Little-known early exchanges between East and West to be revealed to audiences
Confucianism has been the guiding principle of the daily lives of people in China for thousands of years. Many centuries later, Confucian philosophy began to appear in books across Europe, marking a period of discovery and advancement in East-West relations.
The makers of a new Sino-French documentary hope to create further interest in the subject matter by revealing the lesser-known history of the very early exchanges between China and the West.
Versailles et la Chine, a project co-launched by China Media Group and Mediawan from France in late October, is based on a 331-year-old book Confucius ou la Science des Princes, that translated Confucianism into French for the first time.
The book, a manuscript of French doctor, traveler and missionary Francois Bernier (1620-88), was never published at that time because the author died in the same year of the translation. In March 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron gave one of the last two original manuscripts to President Xi Jinping as a gift during a state visit - the book is regarded as an important testament to the China-France friendship in the new era.
"The book was seen as being key for the French people to learn about Confucianism," said Song Jianing, director of CGTN French channel from China Media Group.
"It revealed an important but barely known episode of the long history of China-France exchanges."
Bernier translated the book from a Latin translation Confucius Sinarum Philosophus of the Chinese classic The Analects of Confucius, a collection of philosophical thoughts of the great thinker Confucius. It has three chapters, translating some parts of Confucius' thoughts while adding some interpretations of the author.
Bernier wrote in the "To readers "section that he hoped the book could help reform and improve the then European ethics system and train a wise emperor.
At that time, Europe had experienced unrest brought by conflicts among religions, and the Confucius philosophy, emphasizing inclusiveness and peaceful relations among people who hold different ideas, may have been a good complement, according to Song.
Though Bernier never visited China, he learned about it in the Latin Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, translated from Chinese into Latin by missionaries. After being published in Paris, the book became popular among European intellectuals.
"The documentary will study how Confucianism entered France, what challenges occurred during such exchanges, what influence it brought to the Enlightenment in France, and how China accepted foreign sciences," Song said.
"The exchanges between China and France have never been suspended in history," she said. "They have been curious about and appreciated each other as early as the time of Louis XIV(1638-1715) and Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722)."
Song said the production team found letters that French missionaries wrote about China, and a book in which Joachim Bouvet described Emperor Kangxi as "another King of the Sun", which greatly interested Louis XIV.
Emperor Kangxi also had a great interest in Western knowledge, such as geometry and astronomy. Bouvet even once taught the emperor math.
Nicolas Deschamps, head of international coproductions at 3e Oeil Productions, a subsidiary of Mediawan, said such a close relationship between China and France also influenced many French philosophers, such as Voltaire and Montesquieu.
In The Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire said he read Confucius' works absorbedly and learned the essence in it - that is pure morality.
Some middle and primary schools in France introduced The Analects of Confucius in the 1960s, which has remained one of the most frequently studied Confucianism books by French academic institutes. In 2014, it was listed among the top 10 most influential Chinese books in France, together with Journey to the West.
"The influence of the book has no boundary in time or space. It crossed the continents of Europe and Asia and brought foreigners Chinese thoughts. At the same time, French philosophies also influence Chinese. Is it not a good example of the co-prosperity of culture?" Song said.
Amid the acceleration of globalization, exchanges among different cultures have become more frequent. The documentary aims to inspire Chinese and French audiences to think about how to better understand foreign cultures and rethink their own culture, according to Song.
Jean-Luc Desbonnet, director of the documentary, said he has a great interest in traditional Chinese culture.
"Confucius is one of the greatest men in China. (We can learn) his insights about good and evil, the nature of things and public responsibility," he said.
"Confucius is a philosopher, a proposer for ethics and a man of virtue in China."
Desbonnet said Chinese culture has charmed him though it looks quite different from his native culture. "I'm shooting the documentary not to seek exoticism but to share with the audience my discovery about the philosophy, art and culture of this great nation."
He added they will use diverse film-making techniques in the production, including animation, scene reconstruction, interviews with historians and Sinologists, as well as using aerial photography of the Great Wall, Forbidden City, the Palace of Versailles and other sceneries.
The two media groups are currently working on the documentary, which is expected to be broadcast by the end of 2020 via mainstream media in France and China.
Marie de Maublanc, head of programming and production at the documentary and sport channels of Mediawan, said it's an exciting subject for them to explore the historical origin of France-China relations and their connection in culture.
Duanmu Mei, researcher at the Institute of World History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said she hoped the documentary can not only present the philosophical thinking but also help enhance friendly relations between China and France.