Page last updated at 13:09 GMT, Thursday, 11 June 2009 14:09 UK

The French town with Chinese heritage

A sign which reads Carrefour Li Yu Ying (Li Shizeng) Etudiant Chinois en 1904

Hugh Schofield discovers how a quirk of history led to a small town in France playing a key role in the formation of the Chinese Communist Party.

There is nothing particular to draw you to Montargis, which is really just like thousands of other small provincial towns dotted across France. Pleasant enough, bit of history, but frankly a little bit, well, dingy.

Its main claim to fame used to be that it was the home of the praline - a kind of sugared almond - and the tourist brochures also style it rather pompously as the Venice of the Gatinais, the Gatinais being the rich agricultural region that here separates the Seine and Loire river basins.

Chinese tourists in Montargis
Montargis is about 70miles (112km) south of Paris

It is true that Montargis lies at the junction of two canals and it probably has a slightly higher than normal water-to-land ratio, but frankly, Saint Mark's it is not.

No, there is no special reason to come to Montargis if you are a tourist, unless, that is, you are Chinese.

These days, Chinese tourists in Paris are two a penny.

Bus-loads of them descend on the Louvre, or more frequently on the big luxury goods stores down the Champs-Elysees.

But some of the more enterprising are now being enticed to make a short journey into the provinces - a kind of political pilgrimage, they are told, back to the early days of the still all-supreme Chinese Communist party.

Why on earth would the highest instance of executive power in the world's most populous nation have anything to do with an inconsequential backwater in the middle of France?

Well, the answer lies in a quirk of history.

Western teachings

Back in the early part of the last century, there was a man called Li Shizeng, the son of a counsellor to the Chinese emperor.

Cai Nai (R), her mother and father all lived and worked in Montargis

Like many educated Chinese at the time, he believed the future lay in learning from the West and so he came to France, in fact to Montargis, where there was an agricultural training college.

Determined to take his ideas further, in 1912 he founded the Work-Studies Movement with the aim of bringing over more young compatriots to imbibe European ideas of science and social progress.

After World War I, this movement took off, aided by the shortage of French manpower.

Thousands of Chinese students came to France and, thanks to Li Shizeng's connection, hundreds based themselves in Montargis, where there was a rubber factory belonging to the American firm Hutchinson.

Map of France showing Montargis

Among those who came to Montargis were many friends from Hunan province of the young Mao Zedong - intellectuals fired up with the prospect of change and increasingly drawn to the communist ideas now ensconced in Russia.

Mao himself had thought of coming, but instead he saw his friends off on the steamer from Shanghai.

The official histories say it was because he thought he had more to learn staying in China. Others say it was because he was appalling at foreign languages.

Party origins

In any case, the Montargis set included many who were to be stars in the Communist Party pantheon.

In the afternoons they would meet in the rather lovely public gardens, next to one of the canals and talk of the future.

There are photographs from the time, showing a group of rather formally dressed young men and women earnest with the gravity of things to come. They are gathered around a cypress tree which still stands.

One of the group - a man called Tsai Hesen - was a particular friend of Mao and in August 1920 he wrote him a letter from Montargis, urging the creation of a Chinese Communist Party.

Mao assented, and a few months later, in July 1921, the party was formed.

In the history books it is known as the Montargis letter and apparently the Montargis letter is revered as one of the party's founding texts.

Tourist trail

It has to be said here that all this is the official history and therefore to be treated with some caution.

Recent Western biographies of Mao suggest that he played no more than a peripheral role in the foundation of the party, so the letter cannot have been that important.

Still, that matters little to the bus-loads of Chinese tourists.

To be brutally frank, there is not a huge amount for them to see.

There is a Chinese tourist trail through the medieval streets, with signs pointing out various buildings used by the young worker-intellectuals for study and lodgings.

And there are the gardens, where the visitors take it in turns to pose for photographs by the famous cypress tree. That is about it.

Still, no-one seems to mind. It is a pleasant day out of Paris. They learn a little bit about France and bizarrely, they learn a little bit about China too.

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