Despite the intensive coverage in the Chinese media on the visit of President Jacques Chirac and the "French Culture Year," taxi driver Chen Kongxiang has no idea whom Jacques Chirac was.
One of Chen's biggest wishes during President Chirac's four-day stay, however, was to enjoy the aerobatics show of French Air Force, a program of the "French Culture Year" opened by Chirac in Beijing.
While eight high-performance Alpha jets swoop across the cliffy the Great Wall at Simatai section on the outskirts of the national capital Beijing, leaving red, white and blue trails behind, Chen waved his hand and blurted out the word "Cool!"
"The French air force is really marvelous and awesome," he said.
For many Chinese like Chen, the high-level exchange of visits between China and French since earlier this year were hardly an issue worth of their attention. But the ongoing "French Culture Year," a response to the "China Year" in France last year, does pique their keen interest.
From the grand concert by Jean-Michel Jarre to an exhibit on the life of General Charles de Gaulle, French fashion and culture have become a very popular topic of conversation.
It seems that everything related to France and dormant in the inner heart of Chinese has been enlivened all of a sudden.
When China and France simultaneously published communiques on the forging of diplomatic ties in January, 1964, helping China establish diplomatic relations with the West, the whole world was stunned. The people in China, under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong, were exhilarated.
During the Cold War, when ideology was used to draw a distinct line in international relations, China referred to the former Soviet Union as its "big brother", whereas France was viwed as "a friend in the cause against Fascism and for national independence." The Chinese, therefore, did not regard the French as cordially as the Russians.
After the launch of China's economic reform and opening to the outside world, the signs of Western culture began to enter the country following the footsteps of Western business.
In a host of Chinese cities, Mcdonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut have become increasingly popular venues for get-togethers, while the German Audi and Volkswagen are favorite sedans of Chinese nouveau riches. And Japanese appliances can be found in almost every household.
By contrast, the word "France" only brings up images of Eiffel Tower and Charles de Gaulle.
During a Monday speech at the prestigious Tongji University in Shanghai, Chirac described the two nations as "having brotherly love" and encouraged young Chinese to learn French and become envoys of Sino-French ties.
President Chirac has launched a business offensive to catch up with other Western nations, especially Britain, Germany and the United States.
Driver Chen, who used to drive a French truck while serving in the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in the 1980s, is a staunch advocate of French automobiles.
"Even when the temperature dropped to 37 or 38 Celsius below zero, I had no trouble starting the engine. Besides, it ran on diesel and was economical," he said.
Chirac's entourage included many business leaders. The French president himself was also frank in media interviews in disclosing his commercial ambition.
Within the past four days, a dozen business agreements and deals have been clinched, covering many sectors, such as epidemic prevention and control, information technology, telecommunications, environmental protection, railway construction, film, air industry and financing.
Xiong Zelin, a Beijing local resident who attended the musical concert of Jean-Michel Jarre, held that economic interests were not the only yardstick to measure bilateral relations.
"Although the word 'France' is not connected with the daily necessities of ordinary Chinese, the French culture is well known in the country. Philosophers like Rousseau and Montesquiou are big names here," he said.
Huang Zhenping, who works for a non-government institute in Beijing, said that bilateral cultural exchanges should come first, before business and political exchanges.
"Blindly pursuing a culture simply for business may eventually lead to the loss of one's own culture," he said.
Knowing a smattering of French, Huang regretted he couldn't talk directly to the French people who were present at the opening ceremony of the exhibition featuring the life of General de Gaulle.
"I wish the governments of both nations could map out a culture development blueprint to encourage their young people to study each other's culture," he told Xinhua.
With China speeding up its open-up and economic reforms, the Chinese people have their greatest access ever to overseas culture. But there are still many Chinese unable to identify the names of foreign leaders.
Zhu Lin, the wife of the first Chinese ambassador to France Huang Zhen, was not bothered by that.
"Time will prove that only through people-to-people exchange can a nation-to-nation exchange prosper and flourish," said the 85-year-old.
(Xinhua News Agency October 13, 2004)