French President Emmanuel Macron (left) gave a horse to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photos: Reuters, Wikimedia Commons, David Monniaux
French President Emmanuel Macron (left) gave a horse to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photos: Reuters, Wikimedia Commons, David Monniaux

The recent French horse diplomacy has drawn mixed reactions in China on how the Beijing-Paris relationship will gallop ahead in the years to come.

French President Emmanuel Macron brought along Vesuvius, an eight-year-old dark-brown horse that took part in the presidential escort last November on the Champs-Elysees, as a gift to Chinese President Xi Jinping during his three-day visit to China this week.

As a diplomatic gesture nicely mirroring China’s well-known panda diplomacy, many read Macron’s gift as an allusion to the mythical Qianlima, or “thousand-mile horse,” as a good indicator of a long-lasting relationship.

However, not everyone liked the idea of the gift, especially as Vesuvius is a gelding – a castrated male, not a fertile stallion.

French historian and horse-diplomacy expert Jean-Louis Gouraud wondered if it might be misinterpreted, saying: “I hope it won’t be considered as being a humiliation or disrespectful.”

Because Vesuvius will not be able to breed, he said the gift would have been seen as an insult in the 18th or 19th century.

Horse exchanges have long been a diplomatic tradition. Napoleon Bonaparte received “Le Vizir” from the Ottoman Empire and used it in major battles, and it was his last horse. But in the days of the Middle Kingdom, many nations offered horses to the Chinese emperors as a sign of deference, a tradition that would appear to portray Macron as being in a weaker position.

Indeed, some mocking netizens have noted that the first syllable of Macron name in Mandarin is ma, which means “horse.” However, his full translated name is “Ma Ke Long,” which literally means “the horse vanquished the dragon” – and the dragon is China.

Despite Xi giving the visiting French president the highest reception offered to a state leader, hosting Macron and his wife in the Great Hall of the People, he was apparently not as generous in signing contracts with the French.

Instead of the expected US$10 billion order for Airbus airliners based on the pre-visit media report, China only signed a memorandum of understanding to order 100 Airbus planes.

Likewise, French multinational Areva signed a protocol agreement for €10 billion (US$12 billion) to build a nuclear-fuel-reprocessing facility, far from a firm contract that will breathe life into the French nuclear industry.

Perhaps more horses will haul in more Sino-French business deals in the future. But leave the castrated ones at home.

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