties this year, the Chinese president is set to pay his third state visit to the European country. All eyes are on him to see how this enthusiast of French culture will bring the two great civilizations of the East and West even closer.


During his teenage years in the late 1960s, Xi was sent to Liangjiahe, a poor village located on China's Loess Plateau, as an "educated youth" to "learn from the peasants."

Amidst hardships of the country life, reading became Xi's spiritual solace. He read every literary classic he could find in the hamlet, and among them was The Red and The Black.

File photo taken in 1972 shows Xi Jinping, then an "educated youth" in countryside, returning to Beijing to visit his relatives. Picture: Xinhua

"Stendhal's The Red and The Black is very influential," Xi fondly reminisced years later. "But when it comes to portraying the intricacies of the world, works by Balzac and Maupassant are the best, for example, Balzac's The Human Comedy."

Classic books by French luminaries have left so profound an impression on the extensive reader that he often quotes them, particularly Victor Hugo, in his speeches. Addressing the landmark 2015 Paris climate change conference to call for a deal, Xi cited a perceptive line from Les Miserables: "Supreme resources spring from extreme resolutions."

Xi also has an affection for French artworks. He enjoys French composers Bizet and Debussy. He has visited several cultural sites, from the majestic Arc de Triomphe to the opulent halls of the Chateau de Versailles. Deep in his heart, the timeless collections in the Louvre Museum and the revered sanctuary of the Notre Dame Cathedral are enduring treasures of human civilization.

Actors of Kunqu Opera, a traditional form of Chinese performing arts, stage a flash mob performance near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France, September 13, 2023. Picture: Xinhua / Gao Jing

In fact, Xi is not the first Chinese leader fond of French culture. During what is known as the Diligent Work-Frugal Study Movement in the 1920s, late Chinese leaders Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping both travelled to France for educational sojourns in search of a way out for China, a country then torn by war, poverty and invasions.

Back at that time, many patriotic Chinese youths were inspired by writings on the French Revolution, which is also the backdrop of Hugo's Les Miserables, one of Xi's most quoted French masterpieces. As Xi once recalled, one of the episodes that deeply touched him is when Bishop Myriel helps Jean Valjean and encourages him to be a better man.

"Great works possess great power to move readers," he said.


Xi's appreciation for French culture explains why cultural exchanges have become increasingly prominent in his interactions with French leaders and in bilateral exchanges between the two countries.

In 2019 in the French city of Nice, French President Emmanuel Macron received Xi at Villa Kerylos, a century-old house overlooking the Mediterranean and seen as a microcosm reflecting European civilization. There Macron presented Xi with an ancient book: a precious copy of the original French version of "Confucius, or the Science of the Princes."

Featuring a brownish marbled calf cover, a golden vignettes-imprinted spine and russetish edges, the Confucian work was published in 1688 during the Age of Enlightenment. A few leaves into the book, a line of curly writing in old French reads: "To readers -- the book serves as the key or introduction to reading Confucius."

Chinese President Xi Jinping (2nd R) receives the original French version of "Confucius, or the Science of the Princes," published in 1688, from his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron (1st R), as a national gift before their meeting in Nice, France, on March 24, 2019. Picture: Xinhua / Ju Peng

The early translations of Confucian teachings inspired French thinkers Montesquieu and Voltaire, Macron told Xi, who gently held the book with its cover flipped open. "It is a precious gift," Xi said. Later, it became a prized collection of the National Library of China.

During the 17th century, Europe witnessed the emergence of a trend known as Chinoiserie, which surged across the continent in the 18th century, fuelled by increasing trade with China. Concurrently, French sinologists explored the study of Confucianism, the philosophical underpinning of traditional Chinese culture, and disseminated its ideas across Europe.

Observers have noted those cross-cultural exchanges. Gu Hongming, a well-known modern Chinese scholar, wrote: "Only the French seem to understand China and Chinese civilization with unparalleled depth, as they possess a spiritual essence as extraordinary as that of the Chinese."

For Xi, China and France can be "Zhiyin," or bosom friends, who can understand each other deeply owing to their abundant cultural richness.

During Macron's stay in China's southern metropolitan of Guangzhou in April last year, the two heads of state chatted over tea in the Pine Garden at the Guangdong provincial governor's residence, where Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, had resided when he held the post in the 1980s at the start of China's reform and opening-up.

As the two leaders strolled through the garden, the enchanting strains of Qin, an ancient Chinese instrument, filled the air, weaving a captivating melody. Intrigued, Macron inquired about the name of the music. It was "High Mountains and Flowing Water," responded Xi, who then shared the well-known story behind the composition, the tale of Yu Boya and Zhong Ziqi.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron listen to the Qin melody "High Mountains and Flowing Water" at Baiyun Hall of the Pine Garden in Guangzhou, south China's Guangdong Province, April 7, 2023. Picture: Xinhua / Yue Yuewei

As the ancient Chinese legend goes, Yu was an accomplished Qin player, while Zhong, his devoted listener, possessed the rare ability to grasp the emotions conveyed through Yu's music. When Zhong died, the grief-stricken Yu shattered his instrument and vowed never to play again since he lost his "Zhiyin," which literally means a very close friend who understands the other's music in the Chinese language.

"Only Zhiyin (bosom friends) can understand this music," Xi told Macron.


"There is a prospect greater than the sea, and it is the sky; there is a prospect greater than the sky, and it is the human soul," Xi quoted Hugo in his landmark UNESCO speech in Paris in 2014.

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech at the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in Paris, France, March 27, 2014. Picture: Xinhua / Yao Dawei

"Indeed, we need a mind broader than the sky as we approach different civilizations," added the Chinese president, a steadfast advocate for the harmonious coexistence of civilizations in an era of profound changes in the international landscape.

Given that Paris is the host city of UNESCO and that Xi views France as a major representative of Western civilization, it is not surprising that the Chinese leader has chosen the French capital as the venue to expound for the first time his vision of civilization on the world stage.

"I vividly remember his words when he said that today (where) we live, we are representing different cultures, religions, ethnic groups, but we are part of a community of shared destiny," said then UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova. "Ten years later, none of the words President Xi pronounced has aged today. It is more relevant because of the problems we confront nowadays."

Turn the clock back 60 years to 1964. On Jan. 27, China and France made history by formally establishing diplomatic relations, which shattered the icy grip of Cold War isolation and catalyzed the transformation of the global situation towards a multipolar world order. In an editorial published the next day, French daily Le Monde called this historic moment "the encounter of two independents."

In Xi's words, Chairman Mao Zedong and General Charles de Gaulle, with extraordinary wisdom and courage, opened the door for exchanges and cooperation between China and the West, "bringing hope to the world amid the Cold War."

"Both China and France are independent civilizations but like-minded," said Cui Hongjian, director of Center for the European Union and Regional Development Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

A pocket watch is displayed during an exhibition called "The Forbidden City and the Palace of Versailles: Exchanges Between China and France in the 17th and 18th Centuries" at the Palace Museum in Beijing, April 1, 2024. Picture: Xinhua / Jin Liangkuai

"Drawing from their rich cultures and histories, the two countries share profound insights on world trends," said Cui. "They don't want to dominate others, and in turn, they don't want to be dominated."

Laurent Fabius, president of the Constitutional Council and former French prime minister, said both France and China are committed to multilateralism and peace.

"In this dangerous world of ours, there must be powers of peace and sustainable development," Fabius said, "and this must obviously be, beyond our differences, a major mission of China and France."

* Xinhua reporters Deng Yushan, Liu Chang, Liu Youmin, Zhang Dailei in Beijing, Tang Ji, Xu Yongchun, Zhang Baihui in Paris also contributed to the story.