China dissertations in France (7). Chinese studies

The domain of Chinese studies reflects both an institutional setup — the existence of departments of Chinese studies, with affiliated Ph.D. programs, and an intellectual history that takes its roots in “Sinology”. Although the domain included under this term still persists here and there in Europe — German universities still have “Sinologische Seminar” and some China scholars still argue for the relevance of the term, the study of China has moved to the various disciplinary departments of social science and humanities. In fact, there was a lively debate in the 1960s that settled the matter for good in American universities. Yet, both in Europe and the United States, the study of China is still being conducted through that of its language and mostly literature in departments of Chinese studies (or East Asian Studies). But there is more than meets the eye. At least in French universities, the range of topics and disciplines — disciplinary orientation — covers a much larger ground than language and literature. In fact, literature or language come way after other approaches.

The dissertations included under this “Chinese studies” came mostly from departments of Chinese studies or sections thereof in larger entities such as Asian studies, East Asian studies or Far eastern studies, as well as Cultural studies or Transcultural studies. I actually also included here a few odd categories of dissertations on China labelled under “Etudes culturelles et francophonie specialité chinois” (2), “Etudes féminines (2), “Etudes environnementales (1), “Etudes du monde anglophone” (1), and « Etudes germaniques » (1). There was no good place for them and there were too few of them to create a special category.

The total number of dissertations in Chinese studies amounts to 98 titles. It places the field in the fifth position in terms of disciplinary prominence. The production of dissertations between 1985 and 2019 does not feature any particular pattern, except one of successive ups and downs between two and five dissertations per year, and two peak years with more than seven dissertations in 1988 and 2015. There were also a few years with no dissertation at all (1985-86, 2000, 2005). I was unable to come up with any factor that could explain this sinuous path.

Figure 1. Number of dissertations per year in Chinese studies

Chinese studies constitute a field in which non-Chinese authors far outweigh the number of Chinese and Taiwanese authors by a factor of three. Non-Chinese authors produced 65 dissertations against 30 dissertations by Chinese authors and three dissertations by Taiwanese authors. It is quite logical to find such a distribution since Chinese studies are meant to train non-Chinese students in French universities. At the level of the Ph.D., however, in part because Chinese or Taiwanese students can step into this field at the graduate level (M.A., Ph.D.), their proportion represents one third of the total. Compared to our observations for economy, law, or linguistics, and even history, the healthy share of non-Chinese authors suggests a sustained interest in the study of China at an advanced level and the ability to train China scholars with a genuine expertise based on the knowledge of Chinese and Chinese sources.

Figure 2. Number of dissertations by origin

China scholars clearly dominate the field of Chinese studies in the number of supervised dissertations. Out of a total of 48 advisors, China scholars represent 42 individuals (85 percent). The seven scholars who supervised dissertations on China that are listed under are actually supervised these dissertations in the “odd fields” that I discussed above.  Only one, Xavier Richet, economist, had a clear association with China through his experience and publications, through without any knowledge of Chinese. If we discount them, then China scholars actually form the totality of the advisors for dissertations in Chinese studies. It should also be noted that three of the dissertations completed with a non-China scholar were prepared under a joint supervision that included a China scholar.

Figure 3. Number of dissertations in Chinese studies per advisor

The distribution of dissertations by advisor exhibits a very skewed structure. One scholar, Gregory B. Lee (Lyon), appears way ahead of all others with twenty dissertations. This represents about one fifth of the total. Next, one can distinguish a sub-group of scholars who supervised 4-5 dissertations (Bastid-Bruguière, Doan, Cartier, Despeux, and Jullien). There is of course an imbalance in these results since several scholars who appear here belong to older generations whose activity before 1985 as dissertation advisors is lost in the records. In summary, however, the supervision of dissertations in Chinese studies remained fully anchored to recognized scholars in the China field in France.

Dissertations in Chinese studies actually cover a wide range of topics. I assigned a code to the dissertations based on their title to attribute the discipline that seemed to offer the closest match. Historical topics and approach represent about one fifth (21 percent) at par with Philology/philosophy — somehow the original vein of sinology.  Literary studies are as numerous as research topics in sociology (and anthropology) with 16 percent of the total each. Finally, the last two most significant categories cover dissertations in political science (11 percent) and Art history (6 percent). Economy and language (rather than linguistics) form the remainder. This categorization points to the need to somehow redistribute these dissertations if we are to assess the respective weight of the intellectual contributions made by the disciplines, even if these dissertations were not completed in actual departments of the relevant disciplines.

Dissertations in Chinese studies were completed in a small number of institutions. If we discount the dissertations in “odd fields” as discussed above, 14 institutions produced dissertations in this field. Yet, the distribution is extremely distorted. On the one hand, four universities — Paris 7, Lyon, Inalco, Montpellier —actually represent 75 percent of all the dissertations. Paris 7 ranks first with 26 dissertations, followed by Lyon with 22 dissertations. Inalco only appears in third position with 18 dissertations, with Montpellier next with 8 dissertations. On the other hand, this distribution creates a pattern by which Paris is not overtly dominant, as in other disciplines, since Paris universities represent “only” 59 percent of the total, while Lyon takes almost another quarter.



Figure 4. Major universities with the highest number of dissertations in Chinese studies

It is delicate to make a general assessment of field of Chinese studies in France. Whether we look at the last ten or five years, we obtain somehow the same pattern: literary topics and contemporary topics (sociology/political science) rank at the same level, with history and philology at the next same level. In other words, a small decline in historical topics, including through philological approaches, and a small rise of literary studies. The interest in contemporary social and political issues is quite stable, whatever the period of reference. It can be said that Chinese studies in France stand on these three pillars — literature, history/philology, contemporary issues — which reflects the tremendous transformation that the field has experienced in the last decades and its undeniable malleability and adaptation to the China challenge today.

Cite this blog post
Christian Henriot (2020, August 11). China dissertations in France (7). Chinese studies. Elites, Networks and Power in modern China. Retrieved April 19, 2024, from

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