March 2, 2008 at 11:47 pm | Posted in China, Financial, France, Globalization, History, World-system | Leave a comment








Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai lived in this French town’s

Chinese community in the 1920s: Montargis

Long before he reshaped world history by setting communist China on a capitalist course, Deng Xiaoping made shoes as a teenage worker at a rubber plant in Montargis in picturesque provincial France.

It was during his formative French years that the Chinese leader, who died in 1997, first dabbled in revolution and developed a taste for croissants.

More than 80 years on, Montargis – one of Deng’s many stops as he meandered from job to job and town to town, growing into a Communist radical along the way – is working to capitalize on its unique place in his and China’s colorful history by luring Chinese tourists looking for a French experience beyond Paris, onion soup and the Eiffel Tower.

Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai lived the town’s Chinese community in the 1920s.

Montargis is a commune of the Loiret département in France. The town is located about 110 km south of Paris and 70km east of Orléans at the heart of a region known as the Gâtinais.

Montargis is the second largest city in the Loiret, after Orléans. It is near a large forest, and contains light industry and farming, including saffron. Due to its numerous canals and bridges, Montargis sometimes bills itself as the “Venice of the Gâtinais.” Though quite modern, it retains a medieval charm in its downtown area.


In the 1880s, a rubber factory was built in Châlette, a district of Montargis. It today employs 2000 workers to produce tires and parts for vehicles and appliances.


Pralines, the crunchy confection made from almonds in cooked sugar, were first confected in Montargis in the time of Louis XIII. They were originally sold from a shop that still is in business.

Location Coordinates

47° 59′ 52″ N 02° 44′ 00″ E


Country France

Region Centre

Department Loiret (sous-préfecture)

Arrondissement Montargis

Canton Montargis (chief town)

Some 60 miles south of Paris, Montargis in the 1920s was home to several hundred Chinese who came to work and study, and, for the most socially and politically conscious, to explore ways to modernize China by learning from the West. The movement was called “Qingong jianxue” – “diligent work, thrifty study.” Many Chinese first learned of and converted to Marxism while in France, and the list of those who went on to play lead roles in the 1949 communist takeover of China reads like a revolutionary’s who’s who.

Aside from Deng, others who enrolled in the work-study program in France included Zhou Enlai, who went on to become Communist China’s premier for three decades; Chen Yi, who became foreign minister; and military commander Nie Rongzhen, to name just a few.

Nearly 2,000 young Chinese made the long trip in the early 1920s. Zhou wrote a poem about the exodus: “Go abroad through the East China Sea, the South China Sea, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Waves are surging forward, carrying you to the coast of France, the homeland of freedom.” Deng is the most famous of those who landed in Montargis. Today, plaques inscribed “footsteps of the great” in Chinese mark spots around town where he and other Chinese worked, studied, lived and gathered to debate their homeland’s future. Together, the plaques form a tourist trail that winds through the town of 15,000 inhabitants, who liken Montargis to Venice, Italy, because of its bridges and canals.

“This is a place that we really wanted to visit, it was a stop we had to make in Europe,” said one recent Chinese visitor, Yao Shuhua. “Even though this a small town, it is very famous.” Yao, a former army officer now working in family planning in the southeastern province of Fujian, was among a delegation of some two dozen Chinese civil servants who swung by Montargis for a day during a tour of several European countries.

Taking in the past

They barely nibbled at the pate and duck in honey sauce served with red wine at lunch, but hungrily absorbed their guide’s exhaustive explanations about Montargis and its role in the lives of Deng and other Chinese reformers.

“This place was our teacher, and a cradle of our revolution,” said another visitor, Shen Bojian, a propaganda official from Guangdong province in southern China. Guangdong, like Fujian, was a hothouse for Deng’s first experimentations with capitalist reforms that have since turned China into an economic powerhouse.

Deng, the son of a prosperous farmer and landowner in pepper-loving Sichuan province, was 16 when he arrived in France in 1920.

He registered at the Hutchinson rubber plant in Montargis as Teng hi-hien. Steeped in Chinese tradition, not yet a revolutionary, he gave his birth date as July 12, 1904, instead of Aug. 22, because he calculated according to the Chinese agricultural calendar – not the Western one. He lived behind one of the plant’s workshops and labored there for eight months in 1922.

“He worked a lot with glue, amid benzene vapors. It was very tough,” said Michel Girardy, a retired Montargis teacher and member of its China friendship association.

He said the Chinese learned from left-leaning French workers they toiled with.

“There was a sort of osmosis,” said Girardy. “It must have a been a revelation for them, discovering a society that was more open and freer philosophically than their own.” Deng spent five years in France. He lived on the Paris outskirts for the last two, working as a fitter at a Renault factory and becoming increasingly involved in communist activities. His comrades nicknamed him “Doctor of Duplication” because of his work publishing a communist newsletter, Red Light. Deng fled to Moscow in 1926 after being tipped off that French police planned to raid his house.

The French experience was one Deng seemingly never forgot. In 1974, stopping in Paris after a trip to New York, Deng bought 100 croissants, historian David Goodman wrote in his 1994 biography of the Chinese leader. Deng shared the pastries with Zhou and other comrades who had spent time in France.


Montargis is mentioned in the classic 1930’s French film, “L’Atalante” directed by Jean Vigo.


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