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Friday, 14 June, 2002, 10:09 GMT 11:09 UK
Asian joins French literary elite
Francois Cheng
Cheng: Described by Jacques Chirac as a "wise man for our time"
France's leading intellectual forum, the Academie Francaise, has elected its first Asian-born member.

Francois Cheng, a 72-year-old writer and painter of Chinese origin, was born in the city of Nanchang and moved to France in 1948, just before the Communist takeover in China.


When I opted to write in French, the language became my real homeland

Francois Cheng
When he arrived, Mr Cheng could not speak a word of French, and only began writing in the language in 1977, at the age of 48.

As a member of the Academie, he will now help to define the rules and official usage of the French language.

President Jacques Chirac praised Mr Cheng as a "tremendous writer" and a "wise man for our time", saying his appointment to the Academie illustrated "the fight for diversity and cultural diaologue, which is France's fight".

Outsider

The advent of Communist rule in China meant that Mr Cheng, who arrived in France on a scholarship, was unable to return to his homeland for 36 years.

It was his experience as an outsider - a person struggling to understand cross-cultural differences - that became the basis of his fiction.

In 1998, Mr Cheng was awarded one of France's top literary prizes, the Femina, for his semi-autobiographical novel, The River Below.

He went on to win the Grande Prix de la Francophonie, awarded by the Academie, in 2001, for his last novel, Eternity is not Too Much.

"Thank you France, my adopted country, which has given me such a beautiful language," he said after receiving this award.

"When I opted to write in French, the language became my real homeland."

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09 Jan 98 | In Depth
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