A French-Chinese or A Chinese French?




Photo taken in 2010 shows Joel Bellasan delivering a speech at the 10th International

Conference on Chinese Language Teaching held in Shenyang, northeast China’s Liaoning




A French-Chinese


A Chinese-French?





Bellassen takes a photo at the west gate of Peking University in 1974.


A pair of worn, black shoes has accompanied Joel Bellassen all over the world.

Sitting at the window in a hostel at Beijing International Studies University, the 64 year-old Frenchman said he doesn’t recognize where he is, although he has been to 24 provinces and autonomous regions during his 200-plus trips to China and speaks Mandarin like a native. “It’s easy to find skyscrapers in almost any large city in this country,” he said. “But it’s hard to distinguish one from another.”

Bellassen is General Inspector of Chinese Language at France’s Ministry of National Education. He traveled to Beijing this time on an academic tour and to give a speech on the theme “Current difficulties of teaching Chinese as a foreign language.”

He always has the Xinhua Dictionary and a Contemporary Chinese Dictionary in his bag. His favorite Chinese story is “Kong Yiji,” written by Lu Xun.

“I love the ending of the story. Kong Yiji may have been dead,” Bellassen said. He is obsessed with this kind of uncertainty.

Bellassen has been fascinated by Chinese for 45 years. In 1969, he chose Chinese as his major at the Universite Paris 8. “I was interested in Chinese ideographs and had a burning curiosity about this remote, mysterious, Eastern country.”

In 1973 the two countries restored cultural exchange programs, which had been halted by China’s Cultural Revolution. This gave him a chance to take his first China journey with 29 other college students.

“It was like going to the moon,” Bellassen recalled. “My grandmother tried to persuade me to stay in Paris because China was comparatively underdeveloped.”

“But I did not change my decision,” he said. “Who would give up an opportunity to go to the moon just because of the harsh conditions?”

Despite restored cultural exchanges, 1973 was still during China’s Cultural Revolution. “I visited all of my classmates after we finished our exchange program in China,” he said. Though many Chinese people at the time thought foreigners were coming to China for political reasons, Bellassen said neither he nor his classmates took part in political movements before, during, or after their China stay.

“We came to China in a politically sensitive period, but we studied here mainly out of curiosity,” he said.

Arriving in China after a 22-hour flight, Bellassen caught his first sight of Beijing. A few people were riding bicycles late at night, he recalled. A portrait of Chairman Mao hung on the airport’s terminal building.


Bellassen lives with local people at a People’s Commune on the outskirts of Beijing

in the 1970s. 


In the 1970s, Chinese people were still curious about foreigners. “One day I went to Wangfujing, Beijing’s commercial district, to buy a pair of shoes,” he said. He attracted hundreds of people’s attention in the street. “But even my close Chinese friends turned away from me, which really made me puzzled,” Bellassen said.

In order to understand China and the Cultural Revolution, Bellassen and his French classmates applied for permission to travel to rural communes and factories and work there, but they could not get permits because they were foreign.

When it came to his second academic year in 1974, he was given a chance to go to Sijiqing People’s commune in Beijing’s western suburbs and live with local farmers and workers.

“At first, I could not bear the breakfast of cornmeal porridge,” he said. “In the first few weeks, I only ate meat three times.” Eventually though, he changed. “The ordinary cornmeal porridge made me forget about baguettes and cheese and I came to know the authentic life in China.”

Even now living in Paris, he still prefers Chinese breakfast.

“My Chinese improved beyond my expectations when I was staying with those local people. After two years of study in China, Bellassen went back to France in 1975. He took part-time jobs teaching Chinese in primary schools, middle schools, and college in Paris.

Since finishing his Ph.D. dissertation on Chinese philosophical life, he has been involved in Chinese education and cultural diffusion.

Bellassen admires current foreign students studying Chinese. He said it is much more convenient for them to learn due to modern multi-media materials.

In spring of 2014, more than 37,000 senior high school students in France chose Chinese as one of their subjects for college entrance exams, he said. “Half of them have been studying Chinese since middle school.”

People from the two countries still have misunderstandings about each other, despite the fact that China and France have had diplomatic ties for 50 years. Many Chinese people cannot tell the different between French cuisine and Italian food. Bellassen said, “There are still a lot of French people who think that Japanese kimonos originate in China.”

“China and Europe may be geographically distant,” he said, “but globalization has shortened and will continue to shorten the distance between China and the Western world in cultural awareness.”

In the Chinese expert’s point of view, China and France share some similarities: centuries-old history, splendid culture, and their people’s yearning for a comfortable lifestyle.

Though he admits that living conditions and availability of foreign products have improved in China, Bellassen is not pleased by China’s fast pace of change.

“The heavier air pollution and newly built, strange buildings mean that my second hometown, Beijing, has lost its unique city character,” he said.

“Besides Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City, Beijing’s soul is the quadrangle of the Siheyuan, the city wall and gates,” he said.

Bellassen knows the government has applied practical measures to protect historical sites to restore their original appearance. “It is a remarkable step,” he said. “But I have no idea whether it’s a little bit late.”

“Foreigners started to learn about China in the days of Marco Polo,” he said, and throughout his career, Bellassen has helped people in France learn about China’s culture and history.



Bellassen takes time to be with a peasant’s child during his stay at a People’s Commune

on the outskirts of Beijing in 1975.



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