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A fine legacy forged in friendship

A long-awaited Beijing exhibition celebrating six decades of diplomatic ties between China and France sheds fresh light on centuries of exchanges, Wang Kaihao reports.

By Wang Kaihao | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2024-04-11 07:33
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A piece from Ten Tribute Horses, a booklet signed by French Jesuit painter and missionary Jean-Denis Attiret (1702-68). [Photo provided to China Daily]

New perspectives

As Guo highlights, France not only contributed the most European artisans to the Forbidden City, mostly to make mechanical clocks, but also introduced new artistic philosophies of painting and garden design to the Qing court. The Baroque-style Western Mansions in the imperial resort of the Old Summer Palace may be a perfect example.

Kangxi also entrusted French Jesuit missionaries with nationwide geodetic surveys, and created a complete atlas of his vast territory.

Thanks to these top-level exchanges, new ideas from China also flowed into salons and cafes by the River Seine.

"During the reign of Louis XIV, the idyllic impression of China portrayed by Marco Polo began to gradually be replaced by firsthand information," curator Marie-Laure de Rochebrune says.

She also says that from 1702 to 1776, French Jesuit missionaries traveling to China sent numerous letters to their patrons, which were compiled to provide Europeans with a new perspective and a better understanding of China. Some were included by Jean-Baptiste du Halde in The General History of China, a fundamental text of Sinology at the time. A 1735 edition in the collection of the National Library of China in Beijing is one of the highlights in the gallery. It includes a Chinese atlas, newly drawn as a result of the aforementioned geodetic surveys.

Voltaire, the famous French thinker, became a flag carrier, riding the Sinophile wave. Adapted from a 13th-century Chinese literary classic The Orphan of Zhao — a tragic tale of revenge among nobles set 2,500 years ago — his own play, The Orphan of China premiered in Paris in 1755 and was later widely adapted across Europe.

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