French president Emmanuel Macron is betting on horse diplomacy during his first state visit to China, as he presented his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping with an eight-year-old gelding named Vesuvius.
One of the elite horses from the presidential cavalry corps, Vesuvius is a “symbol of French excellence,” according to Macron’s administration, and the gift choice was made after Xi marveled at the 104 horsemen who escorted him during his last visit to Paris. Apparently, it’s also a move inspired by China’s “panda diplomacy”—Macron’s wife Brigitte is the godmother of the first panda born in France.
Of course, you can always read more into a diplomatic gesture, especially when it’s associated with a president who photoshopped his portrait for the Élysée Palace at least 91 times. That’s exactly what Chinese academics and netizens alike are doing at the moment.
The French gelding is an allusion to China’s “thousand-mile horse,” a mythical winged creature famed for its ability to travel long distances, so says Ding Yifan, a France expert from the state-backed China Development Research Center, in an interview with the Guardian. Macron is signalling through the gift that he wants a long-lasting relationship with Beijing, he surmises.
Cui Hongjian, head of the Europe branch of China Institute of International Studies, also has his own takes on Macron’s gift choice. For one thing, Cui told state media (link in Chinese), Macron’s name is transliterated as 马克龙 (Ma Ke Long) in Chinese, and 马 is the character for horse. By gifting Xi with a horse, he says, President “Ma Ke Long” has left Chinese people a good impression.
Cui also believes Macron picked a cavalry horse due to Xi’s military background—Xi served as a secretary to China’s military leadership at the start of his political career.
The more creative thinking comes from China’s internet. Many bloggers on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, have pointed out that 马克龙 literally means “horse overcomes dragon” in Chinese. In that sense, a horse is a terrible gift idea to a nation identifying itself as “descendants of the dragon.” “His name explains everything. Don’t let him go back,” one blogger jokes.
Indeed, horse is not an uncommon diplomatic gift from central Asian nations like Mongolia and Turkmenistan. Last summer, the Mongolian government reportedly gifted horses to each of the participating countries of the Asia-Europe Meeting in Ulaanbaatar, but most recipients opted to let local farms take care of the gift horses for them.