Modern Chinese History in France: A critical appraisal

The text that follows was written for the “Bluebook on Chinese studies” currently under compilation by the GIS Asie at the request of the Ministry of Research in France. It is meant to serve as a general assessment following the initiative by President Emmanuel Macron to establish a European Institute for Chinese Studies (EURICS), soon to be unveiled. This text was co-signed by myself, Christian Henriot (Aix-Marseille University), Xavier Paulès (EHESS), Luca Gabbiani (EFEO), and David Serfass (INALCO). Because the original text is in French, with a degree of circulation still unknown, I am making its English version available here. I believe that the current state of modern Chinese history in France needs to be known internationally. As you will discover, it is not a self-congratulatory text, because there is little, if anything, to congratulate ourselves about. It is a sound and honest assessment, not of the field itself, but of its devalued and ghettoized place in French academia. In addition to the original paper, this post includes in visual form a genealogy of French historians of modern China, with a short introduction. 

Where do we come from?

The history of modern China represents in France an enduring, distinct, and internationally recognized field of academic research. Yet this field relies basically on only a few individuals. Moreover, the mesh from one generation to the next is wide, and it tends to widen further.

Let’s first summarize where the study of modern China comes from. It is linked to two main figures, Jacques Guillermaz, a former military officer and an eminent specialist of the communist movement in China, and Jean Chesneaux, the famous historian of the Chinese labor movement[1]. Guillermaz established the “China Center” at EHESS (now the CECMC), but he did not produce a direct lineage of historians. Chesneaux, on the other hand, supervised the dissertations of the five figures who actually shaped the history of modern China in France, Marianne Bastid-Bruguière (CNRS), Marie-Claire Bergère (Inalco), Lucien Bianco (EHESS), Alain Roux (Paris 8 / Inalco), and Nora Wang (Nice / Paris 7), all, except Alain Roux, graduates from the ENS (Ecole Normale Supérieure). It is a ‘trademark’ that continued in the generations that followed with Yves Chevrier and François Godement, even if a diversification occurred, especially with the dissertations supervised by Marie-Claire Bergère and Marianne Bastid-Bruguière.

It is quite clear, however, that the renewal in the next generation of French historians was very low in the 1980s (2), with a small leap forward in the 1990s (8). Although most of the foreign students trained during this period took up positions in their home country, two remained in France (Xiaohong Xiao-Planes, Wang Ju). Can it be said that going from five historians to ten (12 if we include the two Chinese historians who remained in France) constituted a positive outcome? What happened to these historians after they received their degree?

None found a position in a history department. They were recruited in Asian studies departments (language and civilization) (5), at Inalco (2), CNRS (2), or took up jobs as research assistants, consultant, translator, etc. Only two of them (Cornet in 1996, Henriot in 1999) eventually succeeded to force the doors of a history department (Lyon 2 University) after having already acquired a certain notoriety or thanks to a voluntary policy by the president of the university. Despite a strategic plan by CNRS in the early 1990s to both decentralize research outside Paris and to promote the development of social sciences on Asia in universities — outside of the departments of Asian languages and civilizations — there can be no other observation that not a single recruitment of historians of modern China was made in any history department in France after 1999 until the recruitment of Victor Louzon at Paris 4 in 2018.

What assessment can be made in 2020?

On the positive side, despite a generational gap between the historians trained in the early 2000s (X. Paulès, L. Gabbiani, D. Spicq, D. Rihal, A. Vannière, C. Vidal) and those of the 2010s (C. Armand, V. Louzon, Ma Jun, D. Serfass, Xu Chong), a substantial renewal occurred with high quality dissertations under the supervision of a small number of advisors (Y. Chevrier, C. Henriot, N. Wang, P.-E. Will, all now retired except Henriot). In terms of research topics, these young — and not so young — historians have explored new fields and shown great originality in their approaches and sustain the comparison with their foreign counterparts, including Chinese historians. Another distinctive element was the training of a wide spectrum of Chinese and Taiwanese students (but also Canadian, Italian, etc.) who either found a job in their home country or in a European country (but not in France).

On the other hand, on the side of “institutionalizing” the history of modern China in French universities, one can only conclude that it was not only a failure, but that this academic field remains completely marginal. In the 2000s generation, only X. Paulès and L. Gabbiani found positions as historians, sometimes after an uphill battle, at EHESS and EFEO respectively. C. Vidal joined a department of Chinese studies. In the generation of the 2010s, only one, V. Louzon, joined a history department (Paris 4) in 2018, while the other were recruited in departments or institutions for Asian studies (D. Serfass, Ma Jun). The rest chose expatriation or is still looking for a position in an institution of higher education or research. Clearly, the history of modern China has not found its place in the French university system and even CNRS, despite its repeated claims of “prioritizing” area studies, has utterly failed. The existence of a few specific institutions such as Inalco, EFEO, or EHESS maintains the field of modern Chinese history alive, but only in the function of an I.V. drip. This is the opposite of the vigorous development of the same field in the United States, the United Kingdom, Northern Europe and of course in China itself or Taiwan.

Let’s face it: to pretend training historians in 2020 without exposing students at least to the history of modern China (the chronological field should be extended to other periods) is not only an aberration, but the sign of a serious intellectual bankruptcy. It is not only a question of training historians, but of training generations of French college students who are bound to face China today. How can one seriously argue with the Chinese political elites, or even with most of our Chinese counterparts (visitors, representatives, businessmen, etc.) who camp on the victimizing reading of the “century of national humiliation” (1842-1943)[2] when French historians, students, businessmen, and political decision-makers have absolutely no clue about the historical trajectory of modern China?

Where are we at in 2020? We shall quote an extract from the report submitted in July 1992 by Christian Henriot to the director of the Social Sciences and Humanities Division of CNRS with a view to promote the study of modern East Asia in French universities:

“The emergence of a strand of research on the modern societies of East Asia is relatively recent. And it should be added from the outset that it has not really succeeded to take root in the French university landscape. J. Chesneaux had already emphasized in his State doctoral dissertation (1962), the need to make the connection between the social sciences and orientalist studies. In this regard, only EHESS had indirectly responded to this wish by creating the China Center under the direction of Jacques Guillermaz. At the same time (1962-1965), a substantive debate developed in the United States on the relationship between Orientalist studies and the social sciences. Specialized academic journals gave a wide echo to these exchanges that resulted, in practice, in definitely anchoring the study of East Asian societies, whatever the geographic area or the period considered, in the various departments of social science in American universities.

The result was the renewal and enrichment of the orientalist tradition and a parallel development of research on contemporary societies. In this new configuration, East Asia has found its place in the various departments of universities, including in small establishments such as colleges. Aside from the increase in numbers, the strength of American research in this area is precisely due to this even distribution within universities. In France, the numerical weakness of the concerned academic community, as well as the structure of the French university system (in which oriental studies are mainly concentrated in specific institutions (INALCO, EFEO, Institut des Hautes Etudes Chinoises at Collège de France, EPHE), all based in Paris, failed to support a comparable development of social science research on modern East Asia. In this regard, France has been lagging behind by three decades.”

A quarter of a century later, is there a single word to change in the above observation? The answer is clearly no. French universities, to put it bluntly, are not in the competition internationally. They remain as a whole, in their departments of social sciences, and in particular in their history departments, hermetic to the study of modern Asian societies. Even the history of modern China, which constitutes one of the strong points of French research within Asian studies, has no place at all, even though it is widely recognized internationally. We have not made any progress since the generation of the founders.

It is time that we take stock of the fact that China today has a high awareness of its history, that its authorities are constantly manipulating and rewriting, whose institutions they are shaping (creation of the Institute of History from China in January 2019, with an inaugural speech by Xi Jinping: “History is like a mirror for people to draw wisdom for modern times,” Xi called on researchers to “better learn from history, to uncover the law of history and to grasp the historical trend.” Xi called for “accelerating the building of the disciplines, academic and discourse systems of history research with Chinese characteristics.”)[3] The Chinese government could not be more explicit about its will to mobilize history in its relations with the outside world.

What needs to be done in the era of university autonomy and the formal withdrawal of the ministry from job allocation decisions?[4] None of the institutions mentioned above (EHESS, EFEO, Inalco) has the capacity, in terms of number of positions, to ensure better than the survival of the history of modern China. CNRS has the vocation to do much better than the two recruitments dating from 1994 and 2001, but the absence of a recruitment policy combined with a particular configuration of section 33 (History of modern and contemporary societies) where an orientalist anchoring still prevails, did not lead to the recruitment historians of modern China. Worse, last year, one professorial position was ‘frozen’ at Inalco and another one remained unfilled (Lyon Institute of Political Science) for lack of qualified candidates. This is a dramatic reflection of the deficit in recruitment at the junior level (maître de conférence or associate professor). There is an urgent need to promote a more active policy of recruiting historians of modern China (without excluding other Asian countries). Finally, the major challenge is to modify in depth the recruitment priorities in history departments, both by an incentive policy, but also by forcing things by a little step, as was done recently, by putting modern China on the program for the entrance examination in the Ecoles Normales Supérieures. Putting modern China on the curriculum of the ‘Agrégation’ and ‘CAPES’ examinations for positions in secondary education should serve the same purpose of “de-provincializing” the history departments of French universities.

French historians of modern China: a genealogy

The following genealogy is based on the national catalog of French doctoral dissertations It covers the period 1985-2020. For this genealogy, I selected only the dissertations that study modern China (1840-1949) before the establishment of the PRC. Almost all the French historians who supervised dissertations actually supervised dissertations either on post-1949 China or on other countries, but since the focus here is on modern Chinese history and the training of modern China historians, they were not included in this genealogy. The genealogy speaks for itself. It traces the filiation from the founders to the most recently graduated Ph.D. holders.

Genealogy of modern China historians in France

To download a high-resolution image, right click and save as an image

[1] Alain Roux wrote a very informative and honest review of Jean Chesneaux’ role in the study of modern Chinese history, which also provides a broader view of Chesneaux’ intellectual and political trajectory. Alain Roux, “L’oeuvre de Jean Chesneaux : essai pour un bilan sincère,” Etudes chinoises, 26, 2007, 11-20.

[2] The notion of “century of national humiliation” has been a central element of the founding mythology of the PRC. However, it was after 1989, with the Party’s “Patriotic Education Campaign” that the discourse of the “Century of national humiliation” was rediscovered by the government to strengthen its legitimacy in the aftermath of the Tian’anmen events. This propaganda has been surprisingly effective in creating room for maneuver for the government in the face of international challenges. See Jessica Chen Weiss, ‘Ours Will No Longer Be a Nation Subject to Insult and Humiliation’, New York Times, 28 September 2019.

[3] « Xi congratulates on CASS Chinese history institute’s establishment”, Xinhuanet, 3 janvier 2019.

[4] Since the enactment of the LRU (Loi relative aux libertés et responsabilités des universités) in 2007, universities manage their own budget, even if most of the funding comes from the Ministry of Education, and in principle decides on the use of their allocated funds, especially salaries.


Cite this blog post
Christian Henriot (2020, February 15). Modern Chinese History in France: A critical appraisal. Elites, Networks and Power in modern China. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

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