Sometimes extraordinary individuals bear witness to key moments of History. These individuals may not always be well known to the wider public but they nonetheless provide us with an exceptional historical legacy. Auguste FRANÇOIS (1857-1935) is undoubtedly one such man.
In China, he is known as 方苏雅 (Fang Su Ya).
Born in the French Lorraine region, he started his career as a civil servant, in Arras, before being appointed in Nancy, and then in Paris. After an initial period working within the administration, he was then transferred to the Foreign Office, and thus, rather by chance, he embarked upon a diplomatic career that was to lead him to the Far East.
With the exception of a short period during which he was Consul in Paraguay, Auguste François’s career unfolded in the Far East where he was on mission firstly in Vietnam (French Tonkin, at the time), and then in China, where his special official status granted him exceptional autonomy.
As France's Consul and Government Delegate in Yunnan, he had to face the rivalries and conflicting interests between the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Colonies, and was also put under pressure by industrial lobbies, whilst dealing in parallel with the religious aspirations of the Paris Foreign Missions Society (a Roman Catholic Missionary organisation). In such a hostile environment, Auguste François showed a rare ability to form his own opinion and rely on his own fortitude to guide his policy.
He was extremely lucid about the fact that any confrontation with China would inevitably lead to a stalemate, and he therefore sought to avoid diplomatic complications, whilst refusing to be a martyr. Despite this pragmatism, he also showed great courage. During the xenophobic Boxer uprising of 1900, he kept his cool when his consulate was besieged and ransacked by Chinese rioters and saved the lives of all the French residents whom he had gathered there in a gesture that earned him a moment of fame. His name is also connected with the Yunnan railway, for which he negotiated a concession.
Insatiably curious, independent minded and an amused and indefatigable observer, Auguste François was inspired by a need to narrate and share his experiences with his Parisian friends, and he showed great talent as a writer. He was also a passionate photographer and took thousands of pictures, offering us a vision of China before large-scale Western influences had their impact upon the country.
Moreover, from as early as 1901, only six years after the invention of cinema, Auguste François shot films showing everyday life in Yunnan.
His writings, photographs and films thus offer an invaluable historical testimony to China at the turn of the twentieth century.
Auguste François Association was created in Paris in 1990. Its aim is to make Auguste François known, through the preservation and publication of his works by books, photograph exhibitions, films or lectures.
Publication projects: Several texts written by Auguste François have yet to be published. Childhood memories from Lunéville during the 1870 Franco-German war / life in Paris working for the French Foreign Office / serving in Paraguay as French Consul in 1894-1895 / 1909 travel notes from Palestine... Each text also includes unpublished photographs.
Inventory and research: We are still working to find out the exact origin of each asset we have (photographs, papers, maps and objects). Auguste François, as well as Jean-Joseph Beauvais, his secretary, consistently sent material to their friends in France, and to various institutions (Geographical Society, Anthropological Society, Paris Foreign Missions Society, National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations). An initial visit to the Yunnan Kunming Archives has also enabled us to find documents directly related to Auguste François.
Cultural exchanges between France and China: In 1997, contact was made with the Centre for International Exchange in Yunnan (CYICEC) and one of their representatives came to Paris to discover Auguste François’s photographs. An initial exhibition was held in 1997 at the Yunnan Provincial Museum in Kunming and was followed by many others in subsequent years in Peking, Chongqing, Chengdu, Xian and Zhengzhou, etc.
A Chinese adaptation of the album L’oeil du Consul (Through the Consul’s Eye) appeared, followed by the translation of Auguste François’s memoirs published in France under the title LE MANDARIN BLANC (The White Mandarin).
Cultural exchanges between France and Paraguay: In 2010, an archival collection (comprising texts, photos and documents) concerning Auguste François’s stay in Paraguay (1894-1895) was deposited at the El Cabildo cultural centre in Asunción. In 2011, photo exhibitions were presented in Asunción and in Curitiba in Brazil.
Several films and videos are also available.
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Updated : May 24th 2017