Leading French sinologist says language key to closer China-France relations

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The Chinese language has been gaining popularity in France and that has helped bolster Sino-French ties, said Joel Bellassen, a renowned sinologist.

"It has been half a century so far," Bellassen said of his long history with Mandarin in a recent interview with Xinhua at the China Culture Center in Paris.

The sinologist began studying Chinese in Paris in 1969. From 2006 to 2016, he acted as France's first General Inspector of Chinese Language at the Ministry of National Education.

"Thanks to the resumption of cultural exchanges between the two governments, I was lucky to be one of the first French students studying in China," he said. "It was on November 18, 1973, that I went to China."

Why Chinese? "It's not easy to answer," Bellassen said. "I am very interested in the Chinese language because it is unique. And I am always curious about the Chinese culture."

When he was learning the language in France, Bellassen was interested in everything about China, from the game of Go to Taoism and the literary works of Lu Xun, a leading figure of modern Chinese literature.

"But seeing is believing," he told Xinhua. "Thanks to my studies in Beijing, my Chinese had obviously been improved as my knowledge of this great country grew deeper."

Bellassen returned to France in 1975. Committed to Sino-French cultural exchange since then, he has been working on promoting, researching and teaching the Chinese language for more than 40 years.

"Starting in 2000, it can be said that France set off a wave of Chinese learning," he said, adding that the number of junior and senior middle school students learning the language has increased by about 30 percent each year.

"Meanwhile, Chinese language education is becoming more regulated. Many French students and their parents now regard Chinese as an important foreign language, which could play a key role in job-hunting," said the sinologist.

In 2018, more than 110,000 people are learning Chinese in France, according to the Education Office of the Chinese Embassy in France.

Over more than a decade, the French government has opened Chinese international classes in 46 primary and secondary schools of 10 school districts. In terms of the number, Chinese ranks the third place among all 17 languages taught in French primary and secondary schools.

Moreover, the Ministry of National Education has established such a post as the general inspector responsible for teaching Chinese, which "is an exceptional measure within the French educational system," said Bellassen.

He said he believes that the new wave of Chinese learning in France is inseparable from the historical relations between the two countries and the support of the ministry.

France was the first Western country to open a Chinese language department in universities, and the education ministry has clear policies to support Chinese language teaching, Bellassen told Xinhua.

Since its reform and opening up, China has strengthened political, economic and cultural exchanges with France, resulting in the rapid growth in the demand for Chinese teaching, said Bellassen.

"Chinese is now more widely used in France," he told Xinhua, noting that at the Louvre, Charles de Gaulle Airport, and some train stations in Paris, there are usually three main languages on signposts, namely French, English and Chinese.

"This is one of the things I never thought of when I was learning Chinese," he said.

France in 1964 became the first major Western country to formally establish diplomatic relations with China. Bilateral relations continued to develop in a healthy and stable manner.

The best way for France to better understand China is for more French people to learn the Chinese language and culture in depth.

"I will continue to promote Chinese culture and hope that the relations between France and China, especially regarding education and cultural exchanges, continue to prosper," Bellassen said.

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