Jun 13, 2014
WHEN he was 16, Jean-Francois Vergnaud was a construction worker, carrying bricks in Nice, France, but at night he read and studied.
At age 20, the young man born into a poor blue-collar family of farmers and workers became fascinated with the momentous changes in China and began studying the language with a retired famous scholar, Wang Lengqiao, who was moved by his enthusiasm.
His father was a union representative at a national tobacco factory in Nice and he took home many articles about the new People’s Republic of China. His son, even at the age of six, devoured them.
Today, Vergnaud, now age 62, is an expert in the history of Chinese political thought. He is professor and dean of the Sino-French Institute of the Renmin University of China, Suzhou branch.
Last year he was named Honorary Citizen of Suzhou for his contributions to the city’s development.
“Mine is an amazing destiny,” said Vergnaud, who has a Chinese wife and two children. “My family is here in Suzhou and it’s my home now.”
Today his campus office is filled with books on Chinese studies, Chinese paintings and calligraphy.
Vergnaud has lived in Suzhou since 2010, when he joined the Sino-French Institute of the Renmin University of China, based in Suzhou Industrial Park.
He arrived in Suzhou after working at the French Embassy in Beijing as attache for higher education since 2007.
He first arrived in China in the late 1970s for his doctoral thesis research on Gu Yanwu, a famous thinker of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties and a native of Kunshan.
“You could tell from the beginning that I had a very special relationship with Suzhou and its surroundings,” he said.
He holds a doctorate in East Asian cultures from Universite Paris Diderot, Paris VII. He is a doctoral supervisor of East Asia cultures of the Universite de Montpellier.
Vergnaud grew up in a low-income, working class family, reading publications brought home by his trade unionist father, such as “La Chine en Construction” (China Reconstructs) and “Pékin information” (Beijing Review), containing many photographs.
“I don’t know when I became captivated by China and Chinese culture,” he recalled.
But after he found a construction job at age 16, he started studying with Wang who taught him the “Four Books” (“Great Learning,” “Doctrine of the Mean,” “Analects” and “Mencius”), the “Five Classics” (“Classic of Poetry,” “Book of Documents,” “Book of Rite,” “Book of Changes” and “Spring and Autumn Annals”). He also studied modern Chinese, history and civilization.
Wang himself was a philosophy student at Beijing University, studying with the illustrious Hu Shizhi. Though Vergnaud never attended a single class at Universite Paris Diderot, Paris VII, he traveled every year to take exams in Paris, passing every test and finally earning his doctoral degree in East Asian cultures.
“I thank Mr Wang and China for changing my life, turning me from a construction worker into a university scholar and researcher,” Vergnaud said.
After his PhD research in China, Vergnaud became a professor of the Universite de Montpellier and frequently visited China on missions for his university of the French ministries of education and foreign Affairs.
Working as a bridge between China and France, Vergnaud helped recruit Chinese teachers for the French government, introduced French investors to China and helped develop Chinese companies that aimed to invest in France.
Vergnaud is also the official China representative of the Sorbonne, the Kedge Business School and Montpellier University. However, he doesn’t have much time for teaching.
“Even though I do not teach so much in the classroom, I still play a role in the education and personal development of our students,” he said.
“This is my way of giving back to China all the opportunities that this beautiful country gave me when I was the age of student today.”
After a lifetime of study, numerous visits and continuous residence for seven years, Vergnaut said nothing really surprises him about China — except for the extraordinary economic development in the past 20 years. “But I guess that was a shock for everyone, including the Chinese, or those of my generation.”
Vergnaud gets up every day around 5am and jogs or cycles around scenic Jinji Lake.
The day is busy, at night he relaxes with his family, reads or listens to classical music or jazz.
“Suzhou is an extraordinary place to live since it’s a unique combination of very different factors,” he said. He lives in the industrial park, a few minutes from the old city of Suzhou with its traditional gardens, architecture and culture. And he’s just 20 minutes away by high-speed train from Shanghai.
“Living there is like being in suspension between two worlds, enjoying the best aspects of both while not enduring any of the hardships,” he said.
When he first visited Suzhou more than 30 years ago, it was still a small place. Now it’s something of an international city.
“I hope that people will uphold the qualities that made Suzhou and its inhabitants famous for their lifestyle,” he said, “a genuine art de vivre.”
About the Column
This series focuses on individuals who have lived in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province for a while and have a tale that’s worth telling. Age, gender, nationality and race are all unimportant in comparison with what adventures the subject has been up to, the experiences they can recount.