The Russian-born widow of an early Chinese Communist leader received France's Legion d'honneur in Beijing on Monday, as a witness and survivor of a tumultuous 20th century.
Lisa Kishkin, a frail 99-year-old, accepted the award in a hospital room as the French ambassador praised her character.
Kishkin experienced frequent turmoil, including eight years in a Chinese prison, as the wife of Li Lisan , Mao Zedong's predecessor as leader of the Chinese Communist Party, who later fell out of favour and was officially said to have committed suicide.
Ambassador Sylvie Bermann called her a "living emblem of resistance to extraordinary forces that throughout the 20th century sought relentlessly to deny the sacredness and dignity of the human being".
Kishkin, born in 1914 to an aristocratic Russian family and a student of French, married Li in Moscow in the 1930s, where he had been summoned by Joseph Stalin for "self-criticism" for not obeying orders in the Soviet-backed Communist movement.
Li was arrested in 1938 as part of Stalin's purges. He was freed in 1940, and returned to China, where Kishkin joined him in 1946.
Kishkin attended Mao's historic declaration of the People's Republic of China in October 1949, while her husband stood beside the Great Helmsman - though his image was erased from official photos after he fell from grace.
Mao appointed Li labour minister but dismissed him soon afterwards - while Kishkin worked as an interpreter for visiting French delegations.
During the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, the couple were arrested and paraded in front of crowds wearing signs branding them as spies. Li disappeared in the turmoil, and official records say he committed suicide in 1967 - which Kishkin heatedly denies.
Kishkin, known as "Lisha", was jailed and held in solitary confinement for eight years until 1975. But she was rehabilitated five years later by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping .