New Work on Sino-French Relations in the 1950s

One of the most enjoyable things I get to do in the summer is to travel to archives and research facilities in various countries to seek out new sources which serve as the basis of new articles and manuscripts.  As summer, that lovely season, is apparently coming to an end (how?  with a bang not a whimper),  I  wanted to share the abstract of an article that I have been working up.  This is something that I have squeezed out this season in between my core work on anti-Japanese nationalism, excursions amid California’s mountains and urban canyons, Couchsurfs and archive-spelunking in Berlin, splash-downs and salutations all over the smashingly beautiful and spiritually destructive City of Light (recalling my favorite graffitti of the summer: “tell a friend! tell a foe!”), camping trips, swimming like a bear in Lake Superior, getting jackets from homeless guys across from “Mao Livehouse” in my favorite neighborhood in Beijing, all-nighters in the shadow of Bastille,  work on new and renewing syllabi in Tacoma, e-mails with ambitious pupils, precious time with family in Scandanavian America, and excursions up and down the North Korean-Chinese border.  So if the writing is trashy, the logic sloppy, and the sources imperfectly arranged, I can blame only myself.

Thus the following excerpt is rough, but something about which I hope to learn more and refine the translations of a gaggle of documents from the MFA Archives in Beijing.  Please kick me an e-mail at my university address [cathcaaj(at)] if you are interested in knowing more about this project, have read the entire run of Le Monde , Liberation, L’Humanite, or Le Figaro for the years 1949-1958 with an eye toward the East (I have only begun, and may never finish this particular task), or are  able to explain to me why Simone de Beauvoir’s lover’s letters are inaccessible long after his death although her magnificent epistles lie dormant, in miraculous English, at Ohio State University.

Existentialists and Dragon Slayers:

PRC People’s Diplomacy and the Struggle for French Public Opinion,



In the mid-1950s, the People’s Republic of China [中华人民共和国] was emerging with increasing confidence onto the global stage.  Having successfully defended its frontier in the Korean War and enhanced its international stature in the Geneva Conference in 1954, the PRC was embarking upon a program of unprecedented domestic reforms while working in an effort coordinated by Zhou Enlai to improve China’s international image.  Chinese propaganda, information operations, and bilateral “people’s diplomacy [民间外交]” worked together in the 1950s in order to improve the legitimacy and the image of the PRC, expressing China’s confident growth and seducing states that had yet to recognize the PRC.

France was a particularly significant target for the PRC in this regard.  The PRC extended great efforts to move the French polity in the direction of recognition, simultaneously acting to exacerbate “contradictions [矛盾]” between France and its imperialist allies, particularly the United States.  A small amount has already been produced about this period of relations in French and Chinese languages.  [The authoritative text to date is Xu Qing’s  Le temps du soupcon, cited in full below.]  In English, however, the topic has languished at the periphery of historical studies that have focused instead on British-Chinese relations or military implications of French entanglement with Indochina/Vietnam.

Yet relatively little has been published in English about the intricate and extensive Chinese outreach effort to France, or the reception that the PRC received in the French public, in the 1950s. Indeed, the very topic of Sino-French relations in the 1950s has been largely eclipsed in English-language scholarship in favor of examination of Sino-British ties during the same period. More commonly, the subject of Sino-French relations in the 1950s is logically subsumed into discussions of the clouded Indochina/Vietnam conflict.  However, focusing on such things has not allowed for a look at China’s cultural and propaganda strategy toward France, and its effectiveness and opponents,  in the 1950s.  Particularly today, as China’s bilateral relationship with France is one of its most contentious and prominent, the time has arrived for some more extensive excavation of the foundations of the relationship in the 1950s.

This article seeks to document the difficulties faced by the PRC in projecting a positive image in France in the 1950s, and does so largely via discussion of new documents from the PRC Foreign Ministry Archive.  These documents, in tandem with a survey of the oeuvrage of several of the most key players in the competitive French press, reveal the care and complexity taken by the PRC in managing French journalists and visitors to the PRC, and the role of Chinese delegations abroad in spreading a positive image of China and furthering the drive toward Sino-French normalization.  In exemplifying some of the anti-Red images and stereotypes promulgated in such mainstream dailies as Le Monde, the article surveys the work of noted correspondent Robert Guillain and le Figaro columnist Raymond Aron.  Juxtaposed against this, and at the heart of the article, lies the 1955 trip of prominent existentialists and public intellectuals Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre to the PRC in autumn of 1955.  Threaded throughout are generous extracts/translations from the French press, and new documents from the Foreign Ministry Archive in Beijing which explain in great detail how China’s images was manipulated on all sides in the lead up to the Great Leap Forward.  Throughout, an effort is made to combine the best Chinese sources with French and English-language literature existing already on the subject.  Enjoy!

Selected Citations:

Barlow, Jeffrey.  Sun Yatsen and the French, 1900-1908.

Claisse, Alain. 1973. Les relations franco-chinoises, 1945-1973. [Paris]: Documentation française.–

Gigon, Fernand.  Et Mao Prit le Pouvoir. Paris: Flammarion, 1969.

Hudelot, Claude.  La Longue Marche vers la Chine moderne. Paris: Découvertes Gallimard, 2003.

Hughes, Alex. 2007. France/China: intercultural imaginings. Research monographs in French    studies, 22. London: Legenda.

Lew, Roland.  1949, Mao prend le pouvoir. Brussels: Editions Complexe, 1981 and 1999.

Xu, Qing.  Le temps du soupçon: les relations franco-chinoises, 1949-1955.  [The Time of Distrust: French-Chinese Relations, 1949-1955.]  Paris: You Feng, 2006.

Frenchtown Exit, Interstate 90, Montana (Photo by Adam Cathcart)
Frenchtown Exit, Interstate 90, Montana (Photo by Adam Cathcart)


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