The tale of three generations of the De Gaulle family’s friendship with Chinese people
Published: Apr 25, 2024 10:37 PM
Gregoire de Gaulle Photo: Li Hao/GT

Gregoire de Gaulle Photo: Li Hao/GT

Standing in the streets of Beijing in 1978, Gregoire de Gaulle, a 23-year-old French young man, was on his first visit to the faraway country and was eager to take everything he saw with a camera in hand. 

Before that, his father went to China in 1964. "I was still young at that time, but I know it was a rare trip for him. My father brought back many posters, books, photos, and important videos he took while in China," Gregoire told the Global Times on Wednesday in Beijing. "It made our whole family very excited and our lives started to be connected to China."

Fascination with a country

China has been an integral part of French photographer Gregoire de Gaulle's entire life, thanks to his father, Bernard de Gaulle. His family has made great contributions to the relationship between China and France.

His great-uncle, former French president Charles de Gaulle, was the first Western leader to establish diplomatic ties between his country and the People's Republic of China in 1964. By September of that year, Gregoire's father had organized the first ever exhibition of French industrial tools in China with a second the following year. 

Bernard de Gaulle was the former chairman of the Comité France Chine and was known as a China-France friendship messenger. 

Ever since he was a young boy, Gregoire was deeply affected by the Chinese stories and travel experiences recounted by his father. "My father's fascination with China and love for Chinese culture filled me with expectations and curiosity," Gregoire recalled. 

When he had a two-month vacation after service in Karachi, Pakistan in 1978, he decided to start his own China story and do something that his great-uncle, Charles de Gaulle had wanted to do before his passing in 1970. He didn't even think about where he would go as he had only ever heard of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

"I was lucky then because, starting from 1978, China started the opening-up policy. I was able to explore the whole of China." For Gregoire at that time, China "was a completely new world, a world that I did not understand at all." 

At that time, the roads were very wide, but there were few cars. "People's main means of transportation were bicycles. As a foreigner, I also joined them. I made many friends in Beijing, and we took trains and boats together, from Beijing to Xi'an, Chengdu, Chongqing, Wuhan, Shanghai and Guangzhou."

He was deeply attracted by the scenes in front of Chinese houses: Children set up benches on the roadside to do their homework, adults were busy washing and hanging clothes, and the elderly were playing chess and cards.

A visitor explores an exhibition showcasing the ties between the De Gaulle family and the Chinese people at Beijing's He Art Museum on April 24, 2024. Photo: Li Hao/GT

A visitor explores an exhibition showcasing the ties between the De Gaulle family and the Chinese people at Beijing's He Art Museum on April 24, 2024. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Continued friendship

"I have always been moved by small things in daily lives of ordinary people when visiting China," he told the Global Times at a new photo exhibition in Beijing on Wednesday, which pays tribute to his family's contribution to the China-France friendship. 

"From a human perspective, it is a grand narrative; but from a small, individual perspective, it also has a very unique charm."

Therefore, Gregoire focused his lens on the daily lives of ordinary Chinese people. "There was no big difference between China in 1978 and China in 1964 in terms of architectural design, people's clothing, and transportation methods," as he had seen so many photos and videos taken by his father in China in the 1960s. However, since 1978, "I could deeply feel the huge changes every time I went to China."

He was shocked by China's rapid development in recent decades, from infrastructural transformations to an improvement in people's daily lives. "And the cities have since become so large and people are full of vigor." 

In 2013, Bernard de Gaulle planned to visit his eldest son Remi de Gaulle who was working in Shanghai. Gregoire was worried that his 90-year-old father would not be able to complete the trip by himself, so he came to China to accompany his father. They visited Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing and Hong Kong, taking many photos during their travels. 

One year later, an exhibition featuring two groups of photos that Gregoire took in 1978 and 2013 respectively kicked off in Shanghai. His photos of China were also exhibited in 2019. 

Despite the great changes in the cities, he was happy to see that the enchanting simplicities of life had remained largely the same. These little things still "fascinated me." "China's fine traditions and the kind and positive spirit of the Chinese people have never changed," he told the Global Times.

The year 2024 marks the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and France. He accepted an invitation from Southwest China's Guizhou Province to take photos of China's Huajiang Grand Canyon Bridge, still under construction and set to be world's highest bridge, to highlight China's fast development and introduce it to the world. 

Although he only met his great-uncle (General De Gaulle) three times, he shared the same sincere feelings toward China as his father, great-uncle, and other family members including the fourth generation. 

"I have always felt a great friendship between my family and the Chinese people. I find Chinese people have really deep emotions toward our family. I hope that in the future, there will be a fourth generation to carry on our friendship," he said, adding that his children are already interested in promoting cultural and artistic exchanges between the two countries. His nephew is married to a Chinese woman. 

Gregoire also said that he knows he's better known in China than in France because of his great-uncle. 

"So the story between our family and China continues."