Lea Pereira is impressed by the solemn gazes of Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, two late Chinese leaders who worked and studied in their hometown a century ago.

“They were motivated by a strong desire to lift their country out of poverty and hardship. Every time I look at their portraits, their looks move me and I can feel the strong emotions in their hearts, ”he said. Pereira, a high school student at the Lycée en Forêt (Lycée en Bosque, LEF, according to its French acronym), in Montargis, about 100 km south of Paris.

Pereira is among more than 40 French and Chinese teenagers who participated last month in a virtual learning program on a special chapter in bilateral exchanges, in which thousands of young progressive Chinese people worked and studied in France a century ago.

Having learned Chinese as a second or third foreign language, Pereira and his schoolmates approached this special period in history through documentaries, a biography about Deng’s life, a virtual visit to a local museum about the friendship between France. and China and a series of online conferences. to interact with your peers in China.

The 21 students at No. 1 High School in Liuyang City, Central China’s Hunan Province, are mostly beginner and intermediate level French learners.

After a brief exchange of “nihao” and “bonjour,” the teens soon turned to their native languages ​​for more effective communication. His teachers voluntarily became his interpreters.

Flavien Gavoille, another student, said he was in awe of Deng’s diligence during his days in France.

“Deng worked 10 hours a day in a factory in Montargis and earned only one franc per hour. He lived in a shed and saved every penny for his studies. I worked hard despite poverty and harsh living conditions, ”Gavoille said. “His hard work paid off: he discovered that Marxism was the only way out for China.”

Deng was among the thousands of young progressive Chinese who came to France under the Diligent Labor-Frugal Study Movement beginning 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 first groups of the Communist Party of China (CCP) in France.

The movement played an important role in history and contributed to the founding of the CCP in 1921 and the People’s Republic of China in 1949, leaving a heritage that continues to inspire younger generations today.

Zeng Guoxiang from Liuyang City said he was impressed by Cai Hesen, one of the CCP’s founders. To improve his French, Cai continued to read local newspapers with the help of a dictionary in a park until closing time. “Moved by his perseverance, a park janitor offered to be his French tutor,” Zeng said.

Today, more than 10,000 Chinese students choose to study in France each year. Most of them are well prepared economically and linguistically, unlike their predecessors 100 years ago, when the majority of Chinese students bound for France traveled by land and sea and faced enormous challenges, including poverty and language barriers, among others.

“But still, there is a lot we can learn from those role models of the last century,” said Wang Ziyan. “Their ability to adapt quickly to a new environment, their passion for learning, and most importantly, their patriotism and passion for serving their country with what they have learned.”

The work-study movement also played an important role in the history of China-France relations, said Wang Peiwen, a professor of Chinese at LEF. “We have to pass it on to the new generation, instead of leaving it buried in oblivion.”

In response to repeated appeals from Chinese teachers in France, the French Ministry of National Education incorporated the history of the movement into the curriculum of Chinese students in the international sections of French secondary schools a few years ago.

The joint study brought Chinese and French teens closer together and bridged the gap between the younger and older generations, said Yu Peiyao, who teaches French at No. 1 high school in Liuyang.

When Enzo Rouhaud shared with his parents what he had learned in school, he was surprised to find that they knew little about what happened in his hometown 100 years ago.

“They were amazed by the story I told them. They now know that relations between France and China are of particular importance and that these ties will endure, ”he said.

Of the 1,600 young Chinese students who arrived in France between March 1919 and December 1920, more than 300 arrived in Montargis, a small town known for its comparatively low cost of living, as well as the openness and hospitality of the locals. said Jean-Louis Rizzo, a retired history professor at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris.

To commemorate this period in history, Montargis named the square in front of its central train station in honor of Deng in 2014 and in 2019, a huge monument was unveiled in the square to mark the 100th anniversary of the Chinese work-study movement.

“The monument represents young Chinese who, having stood out as the best students from their respective provinces, came to France to explore ways to move their country forward,” said Benoit Digeon, mayor of Montargis, in an interview with Xinhua. “They were inspired by communism and worked for the founding of a peculiar communist party in China.”

Currently, about 100 young people from Montargis are learning Chinese. Digeon hopes they will visit China and return to France with innovative ideas.

Baptiste Ducharme, a 21-year-old student at the University of Orleans, has been studying Chinese for seven years. After a short tour of China in 2017, Ducharme planned to continue his studies in China in the near future.

Originally from Montargis, he now works as an intern at the Franco-Chinese Friendship Museum, a 300-year-old house where some Chinese students lived in the 1920s.

“I am deeply impressed by this period in history and I am ready to take my own work-study trip to China,” he said.

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