The eminent China scholar and former director of the French School of Asian Studies (EFEO) Léon Vandermeersch passed away on October 17, 2021, aged 93. A leading specialist of the thought system of early China and Confucianism, Léon Vandermeersch was as familiar with the languages and civilizations of Vietnam and Japan as with those of China. After teaching high school in Saigon and Hanoi from 1951 to 1956, he began his academic career as a member of the EFEO assigned successively to Hanoi, Kyoto, Hong Kong and Paris (1956–1966). He then taught as professor at the universities of Aix-en-Provence (1966–1973) and Paris-VII (1973–1979) and occupied a chair in Chinese religions at the École pratique des hautes études (1979–1993). He served as director of the Maison franco–japonaise in Tokyo from 1981 to 1984 and as director of the EFEO from 1989 to 1993.
It fell to Léon Vandermeersch as acting head of the EFEO Center in Hanoi, and later as director, to steer the French School of Asian Studies through several major junctures in its history. In Hanoi he undertook the transfer of the School’s landmark Orientalist library and Louis Finot Museum (today’s National Museum of History) to the Vietnamese authorities in application of the Geneva armistice agreement of 1954. As director, Léon Vandermeersch initiated the School’s redeployment in Indochina at the invitation of each of the three countries concerned, first through the reopening of its conservation and research centers in Siem Reap in 1992, followed by Hanoi and Vientiane in 1993. In 1992 Vandermeersch also took the initiative of opening a centre in Taipei, the EFEO’s first permanent installation in the Chinese world. The creation of the Hong Kong Centre in 1994 was the outgrowth of a longstanding, close collaboration between Léon Vandermeersch and the renowned sinologist, painter, and calligrapher Jao Tsung-I (1917–2018).
With the benefit of advanced training in Chinese and legal studies obtained in Paris and Kyoto, Léon Vandermeersch’s research interests focused on the laws, rites, divinatory practices, and writing system of ancient China. Besides La formation du légisme (EFEO, 1965), Wangdao ou La voie royale (EFEO, 1977–1980), and Études sinologiques (Presses universitaires de France, 1994), which magisterially elucidated the institutions of early China, Le nouveau monde sinisé (PUF, 1986) addressed the renewed economic dynamism of East Asian countries formerly marked by the influence of Confucianism and the Chinese writing system. Les deux raisons de la pensée chinoise (Gallimard, 2013) investigates the connection between China’s ideographic script and its original divinatory function as an underlying rational of Chinese thought. Neither the accumulating years nor health issues could slow the productions of his fertile and deeply original mind. Ce que la Chine nous apprend (Gallimard, 2019) described the roles of China in the Western perception as a model of alterity as well as universality. His last works were dedicated to literature. La littérature chinoise, littérature hors norme is scheduled to appear at Gallimard in 2022; his translation of the great medieval treatise on Chinese literary aesthetics The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons, carried out jointly with Prof. Jin Siyan of the University of Artois, is in the final editorial stages.
Recognised not only in France, but also in China, Japan, and the United States as one of the most prominent authorities on early China, Léon Vandermeersch was elected a corresponding member of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-lettres in 1991. In 2017 the Léon Vandermeersch Prize of Chinese Studies was created by the Academy in his honour, with the support of the Mingyuan Foundation of Hong Kong.