Reviews

For some time, French generalist writers and publishers have been showing an unprecedented interest in the lives and deeds of prominent figures of nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Oriental studies in Europe (see for instance Central Eurasian Reader 1 (2008): review No. 60 pp. 50-1). In the present case, novelist and essayist Ph. Flandrin, who has devoted several books to the pillage of the Orient by its modern Western conquerors (with essays on the recent lootings of Afghan and Iraqi museums), looks into the biography of the French adventurer and linguist Paul Pelliot (1878-1945), an explorer of Buddhist manuscripts and one of the inventors of academic orientalisme ― the French word that designates both scientific research on the Orient, and literary or artistic representations of it. Not without reservations regarding his hero, the author casts light on Pelliot’s numerous dimensions, from the secret agent acting for enforcing French influence in the Yunnan, the warrior against the ‘Boxers’ in Beijing, to the literati perfectly at easy in conversations with mandarins of the Qing Empire, and the audacious but shameless looter of manuscript collections in Hue, Beijing, Dunhuang and Bezklik ― which made him the collector of one of the main ensembles of manuscripts from Tibet, China, Mongolia and Vietnam now accessible to the international scientific community. Interestingly, the beginning of Pelliot’s Odyssey is resituated in the context of the French military defeat of 1889 against the Chinese at Langson, and of the sudden raise of fair from the ‘yellow peril’ in public opinion, explaining for a part the feverishness of French colonial troops in the Far East during the following decades. Through a selection of published souvenirs in French language, by Pelliot himself and by his contemporaries, rarely submitted to an elementary historical critique, the author reconstructs the balance of power between the main protagonists within the French officialdom (notably on Ambassador Stephen Pichon, Pelliot’s protector in Beijing, and on the French Catholic missions in China). He then insists on Pelliot’s role as a “historical and political analyst,” one of his first translations being that of a pre-Manchu Chinese treaty on the origin and methods of the White Lotus and White Cloud secret societies, mothers of the ‘Boxer’ societies. A full chapter is devoted to the contribution of the historical erudition developed by Pelliot and by the French School for the Far East (École française d’Extrême-Orient) to the cession by Siam of its eastern regions, including the site of Angkor, to Cambodia in 1907. The book’s second third (pp. 101-78 in particular) offers more room to the Central Asian side of Pelliot’s deeds: A short recall of his main French predecessors in the region (Bonvalot, Prince Henri d’Orléans, Dutreuil de Rhins) and an evocation of his international rivals (Sven Hedin, Aurel Stein, Albert Grünwedel) allows the author to underline some of Pelliot’s assets, notably his double background as an archaeologist and a sinologist (in the meanings that his time was giving to these denominations), which permitted him to decipher (at least superficially) the inscriptions and manuscripts that came across his path, to say nothing of the personal supports that he always enjoyed among French diplomats. The institutional logic at work in his activity is properly stressed (for instance the necessity for him to provide on a yearly basis convincing if not tangible results in the form of archaeological materials, in order to receive his public subsidies). A true godsend for a novelist, Pelliot’s activity in Dunhuang is dramatically reconstructed by the author, who insists on the adventurer’s quick choice of a rapid deciphering, and classification, of the whole collection of Wang’s cave, and his instant project of providing European museums with collections of Chinese manuscripts. The book’s last chapters are an elliptic description of Pelliot’s work after his return to France and professional apotheosis. The author also evokes some of the polemics then launched against the young member of the Institut de France by progressive enemies of the French School for the Far East and of its colonial stance, and by Austrian sinologist Erwin von Zach, who denounced ad nauseam his French colleague’s “superficiality” and endless mistranslations. A last chapter, exceptionally based on unpublished materials from the Archive of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, sheds light on Captain Pelliot’s action, from Beijing and Irkutsk in winter 1918-9, in favour of French military support to Ataman Grigorii Semenov and to his second Lieutenant Roman von Ungern-Sternberg. The files of the French Military Mission in Siberia reveal the opposition of the French general headquarters to Pelliot’s views, and the conservative scholar’s marginal position within the military apparatus. The author’s very last paragraphs are for recalling Pelliot’s refusal of Collaboration during German Occupation of France, as well as his sharp opposition, as one of General de Gaulle’s envoys at the Hot Springs conference in January 1945, to the decolonisation programme launched for Vietnam by the US administration. In all, if Ph. Flandrin’s well written and often captivating book offers limited new material on the life of a figurehead of French orientalisme, the author’s refusal of an apologetic approach and his balanced assessment of Pelliot’s background and itinerary pave the way for a reappraisal of modern Oriental studies in France by a large readership.

Stéphane A. Dudoignon, National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris
CER: II-1.2.B-36