France looms large at the beginning of European, and indeed International, Sinology. Purely intellectual interest was and is one motivation for the French study of China, but the field was also much influenced by colonial and missionary engagement with China, and to an extent by the style and standards of an older field: the philological study of the Greek and Latin classics.
French Sinology itself is characterized by a strong interest in religions, particularly Dauism (Maspero). As a result of its concentration of scholarly effort at its overseas center in French Annam (now Vietnam), it has had a pronounced focus on Southeast Asia (Granet); there has also been an emphasis on the steppe civilizations (Pelliot). The pioneer French Sinologists left enduring work in the fields of astronomy (de Sausseure) and historiography (Chavannes). Many French Sinologues have been much influenced by anthropology, and by the work and style of Durkheim in sociology.
Of late, there has inevitably been an influence also from the cluster of tendencies which we may call "postmodernism." French scholarship has its full share of the soft contemporary fascination with space, time, the body, and allied vague topics. It is hoped that the patient will recover presently. One branch of Sinology in which current French scholarship holds its own is historical linguistics (Sagart). An interest in systematic bibliography, going back to Rémusat and strengthened by Pelliot, continued until recently (Revue Bibliographique de Sinologie), though this effort came to an end in 2005.
The Apostolic Succession
The intellectual life of France is concentrated in Paris, and the Sinology of Paris, for much of its life, may be epitomized by the successive holders of positions at the Collège de France. Here, very briefly, is that sequence.
Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat (1788-1832) was trained in medicine and self-taught in Chinese; he was the first such figure to achieve real competence in the language. The creation of a chair in Chinese for him at the Collège de France on 29 November 1814 marks an epoch; Herbert Franke called it "the birth-year of Sinology." Rémusat also studied Tibetan and Mongolian. He was the first secretary of the Asiatic Society of Paris, whose Journal Asiatique is still important in the field. Charged to organize the Chinese texts in the royal library, he began by translating the bibliographical sections of Ma Dwan-lin's Wvn-syen Tung-kau, thus laying the foundations for French Sinology's focus on systematic bibliography.
Stanislas Julien (1797-1873) began as a student of Greek, later branching out to Hebrew, Persian, and Sanskrit, and eventually coming to Chinese (1824) through contact with Rémusat. His Mencius translation in two volumes appeared in 1824-1829. His own work on Chinese syntax drew upon Chinese work in the field, such as that of Wang Yin-jr. He continued to work on Indological topics in parallel with his translations of classical and colloquial Chinese literature. He also published on realia: one work on Chinese industries ancient and modern appeared in 1869. Julien, whose character must be admitted to have been deplorable, succeeded Rémusat in the Chair of Chinese (by then defined as including Chinese, Mongolian, and Manchu). Deplorable or not, he brought French Sinology to its next level of competence. Technically, he was a worthy parallel to his English contemporary, James Legge. He was succeeded at the Collège de France (1874-1892) by his far less competent student, the Marquis d'Hervey de Saint-Denys (1823-1892), of whose twenty years of visibility no note need here be taken.
Edouard Chavannes (1865-1918) inaugurated the modern period of French Sinology. In a pattern that had already become established, his early studies alternated with experience in Asia, in his case service at the French legation in Peking (1889). He succeeded Saint-Denys at the Collège de France in 1893. His great work, begun during his stay in China, was the translation of the Shr Ji. Five volumes appeared between 1895 and 1905, after which Chavannes wearied of the task of annotation and abandoned the work; his unpublished drafts are preserved in the Musee Guimet. Chavannes' work on inscriptions, as distinct from printed texts, followed the lead of the Renaissance humanists (and the Sung Chinese epigraphers), and added a new discipline to Sinology. He himself collected rubbings of previously unknown inscriptions during a trip to China in 1907. His last work was his still respected monograph on the Tai-shan (1910) as a focus of state ritual and local belief.
Paul Pelliot (1878-1945) was for many the paradigmatically complete scholar of China. In the opinion of some (though not the present writer), he was the ideal philologist. He originally intended a career in diplomacy, and as part of his preparation studied Chinese after a secondary education in English at the Sorbonne. His facility attracted the attention of Chavannes, who turned him in a more scholarly direction. In 1900 he arrived as a research scholar at the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient in Hanoi; within five years he had risen to the rank of Professor. His erudition and uncompromising standards made him a severe book reviewer, at first in the Bulletin of the EFEO, and later, from 1920-1942, as editor of T'oung Pao; Hellmut Wilhelm later called him "the policeman of Sinology." His early work was concentrated on bibliography (including source criticism) and book acquisition. In his studies of early geography, he drew on the then rarely used resource of phonetic reconstruction to dispose of many dubious place name identifications.
Returning to France in 1904, he was chosen to lead an expedition to Turkestan, in the course of which he came to the Dunhwang caves one year after Aurel Stein. His purchases from the trove of Dunhwang manuscripts were infinitely more knowledgeable than Stein's had been, and put the field of Dunhwang studies on a knowledgeable and bibliographically responsible footing. Following these experiences, Pelliot gained competence in Mongolian, Turkic, Arabit, Persian, and other languages relevant to the history of Inner Asia, to which study he also gave a decisive and rigorous initial impulse. In 1911 a special chair was created for him at the Collège de France, and this he occupied until his death in 1945.
Pelliot never wrote a book in the usual sense of "book," his genius was parasitic. He was prompted by the mistakes of others to vastly detailed investigations of his own, but never dared to take the first step that might put others in the reviewer's seat. Perhaps his magnum opus, in his chosen form, was a joint project with his teacher Chavannes: three articles appearing in 1911 and 1913, and aggregating 352 pages, which translated and massively contexted, a Manichean document found at Dunhwang. When asked, late in his career, by his student Denis Sinor why he spent himself in trifles, he responded with suitable hauteur, "I amuse myself, Sinor; I amuse myself." His extensive notes on Marco Polo were published only posthumously. His lengthy and erudite investigations of what could easily be represented as minute points made him in the end almost a caricature of the philologist, and a suitable target for the enemies who brought down philology in the period after WW2, a period Pelliot did not himself live to see.
Henri Maspero (1883-1945). Maspero was the son of the Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, whose statue stands not far from the Collège de France (the courtyard of the College itself is host to the statue of Champollion, the decipherer of the Rosetta stone and the founder of Egyptian hieroglyphic studies). He defines a line parallel to Pelliot, but differently placed: in history rather than philology, and in historical linguistics rather than in lexicography. His work is more consecutive and integrated, and unlike Pelliot, whose true medium was the book review, Maspero produced several general surveys of Chinese history (Pelliot dubbed him, from the title of one of his books which is still read, "l'homme de la Chine antique"), and numerous articles, including some still considered to be foundational, perhaps especially in the field of Dauism.
Maspero's linguistic skirmishes with Karlgren did not end in victory at the time, but such contributions as his study of "the dialect of Chang-an in the Tang" pointed to serious conceptual oversights at the root of Karlgren's work. Similarly, his footnote suggestion about a later death date for Confucius, taken up decades later by several scholars, was not the answer to that problem, but it did serve to focus attention on the fact that there was a problem. His instinct exceeded his grasp, and for precisely that reason he reached further toward the future than had Pelliot, whose courage lagged behind his learning.
Maspero, whose son had been active in the Resistance, died in Buchenwald in 1945. Pelliot, who remained intellectually active though ill in Paris during the same period, died in the same year. A vacuum ensued.
It still obtains. The postwar world, the one in which we still live, has largely turned from ancient to modern interests. The effect of that shift has been felt in France as well as elsewhere. Sinology in the old sense occupies less of the academic spectrum than it once did. Within that narrowed zone, like the cognate and similarly afflicted field of New Testament studies, French Sinology, though capably and with many hands continuing its earlier characteristic interests, including a focus on bibliography and a concern for religion, gives the appearance of marking time. For the bibliographic focus manifested in the Revue, the clock has indeed run out. France no longer dominates international Sinology. It waits, with the other nations, for the next important thing to happen.
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24 June 2003 / Contact The Project / Exit to Sinology Page