China Dissertations in France. A preliminary survey (2)

In this second blog post, I focus on the actors, both the authors of dissertations — Ph.D. degree holders — and their advisors. Despite the limitations of information, much can be learned about the sources, as well as the conditions of production of dissertations “on China in France.



There is little we can gather from the data on authors since only their name is recorded in What I tried to do, however, was to assess the share of dissertations completed by students from China, Taiwan and by non-Chinese. It can only be an approximation because I based my analysis on the name of the authors. Namely, I categorized all the names in pinyin as “Chinese” (from the mainland) and those in Wade-Giles as “Taiwanese”. It will include inevitably students born and/or raised in France who may have a Chinese name, but have gone through the French education system. Yet such cases are statistically marginal and will not affect the general picture.

The share of dissertations completed by Chinese and Taiwanese students is considerable. Altogether, they contributed 746 dissertations, with the lion’s share for Chinese students (685). Taiwanese students produced 61 dissertations. From the beginning of the period for which we have data, we can observe a consistently strong percentage of dissertations — more than 50 percent — until the mid-1990s. Yet the percentage also tends to vary from year to year from a low 33 percent in 1986 to a high 71 percent in 1995. The following decade, however, represents a slack season as the percentage plunges to an average of 35 percent for dissertations by Chinese only and 39 percent if we add Taiwanese. There was a low ebb at 25 percent in 1999. The trend upward picked up again in 2007 and followed a consistently ascending curve until 2019. On average, the Chinese produced 61 percent of all dissertations and if we add the Taiwanese nearly two-thirds of the dissertations were done by non-Chinese students.

            Figure 1

For the latter, the annual number stagnated at one per year until 2006, except for an exceptional crop of six dissertations in 1995. Since 2007, the average is close to three. Mostly, Taiwanese students completed their dissertation in linguistics (15), followed by history and art history (6), then law and political science.

            Figure 2

The case for Chinese students is different. One can observe two successive waves. The first one extends from the late 1980s to the late 1990s, with a peak above ten dissertations per year in 1992-1997. The second wave started in 2000 with a steady increase from ten to 25 in 2008, then again to more than 30 throughout the 2010, with a peak at 45 in 2014. Economy (>125) and law (close to 100) rank first in the disciplines in which Chinese students completed their dissertation. Linguistics comes third with almost 75 dissertations. The spread is quite balanced in the next group (30-40): geography, history, art history, literature, sociology, and political science.

Figure 3

Among non-Chinese students — mostly French, but also a number of other European students — the unmistakable trend is one of a growing and steady increase throughout the 1980s and 1990s, with a plateau (15) in the first half of the 2000s, then a new increase until the early 2010s (25), followed by a slight decline and return to a 10-15 bracket. History ranks first (>80) among this population. Economy comes second with close to 70 dissertations. Chinese studies pop up significantly only within this group with close to 60 dissertations. Political science comes fourth (>40), followed at par by anthropology, law, and sociology.

Figure 4


Dissertations on China have been completed under the supervision of a high number of scholars. Altogether, the total number of scholars involved in supervising dissertations on China amounts to 941 over 35 years. Most of them — 646 — supervised dissertations alone, but dissertations under joint supervision involved  167  co-advisors. A total of 196 dissertations were completed under joint supervision. For the sake of analysis, I categorized the advisors into three groups: China scholars (scholars with training in a discipline and Chinese), non-China scholars (scholars with training in a discipline, but no expertise in Chine); Chinese experts (scholars from China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong trained in a discipline). 

The inevitable observation is that the vast majority of dissertations was completed under the supervision of non-China scholars (Fig. 5). There is nothing surprising in view of the flow of Ph.D. candidates, especially from China, and the very small number of China scholars in France. Altogether, they hardly cover all the disciplines of humanities and social sciences. In some disciplines, there is even hardly more than one China scholar. In any case, if we look back at how Chinese received their training in the past in Europe or the United States, they usually worked with non-China scholars who supervised them from the perspective of their respective disciplines on Chinese topics. Somehow, with the massive number of Chinese students coming to France to pursue doctoral studies, it is quite natural that they look for advisors regardless of their knowledge of China and the China field.

The situation varies from one discipline to the other as the requirements in terms of sources are not the same. For instance in economy where English dominates, one — advisor and candidate alike —can to a large extent work with English-language sources or databases and English-language secondary literature. But in other disciplines — history, sociology, or political science for example — the lack of knowledge of Chinese by advisors does not allow them to check the sources and the secondary literature used in the dissertation. The quality of the research and degree of engagement with the vast and rich Chinese scholarship will rely solely on the Ph.D. candidate him/herself. Of course, when it comes to non-Chinese students with no knowledge of Chinese, this may become more problematic. The process of final defense before a dissertation committee can deflect this problem if China scholars or Chinese scholars are brought in. Yet this is not the rule.

Figure 5


The distribution of expertise in the network of dissertation committees. — In this network, advisors are symbolized by a square, graduates by a circle, and committee members by a triangle. The color code indicates the type of expertise on China: China scholar (red), Chinese scholar (pink), non-China scholar (blue).

For a full view of the complete network, including the isolated connected components, see the online version on the NDEx server.

In fact, supervising a dissertation “on China” is for most scholars a one-time experience. The vast majority of scholars supervised only one (601) or two dissertations (95). A smaller group of 44 scholars was involved in the supervision of three or four dissertations. Our analysis shows that 240 advisors — among whom 14 China scholars — who supervised one or two dissertations trained only non-Chinese students. On the opposite, 458 advisors — among whom 6 China scholars — trained only Chinese students, mostly one to two dissertations. This reflects the phenomenon discussed in the previous paragraph. Yet a small group of non-China scholars trained a good number of students (Jassaux: 9, Levet: 6, Delmas-Marty: 5).

 Finally, advisors that supervised five or more dissertations form a cohort of 39 scholars with a total of 343 dissertations (Fig. 6). By and large, they include mostly China scholars in various disciplines. History is the most represented discipline in terms of number of dissertations (Bastid, Bergère, Bianco, Cartier, Chevrier, Henriot, Joyaux) followed by linguistics and language (Bellassen, Peyraube, Xu Dan). This cohort includes also a few non-China specialists, especially in economics (Jaussaud, Girardin, Renard, Richet), law (Delmas-Marty), political science (Levet) and anthropology (Desjeux).

Figure 6

The figure above does not do justice to the contribution of the older generations of China scholars. As discussed in the introduction, the data start only in 1985, which leaves out a good chunk of dissertations when eminent scholars were actively supervising dissertations. While it is not possible to fill in the missing gap, I have tried to provide another visualization that reveals the progressive shift of generation among the China scholars.

Figure 7: Timeline of dissertations by advisor (dissertations on historical topics)

Graph by Nora Van Den Bosch, data scientist, ENP-China project.

Joint supervised dissertations is a practice that started in 1993, but the largest number of dissertations (77 percent) were completed after 2010. They brought together 196 pairs of scholars among whom 48 were scholars from China and 5 were China scholars. Put in other words, 53 dissertations were completed under a joint supervision that involved at least one scholar with expertise on China (in several cases, the pair of advisors included two scholars with China expertise). Most co-advisors supervised only one dissertation and 16 supervised two to three dissertations. Only one scholar — Hu Sishe — was involved in 6 dissertations. Most joint supervised dissertations (64 percent) involved Chinese (116) and Taiwanese (10) students.

             Figure 8

Coming soon… Dissertation committees

Cite this blog post
Christian Henriot (2020, May 10). China Dissertations in France. A preliminary survey (2). Elites, Networks and Power in modern China. Retrieved April 19, 2024, from

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