Three French artists' dedication to promoting cultural exchanges from China
Distinct & harmonious
Published: Mar 21, 2024 11:12 PM
Editor's Note:

Two great civilizations, China and France, will meet again at a grand exhibition between China's Forbidden City and the Palace of Versailles of France that is set to start soon. The widely anticipated event allows visitors to delve into the rich histories and cultures of the two countries known for their profound civilizations.

The joint effort by the two countries and numerous people to promote cultural exchanges bears global significance.   

People-to-people exchanges have become especially important for the world. Global Times reporters Xu Liuliu, Li Yuche and Chen Xi talked with three French artists living in China about their efforts to bring China-France ties closer together.

French writer/philosopher Christine Cayol (left) Photo: Courtesy of Cayol

French writer/philosopher Christine Cayol (left) Photo: Courtesy of Cayol

Opening a new world

Christine Cayol has become even busier with the arrival of 2024, a huge year for the friendship between China and France. Cayol, a French writer and philosopher, has lived in China for 22 years and has a beautiful Chinese name: Jia Yue.

For her, the biggest task she is facing is the upcoming exhibition that she will hold for her Yishu 8 initiative's winners at the National Art Museum of China. 

"People-to-people exchanges are very important for our two peoples," Cayol told the Global Times in Beijing. She said that diplomatic relations are "the roof of the house," but within the house, there should be encounters between people like artists, business leaders and students. 

"Human relationships make it possible to forge real ties. And we need 'bridges' to make these ties stronger and stronger," she noted. 

In her eyes, such bridges include many things, one of which is the association Yishu 8, which she founded in 2009 in Beijing to foster cultural exchanges between French and Chinese artists.

The Yishu 8 initiative grants award-winning artists from France and China the opportunity to reside in each other's capital, providing them with the opportunity to draw inspiration from local artistic milieus and immerse themselves in the cultural lifestyles of the host country.

She considers it a long-term plan for artist exchanges over the next "many, many years as bridges need to be solid." And if you want to establish something solid, you need time. 

Visiting China for the very first time in 2002, she fell in love with China and its culture.  

Her ties with China and Chinese culture started with a love story, as Cayol moved for her fiancé, who was sent to work in China. They then got married in China and lived in a hutong, or traditional alleyway, in Beijing.

"It is the love that chooses me." She said to herself that "this will be your chance and best opportunity to go to China and discover a new world."

Since the first day when "I arrived in Beijing, I have felt the power of the Chinese people to sing, to laugh and to love life."

She has met different people in Beijing from kids to old people and felt their happiness and kindness. "People in my hutong are very kind. It is a new lifestyle as China and Beijing have given me a lot of surprises." This helped her make a decision in 2004 to stay in China. 

Ever since then, she started to learn Chinese and explore this country by talking with different people. With her understanding of the Chinese people and culture, she has already written multiple books that are considered cultural bridges between the French and the Chinese people.

"When you are young, and you have been to China, it leaves a mark throughout your whole life," she recalled, talking about how living in China opened a new world for her. 

She has witnessed China's rapid economic development and great achievements in transportation, communications and other aspects. What she has found gratifying is that she has witnessed and participated in the increasingly in-depth and extensive cultural exchanges and mutual learning between China and France.

"We have forged a friendship through art. These are friendships between artists, but also friendships with Chinese civilization. It's a courier of peace, a courier of harmony and a courier of the future," she said.

In 2013, Cayol was honored with the Legion of Honor medal at the French Embassy in Beijing by Jean-Pierre Raffarin, former French prime minister, for her exceptional contributions to China-France cultural exchanges.

Culture is "the key to dialogue between civilizations, which connects the past, present and future." She said that mutual learning among civilizations requires establishing clear and friendly dialogue, through which different civilizations can express and share emotions and build bridges to each other. 

Talking about how the year 2024 marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and France, Cayol, who is also the French vice chairman of the China-France Culture Forum, noted she is very confident in the next 60 years of friendship between China and France. 

"I believe that in the future, it will be necessary for both the French side and the Chinese side to maintain a mutual curiosity," she said, adding that more and more projects from both China and France will promote such exchanges ­moving forward. 

French artist Anne-Marie Laffont Photo: Courtesy of Laffont

French artist Anne-Marie Laffont Photo: Courtesy of Laffont

Beyond the usual dance format

French artist Anne-Marie Laffont is a classical dance performer who started her art journey when she was just 8 years old. Laffont, who's in her 80s, told the Global Times that in the very beginning, her mother had made the career choice for her, but now it has become her life's dedication. 

The veteran dancer has performed at several stellar venues such as the Toulon Opéra, the beautiful French concert hall inaugurated in 1862. 

Over the years, Laffont has interpreted prolific classic pieces, including 20 famous ballets such as Tchaikovsky's timeless piece Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty

Having seen audiences from different cultural backgrounds tear up at her performances, Laffont's rich experiences have made her see how the art form can strengthen relationships between people from different parts of the world. This epiphany led her to also become a dance teacher. 

Laffont told the Global Times that she became fascinated by traditional Chinese dance after she took her first teaching internship in China in 2018. The artist finds traditional Chinese dance "very stunning" as it is different from other classical dance forms. 

"Traditional Chinese dance is flexible and enriched with musical elements. Its accessories, such as fans and ribbons, are beautiful. I can also relate such elements to our musicals in ­Europe, where we also use accessories like hats," Laffont told the Global Times. 

What surprised the artist the most is not just the beauty of Chinese art, but also Chinese dancers' spirit and Chinese educators' teaching methods. 

"When I was in China, I really appreciated the behavior of the students and even more appreciated their teachers. These students are actively involved in class, and they genuinely want to progress and dance beautifully," the artist said. She also added that Chinese teachers also helped her teach "very different French dance techniques" to students, and that allowed her to feel the open and diverse nature of art education in China. 

Although the artist has performed all around the world in countries like Japan and Canada, China has become her favorite destination. To date, Laffont has visited and tutored at dance academies in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Yinchuan, Northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

"I want to launch more China-France dance collaborations purely to bridge the two cultures together. I want to learn about Chinese culture and understand it beyond just the dance format," she said.  

To fulfill her passionate goal to bridge China and France together, Laffont is currently the art director of the L'Association pour les Échanges Artistiques entre la France et la Chine (AEAFC). 

Founded in 2013, the AEAFC is a cultural organization supported by the Municipal Government of Paris with the aim of promoting China-France art exchanges. 

The year 2024 marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and France. Taking this special occasion as an opportunity, the AEAFC is scheduled to launch a China-France ballet program in Beijing in April. 

The event marks the organization's 20th visit for bringing French art to Chinese audiences. Prior to it, other programs such as the "China-Europe dance summit" and "China-Europe Intangible Culture Heritage exhibition" were held to get young people from China and France engaged in cultural exchanges.  

Representing the AEAFC, Laffont told the Global Times that the cultural exchanges between China and France are so very rich because "these two are both civilizations of profound indigenous cultures."

"Cultural exchange is not just about what is happening now, but also about all the history and the deep cultural heritages of China and France. Because we are different civilizations, it is very interesting to have mutual learning," Laffont remarked. 

French artist Sabrina Jauffret Photo: Courtesy of Jauffret

French artist Sabrina Jauffret Photo: Courtesy of Jauffret

Connection with heritage

French artist Sabrina Jauffret has lived in Shanghai for over a decade. Chinese culture somehow has always been present in her life and even in her heritage, not only because she lives in China, but also because her family boasts some Chinese ancestry stretching back several generations.

"My grandparents have the Chinese gene, and after coming to China, I got a stronger connection with my heritage," she told the Global Times.

As a creative director, Jauffret has been deeply involved in art, interior design, product design and fashion. Before moving to Shanghai, she was a scenographer at La Samaritaine, one of Paris' most iconic department stores. During her work, Jauffret brought a lot of Asian and Chinese cultural influence into experiential retail at the time. The finesse and deep craftsmanship of some of the arti-facts from China elevated her sensibility when it came to this aspect of Chinese culture. 

"I had never imagined we would ever live in China one day, but when we lived in Vietnam prior to our arrival in China, my daughter spontaneously asked if she could learn Chinese at home. So well before arriving in China, Chinese was part of our household every Saturday morning," she said.

During this 10-year stay in Shanghai, Jauffret has been fully immersed in Chinese culture, especially traditional Chinese handicraft techniques such as weaving, embroidery, paper making and ceramics, which she often infuses into her creations.

"This might seem strange but I seem to get more inspiration and energy the longer I am here because in some ways, the more you know, the less you know, and that drives a certain cultural and artistic curiosity."

Jauffret said she has taken several trips to Jingdezhen, a world-famous "porcelain capital" in East China's Jiangxi Province, where she was deeply inspired by many ceramic factories there. 

"So many things are made and built in China and the resources and materials to explore are unique here. This is less about heritage but more about a culture of industry and manufacturing that cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world. The hardest part is knowing when to stop exploring because there is so much to try and experiment with," she said, noting with excitement that her designer background is why she is fascinated by how things are built and this is why Jingdezhen was the perfect place for her to explore.

Jauffret said she would love to learn more about Weifang and the International Kite Festival as kites can bring so much joy in the simplest way and, of course, they are artifacts of intricate beauty.

According to media reports, kites from this "Kite capital" in East China's Shandong Province will participate in the International Kite Festival in Berck-sur-Mer in France in 2024.

Jauffret also expressed her hope that the cultural heritage of handicrafts can be elevated and explored more. "France's reputation in this field is strong through iconic luxury handmade goods and I feel China's richness in this field has huge potential if presented in the right way with the right stories."

Jauffret noted culture is a prominent form of curiosity for both countries that should be cherished and preserved. 

"I genuinely feel both cultures are deeply curious and respectful. It has taken me some time to realize this but it is visible everywhere… Today the lack of cultural curiosity is at the heart of so many tensions we are all experiencing, but culture is a beautiful conduit for curiosity," she said, going on to give the example of her love for contemporary dance. She recalled that she has enjoyed many memorable cultural experiences between the two countries through dance and that she believes this art form transcends language and helps create emotionally expressive connections.

The article is contributed by Ding Junning and Yu Xingzhi