2015 No.2
Seventy Years of Studies in Chinese Culture

In this article, Professor Vandermeersch recalls his 70 years of studying Chinese culture. He shares with us how he developed a strong interest in Chinese culture, his education experience and his research approaches. He also comments on sinology in France in the past and present, expressing his hopes for the further development of Chinese Studies.

Léon Vandermeersch, Jao Tsung-I Visiting Professor, The Chinese University of Hong Kong; Member, Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, Institut de France; Former Director, École Française d'Extrême-Orient.

Léon Vandermeersch was born in 1928 in France. He received a Diploma in Chinese (1948) and Vietnamese (1950) from the l'École Nationale des Langues Orientales (National School of Oriental Languages), and a National Ph.D. in Law (1951) and in Literature (1975) from the University of Paris. His rich academic experiences include: Research Fellow at Kyoto University (1959–1961 and 1964–1965), and at The University of Hong Kong (1961–1964); teacher at Vietnamese middle schools (in Saigon, 1951–1954, and in Hanoi, 1955–1958); Research Member of the French Institute for Far Eastern Studies (École française d'Extrême-Orient, EFEO) (1956–1966); Lecturer at Aix-Marseille Université  (1966–1973), and at the Université Paris Diderot – Paris 7 (1973–1978); Professor at the Université Paris Diderot – Paris 7 (1973–1979); Director of Research-Work at Paris École Pratique des Hautes Études (EPHE) (1979–1993, Professorship in History of Confucianism); French Director in Tokyo French–Japanese House (1981–1984); Director of the EFEO (1989–1993); and Correspondent Member of the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. His most important books are Wangdao ou la Voie Royale (Wangdao or the Royal Way) and Le Nouveau Monde Sinisé (The New Chinese World). He was awarded the Prix Stanislas Julien prize, the Nobel Prize equivalent in sinology studies, in 1980.


My interest in Chinese culture did not develop because I was influenced by others, but was due to a fortuitous event. When I was 17 years old, I came across a book on Chinese grammar, written by the German linguist Georg von der Gabelentz (1840–1893). This language appeared to me to be incredibly different not only from my mother tongue, but also from all of the other languages I had studied at school, including Ancient Greek, Latin and German. Therefore my first interest in China was related to the Chinese language, and more broadly to the Chinese culture embedded in it. As soon as I finished reading this book, I asked a friend of mine to introduce me to a Chinese friend of his named Chen Rongsheng 陳榮升, and he became my first teacher of Chinese, in June 1945. During the war in Europe, Chen Rongsheng had joined the French Resistance against Nazis troops, but as soon as passenger transport between France and China resumed in 1945 he went back to China to join the Chinese Communist Revolution. However, before leaving France, he presented me to his friend Li Zhihua 李志華 (translator of Honglou meng into French), who became my second Chinese teacher and the one who gave me my Chinese name, Wang Demai 汪德邁. Then, in October of the same year, I entered the Paris School for Oriental Languages and started studying Chinese with Professor Demiéville.

My main focus was not Chinese though: I was studying philosophy and law at the Université de Paris (and was much more interested in the philosophy of law than in legal practice). At the Sorbonne, one of my professors was Jean Wahl, a specialist in phenomenology. During one of his exams, I remember answering a question he asked me by referring to some remarks of Marcel Granet on Chinese thinking, and he stopped me abruptly, saying that he was not interested in Chinese philosophy. That struck me as an unexpectedly narrow side to a great thinker's mind.

I got married in 1950 and had to find a job, but I still wanted to go to the Far East. At that time it was not possible to go to China, but the French government was looking for people willing to go to Vietnam, the culture of which was deeply sinicised. Moreover, my wife was a huaqiao born in Saigon: going there seemed to me the best choice. I worked for three years in Saigon, from 1951 to 1954, and for two and a half years in Hanoi, from 1955 to 1958. In between, from 1954 to 1955, I studied philosophy for one more term at the Sorbonne, after which I was to go back to Saigon. In the meantime, though, the Geneva Agreement had been signed and the situation had changed. Since the main centre of the French Institute for Far Eastern Studies (EFEO) was in Hanoi, I decided that, instead of returning to Saigon, I would volunteer to teach at the Hanoi French Secondary School, where nobody wanted to go. It was the right choice: very soon I got the opportunity to take up a position at the EFEO. Three months after my arrival, the newly established communist government abolished the teaching of French, which meant I had nothing more to do, while at the same time the EFEO needed a museum curator. Hence, I started to work in the museum, and later on for the EFEO programme in Chinese Studies.

In 1957, while I was in Vietnam, my friend Jiang Xin asked me to go to the Beijing Diplomatic Institute to teach French with him. I accepted, and was offered a contract from the Foreign Languages Institute for a professorship. However, when I asked the EFEO Director to be sent to Beijing, he at first refused, saying that France had no diplomatic relationship with the People's Republic of China. I insisted and finally received the approval of the French foreign affairs representative in Hanoi, but on the condition that I did not leave Hanoi before somebody else had come to replace me. Unfortunately, it took some months before the replacement, André Lévy, arrived, and by the time of my departure to Beijing, in February 1958, the political situation in China had totally changed. And so, the day before I was due to leave, the Chinese embassy in Hanoi advised me that my contract was cancelled. Therefore, instead of going to Beijing, in May I returned to Paris, from where I was sent first to Kyoto and later to Hong Kong.

In the 1960s, I started my journeying between Japan and Hong Kong, but my academic life started later. Back in France in 1966, I first worked in Paris, still for the EFEO but commissioned as assistant to Jao Tsung-I, who had been invited in France to help Professor Demiéville on Dunhuang studies. In 1967, I obtained a lectureship at Aix-Marseille Université in southern France, where I was in charge of the newly created Chinese Department.

I moved from Aix-Marseille Université to Université Paris Diderot – Paris 7 in 1973, and from Paris 7 to the Paris Practical School for Higher Studies (École Pratique des Hautes Études; EPHE) in 1979. I also served as Director of the French–Japanese House in Tokyo (1981–1984), and as Director of the EFEO (1989–1993), but kept my professorship at the EPHE. When I retired in 1993, my chair was vacant, and I presented it to Jao Tsung-I. He agreed to occupy it for three months, during which time he was again living at my home.

When I was a student in France I did not study linguistics. It is only because the Chinese language interested me that I familiarised myself with linguistic studies, and only as a tool to study the nature of the Chinese language, whereas most linguist-sinologists study Chinese in order to apply linguistics to it. That is why many linguists make linguistic assumptions that prevent them from recognising the true nature of Chinese ideography through jiaguwen. They are interested only in spoken languages, and deny the possibility that true ideography can exist other than in logographic form. The best Chinese linguist I know is Wang Li, but even he is a victim of this influence, because he studied linguistics with the great French linguist Antoine Meillet (1866–1936), who was extraordinarily erudite in Indo-European languages but knew nothing of Chinese. Later, Wang Li himself exercised the same influence on other Chinese linguists. I did not receive this influence because my approach is more semiotical and philosophical than linguistical. It is different also to Jao Tsung-I's approach, which is purely philological. I try to see everything from a global perspective, while philologists focus on precise, particular data.

When I was a young researcher, I wanted to come to Hong Kong because I wanted to speak Chinese with living Chinese people. It seemed to me that it was not possible to understand the Chinese way of thinking without first exchanging ideas with Chinese people. When Jacques Gernet and I were attending the same course of Chinese at the language school during the second half of the 1940s, he never tried to speak Chinese. He was interested only in reading texts. I respect him very much as great philologist, but I disagree with his argument that "only parrots speak". Demiéville liked to speak Chinese, but when I asked to go to Hong Kong to practise spoken Chinese he disagreed, arguing that Hong Kong was only a commercial place and that to study Chinese culture it would be better to go to Japan. And so he sent me to Kyoto, where, yes indeed, I had the opportunity to attend to lectures of great sinologists like Yoshikawa Kôjirô吉川辛次郎, Ôgawa Tamaki小川環樹, and Uchida Tomoo內田智雄. All of them were fluent in Chinese, a fact that confirmed my resolution to go to Hong Kong, where I could finally go after Demiéville had become a friend of Jao Tsung-I.

As I said earlier, my first interest was in philosophy during my university education. However, all along I remained curious about the Chinese way of thinking, which is so much different from the Western way, which posed a philosophical problem for me. To solve it, I delved deeper and deeper into the roots of Chinese culture. As I had a background in law, my first academic research was about the Legalist school, fajia 法家. I realised that Hanfeizi philosophy was rooted in the zhuzi 諸子 context, of which the core was Confucius's thought; then, I realised that to understand Confucius it was necessary to study the foundations of Confucianism, until I arrived at the very beginning of Chinese speculative thinking, located in the divinations recorded in jiaguwen. Fortunately, I discovered their importance thanks to Demiéville, who asked me to study them together with Jao Tsung-I in Hong Kong. There, I also attended Jao's lectures on the Wenxin diaolong, delivered at the University of Hong Kong. The Wenxin diaolong is a major work not only in Chinese rhetoric and poetry, but still more in Chinese philosophy. In addition to the university lectures, I attended private lessons with Jao Tsung-I at his home, on the Shuowen jiezi, my first training in guwen zixue. After two years, I finally managed to write a summary of Jao Tsung-I's Yindai zhenbu renwu tongkao 殷代貞卜人物通考, published in the BEFEO (Bulletin of the French School for Far Eastern Studies) of 1965.

I did not specialise in jiaguwen studies, though, as I believe such studies can be made only by Chinese scholars. Generally speaking, in Chinese Studies, philological fields must be opened by Chinese scholars before being worked on by Western scholars. I remember when I questioned Jao Tsung-I about a problematic French translation of Guoyu, and he answered that it was too early for Western scholars to translate such a text, which had not yet been completely broken down by Chinese scholars themselves. This is why I have studied Chinese specialists' research works on jiaguwen more than jiaguwen itself. My focus was the etymology of Chinese ideograms, as the bedrock of Chinese concepts.

When I studied Shuowen jiezi with Jao Tsung-I, I went to his home for two or three hours every week. He used to show me passages from the text, explain them and provide detailed explanations for each word. That is how I started being interested in etymology. The Shuowen jiezi contains many mistakes, but only due to a lack of appropriate sources. At that time (the second century CE), no comparable research existed in Europe.

Studying with Jao Tsung-I, I was very impressed by his encyclopaedic knowledge and by his research. What I respected most, though, was his way of life, the one of a real scholar, concerned only with his research work. At that time, at the University of Hong Kong, and more widely in Western sinology circles, nobody recognised his genius, except Demiéville, who taught me how to appreciate it, too. Finally, Jao Tsung-I received due recognition of his genius at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Within the political context, he was not recognised by mainland Chinese because his father was a representative of the capitalist class of Chaozhou, but that did not bother him. He never cared about any kind of judgment of himself. He was all the time focused only on his work. Nothing else mattered to him. That is also why his lifestyle is so frugal.

When I started to teach Chinese in France towards the end of the 1960s, it was in a very dynamic environment. In the 1940s, only three courses on Chinese Studies were taught in the whole country: one at the National School of Oriental Languages, one at the EPHE, one at Collège de France, and none at the universities. Chinese language courses were introduced at universities as late as the 1960s. In the 1970s, there were only three French sinologists with doctoral degrees: Yves Hervouet first, Jacques Gernet second, and me third. Over this period, however, the number of doctoral students in Chinese Studies rapidly increased, due to the increasing number of universities offering courses in Chinese Studies. However, students of the new generation speak very good Chinese, but only a few of them read wenyan.

Chinese Studies have a long tradition in France, starting with the Jesuit missionaries. Before the Jesuits, in the Middle Ages, no scholar was interested in studying languages other than Latin, Greek and Hebrew. In the Renaissance, King Francis I founded the Collège de France, where scholars could study the Arabic language, which had become very important since the development of France's close relationship with the Ottoman Empire. A few years later, in 1541, the Jesuit order, the Society of Jesus, was founded. The order's foundation took place in Paris, where the founder Ignatius de Loyola and his friends were studying at Université de Paris. There, they were influenced by the spirit of openness towards non-European cultures, and resolved to start the evangelisation of peoples outside Europe, with cultures free of the Protestantism heresy which the Society of Jesus was founded to eradicate. The beginning of Jesuit history being French history, the beginning of Western sinology, started by the Jesuits, also is French. Afterwards, other Western countries developed Chinese Studies, but not before the nineteenth century.

In the past, classical Chinese culture was the main focus of academic studies, while today contemporary China is the dominant subject. I agree that it is necessary to understand contemporary China: as I have said, I wanted to speak Chinese to avoid an exclusively "doctrinaire" sinology, and I disagree with an emphasis only on classical Chinese. This is why I am grateful to Jao Tsung-I for having introduced me to the living Hong Kong culture. Even so, I regret that classical Chinese culture is now not studied enough: I think this is why today's Western scholars, while politically and economically interested in China's development, completely ignore Chinese culture. Moreover, I am surprised that many Chinese students coming to study in France know so little about their own culture.

The most striking change, I think, is the completely opposite official Chinese attitude towards Confucian studies since the demise of the Cultural Revolution. Today Confucianism is celebrated. Of course, such political celebration is not free of rigging, more or less hypocritical, but I prefer much more this kind of hypocrisy than the vandalism of the Cultural Revolution. To quote a famous maxim of the well-known seventeenth-century French moralist François de La Rochefoucauld: "L'hypocrisie est un hommage que le vice rend à la vertu."

During my month-long visit to The Chinese University of Hong Kong as the Jao Tsung-I Visiting Professor, I have been very glad to have met people interested in my interpretation of Chinese culture. For Chinese people it may be difficult to accept, being that of a foreigner, but I prefer to discuss this with them rather than with Western people arguing a priori from a Eurocentric point of view. Anyway, I like critiques. The debates with linguists who reject my interpretation of Chinese ideography enable me to go deeper and deeper into an understanding of Chinese culture. I have also been very impressed by the new Center of Jao Tsung-I Studies (Xueshuguan of Hong Kong University). In earlier days it was small, but now it is very impressive! I am in awe that in Hong Kong you have such a marvellous library dedicated to Jao Tsung-I. In France we have nothing comparable for intellectuals and artists as important as Jao Tsung-I. That is a sign of the great respect shown by Chinese people for culture.

Although the Hong Kong economy occupies a prominent position, there is still room for culture! The first time I came to Hong Kong, when it was under British rule, only one (English) university existed; now, Hong Kong has nine universities, among which there is the Chinese University, whose very big Department of Chinese Studies can compete with the national culture departments of the best European and American universities.

Having spent seventy years in close contact with Far Eastern cultures, my hope is that China may not only retain its treasured legacy, but also innovate it, to contribute to a new humanism. The period between the 1920s and the 1940s was a very rich one for Chinese intellectuals anxious to find the way to modernise China, from Lu Xun to Hu Shi, from Gu Jiegang to Guo Moruo, from Xiong Shi to Liang Shuming. I hope that China, now a successful workshop of the world for merchandise, will become a workshop of the world for successful new ideas too, thanks to open dialogue between faithful believers of Chinese culture, like Jao Tsung-I, and their Western counterparts.

Back to Issue
Seventy Years of Studies in Chinese Culture
Jao Tsung-I Visiting Professor Public Lectures 2015 by Professor Léon Vandermeersch
Event: 2015 Institute of Chinese Studies Luncheon III—Local Temples in Guangzhou from the Qing Dynasty to Modern China: Inscription, Space and Deity Belief
Event: Young Scholars' Forum in Chinese Studies 2015, Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), The Chinese University of Hong Kong, May 7-9, 2015
Event: Lingnan Cities Culture Lecture Series II—The Salvation of Cities: Migrants, Classes and Charitable Activities in Shantou in Late Ming and Early Qing Dynasties
Event: Sharing Meeting with Professor Wang Fan-sen—Current Research Trends in Chinese Studies
Event: 2015 Museum Professionals Training Workshop—Exhibition Curating and Museum Education, Art Museum
Event: "The Art and Culture of Yixing Zisha Stoneware" Opening Ceremony and Public Lecture Series, Art Museum
Event: "Splendid Images" Lecture Series, Art Museum
Event: "Splendid Images" Lunchtime Gallery Talks with Live Music, Art Museum
New Publications
The Fourth Summer School on Translation History (2015), Research Centre for Translation
"The Art and Culture of Yixing Zisha Stoneware" Exhibition, Art Museum
ICS Luncheon, Institute of Chinese Studies
Editorial Board Committee
Past Issues
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