China Dissertations in France. A preliminary survey (4)

This post will examine the sites of production of dissertations on China. Which institutions are involved in training specialists of China? How are they distributed across the country? We shall see that France — unsurprisingly — reveals a very specific pattern.


The production of dissertations on China is distributed among 72 institutions throughout the country. This is quite remarkable since there are 78 universities that can deliver doctoral degrees in France in 2020, even if there were more before 2013 when the government initiated a movement to regroup or merge universities. This transformation was an issue in compiling the statistics for universities that “disappeared” after 2013. As a rule, I used the current establishment in curating the data. Yet I chose to leave all the Parisian universities as individual institutions, except when there was no other mention than the regrouped establishment for the more recent years. Likewise, I left the Ecoles normales supérieures as individual entities.

As in the case of advisors, the distribution of dissertations among universities reveals a pattern of high concentration in a small number of universities. In fact, most universities, produced only a small number of dissertations in the last three decades. Only 30 universities (41.7%) turned out 10 or more dissertations. Altogether, these institutions represent 91 percent of all the dissertations. Yet we can also observe that 13 institutions produced 35 or more dissertations that amount to two thirds of all the dissertations (65.8 percent). While the figures for Lyon and Aix-Marseille represent the compiled figures for the universities that were once individual establishments, single institutions like EHESS and Paris 1 — the top ranking institutions in number of dissertations — produced respectively 10.2 and 8 percent of all dissertations. This is quite an achievement which reflects the structure of higher education and research in France. There can be no denial that these two universities somehow drove “the field” of studies on China and yet, these statistical figures fail to convey the full story.

Figure 1. The institutional sites of production

Beyond the general figures, a study of the “high producers” by discipline sheds more light on the respective role of institutions. The first characteristic remains one of a high concentration in a few institutions in most disciplines. To take the measure of the distribution, I selected the universities that produced more than 10 dissertations for each discipline. Except for political science, geography and sociology, more than half of the dissertations were  done in two or three institutions. Economy is the only discipline with the highest number of universities (seven universities for 53 percent of all dissertations). EHESS ranks first in four disciplines: anthropology, linguistics, history, and sociology. It is also in the top list in economy, but absent from political science, law, geography or art history & archaeology. Conversely, Paris 1 shows its strength in law, economy, political science, as well as art history & archaeology. These two different profiles reflect both the strength of the respective disciplines in these two institutions, but also the difference in their faculty. EHESS hosts a high number of China scholars linguistics and history, and to a lesser extent in anthropology or sociology, but many of its non-China scholars also trained doctoral students on Chinese topics.

Figure 2. Universities and disciplines in the China field: distributional pattern

The other notable institutions in the capital  are Paris 7 and Paris 4. Paris 7 exhibits a strong position in Chinese studies, linguistics, and history. This relates directly to the existence of its Faculty of languages and civilizations of East Asia with a substantial faculty of China scholars in various disciplines. Paris 4 emerges only for art history & archaeology, there is a strong bias due to the amazing activity of one China scholar, the late Flora Blanchon, who single-handedly supervised 32 of the 42 dissertations in this field.[1] Outside of Paris, it is only in economy that a few institutions like Grenoble, Aix-Marseille, Clermont-Auvergne, and Pau played a significant role. Aix-Marseille is also noticeable for law, but this again reflects the activity of one scholar, Wu Banggui. Finally, Lyon University is clearly present in two fields, Chinese studies and history, which points to the role of China scholars at Lyon 3 and ENS-Lyon/Lyon 2, as well as the presence of a strong research center on East Asia.


Inevitably, but even more so than for universities, the place of production of dissertations on China is concentrated in Paris with 806 dissertations (63.2 percent). Only Lyon and Aix-en-Provence emerge with a significant number, respectively 6.9 and 6.0 percent, but way behind Paris. The cities where 10 or more dissertation were produced represent just 18.2 percent of the total.

Figure 3. Mapping the sites of production


The Parisian tropism of dissertations on China results from several intertwined factors. The first one is a historical legacy. Both in terms of teaching and training, as well as availability of documentation in libraries or archives, the Paris universities started earlier, in some cases as early as the French revolution (Inalco) or in the wake of French colonial expansion (EFEO). These initial roots facilitated the diffusion of research on China in other universities in Paris despite the near absence of China specialists in their faculty. Yet China is the monopoly of no one and scholars in various disciplines supervised dissertations on China, especially by Chinese or Taiwanese students. The second factor is intellectual provincialism in French universities and the near absence of Asian studies outside of Chinese or East Asian language departments.

French universities are lagging behind their counterparts in Europe and even more so in the United States. Eurocentrism is the main characteristic of the departments in humanities and social sciences in French universities. It is not just a shame intellectually, it creates a critical situation whereby French expertise on China is limited and sheer ignorance about China dominates among French elites, scholars, and students. French universities failed to make their aggiornamento in taking into account the massive change in the geopolitical balance of the world. The current covid-19 epidemic and the disastrous response by the French authorities — they share this with the main European countries — revealed the widening gap with East Asian societies and their policy and technological capacities in handling the epidemic with limited casualties. Understanding China and Taiwan or Hong Kong is not the solution to everything, but it is a necessary challenge that institutions of higher education and research need to address urgently.

[1] Flora Blanchon actually supervised a total of 52 dissertations on China, India, Taiwan, and Thaïland. She was definitely the most prolific advisor in the China field.

Cite this blog post
Christian Henriot (2020, May 24). China Dissertations in France. A preliminary survey (4). Elites, Networks and Power in modern China. Retrieved April 19, 2024, from

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