Granet, Marcel

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GRANET, MARCEL (18841940), was an eminent French Sinologist associated with the Durkheimian sociological tradition. Granet wrote extensively on ancient Chinese religious institutions in relation to the development of Chinese civilization. He was born at Luc-en-Diois and, after demonstrating his outstanding scholastic abilities at several lycées, enrolled at the elite École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he studied European history and came under the sway of Émile Durkheim, who was offering lectures there. The crystallization of Granet's intellectual interests, along with his turn toward China, came about during his graduate work from 1908 to 1911 at the Foundation Thiers. His commitment to sociological theory deepened, and in looking for comparative material to extend his study of the code of honor in European feudalism, he took up the study of Chinese language and history under the direction of the renowned Sinologue Édouard Chavannes. From this point on, Granet's academic focus was fixed on China. As forecast by his initial interest in feudalism, he was continually concerned with the problem of the development and significance of ancient Chinese "feudal" institutions as interrelated with kinship, morality, and religion.

Granet's baptism as a Chinese scholar came when he studied the Chinese classical texts and commentaries in Beijing during the years 1911 to 1913, the traumatic period of the republican overthrow of the Qing dynasty. He was to return to China only once more, for a brief stay in 1918, at the end of his World War I military service. Returning to Paris, he married in 1919, took his doctorate in 1920, and resumed writing and teaching in his prewar position at the École Pratique des Hautes Études. At about this same time he accepted an additional teaching appointment at the Sorbonne, and in 1926 he was elected to a prestigious chair at the École Nationale des Langues Orientales Vivantes and was installed as the first director of the Institute des Hautes Études Chinoises. Throughout this period Granet gained fame for his brilliantly synthetic style as an author and teacher and was actively engaged in Parisian intellectual circles that included such notable colleagues as Marcel Mauss, Henri Maspero, Marc Bloch, Édouard Mestre, and Louis Gernet. After the fall of France in 1940, Granet took over the fifth section of the École Pratique from Marcel Mauss, who, because he was a Jew, was forced by the Nazis to relinquish his post. Granet's distinguished career was tragically ended shortly thereafter, when he died suddenly at the age of fifty-six.

Granet's importance stems both from his specific analysis of ancient Chinese religion and from the methodological implications these specialized investigations have for the overall interpretive study of religion. With regard to his approach to early Chinese tradition, especially as set forth in Fêtes et chansons anciennes de la Chine (1919; translated into English as Festivals and Songs of Ancient China, 1932) and Danses et légendes de la Chine ancienne (1926), Granet violated the traditional Sinological mold of strict philological and historical exegesis by considering the whole corpus of ancient Chinese documents, both the classics and nonorthodox texts, as fragmentary specimens of a comprehensive system of thought. The point of textual analysis, therefore, is not just to distinguish between true historical facts and false mythological embellishments but to accept the fact that an entire ancient text, or set of texts, reveals a particular logic that is ideologically grounded in mythic and ritual themes. In fact, for Granet and his contemporary Henri Maspero, the actual historical facts are often only emblematic scraps manipulated in accordance with a mythic and ritual code that, in turn, categorically reflects back on the forms and transformations of ancient social life.

From this admittedly controversial perspective, Granet attempted to show that the ordinarily ignored aspects of primitive, peasant, or folk tradition are embedded even in orthodox classical works and that these archaic social and religious patterns are crucial for understanding the fundamental "collective representations" that regulate all subsequent Chinese thought. In Fêtes et chansons, for example, Granet uncovered in the classical Chinese Book of Odes an ancient spring and autumn festival cycle that, he implied, is the basic categorical imperative for the later Chinese cosmological system of complementary dualism. Although he typically eschewed the use of comparative ethnographic material, in Danses et légendes he extended his earlier analysis, much in the spirit of Marcel Mauss's "Essai sur le don" (19231924), by demonstrating how the mythic and ritual themes of totemism, initiatory masculine brotherhoods, and potlatch that are found in the whole ensemble of ancient texts help to expose a specific pattern of cultural development that leads from ancient peasant society through a clan system of alternating prestations (i.e., a comprehensive system of social reciprocity) to a developed patriarchal feudal system.

Aside from other important technical writings that also touch on the same key theoretical issues, the culminating expression of Granet's approach to China in particular and to methodology in general is La pensée chinoise (1934). The significance of this stylistically graceful and keenly insightful example of haute vulgarisation is that, besides presenting a brilliant portrait of the distinctive character of the Chinese mind, it implicitly goes beyond a simple application of a Durkheimian sociology of knowledge by suggesting that the categories of Chinese thought may be viewed as a total transformational system of linguistic representations not wholly determined by the historical flux of social forms. As with his last work on kinship, Catégories matrimoniales et relations de proximité dans la Chine ancienne (1939), which the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss acknowledged as a precursor to his own methodology (Les structures élémentaires de la parenté, 1949), La pensée unconsciously points toward the modern development of structural hermeneutics, as is seen, for example, in Lévi-Strauss and, appropriately enough, in the work of Granet's students, the Indo-Europeanist Georges Dumézil and the paleohistorian André Leroi-Gourhan.

Granet has often been condemned by Sinologists as too much of a poetic generalist and by sociologists as too much of a narrow specialist. And it is true that his special genius was to fall between the two camps by respecting both philological limits and interpretive breadth. Granet was an artisan of texts who sometimes "gambled" with his speculative conclusions, and there is no doubt that much of his work on Chinese religion and society must be discarded or at least drastically revised. At the same time, however, recent scholarship indicates that Granet's pioneering methodological spirit and some of his specific findings still have considerable relevance for the study of traditional Chinese religion and the general sociology of religion.


Works by Granet

In addition to the works already mentioned, the posthumous collection of Granet's important articles and monographs on Chinese religion, society, and kinship entitled Études sociologiques sur la Chine (Paris, 1953) should be mentioned. See also Granet's two other popular, and in some ways least successful, works: La religion des Chinois (Paris, 1922), translated as The Religion of the Chinese People (New York, 1975), and La civilisation chinoise: La vie publique et la vie privée (Paris, 1929), translated as Chinese Civilisation (London, 1930).

Works about Granet

There is no full-scale biographical or critical examination of Granet, but see the appreciative discussion and full bibliography by Maurice Freedman, "Marcel Granet, 18841940: Sociologist," in his translation of The Religion of the Chinese People mentioned above. On some of the methodological implications of Granet's works, see Derk Bodde's "Myths of Ancient China," in Mythologies of the Ancient World, edited by Samuel Noah Kramer (Chicago, 1961); C. Wright Mills's "The Language and Ideas of Ancient China: Marcel Granet's Contributions to the Sociology of Knowledge," in Power, Politics and People, edited by Irving Louis Horowitz (New York, 1963); Maurice Halbwachs's "Histoires dynastiques et légendes religieuses en Chine," Revue de l'histoire des religions 94 (1926): 116; and Louis Gernet's "Histoire des religions et psychologie: Confrontations d'aujourd'hui," Journal de psychologie 4751 (1954): 175187.

New Sources

Aubin, Francoise. "Religions et Systemes de Pensee en Chine." Archives de sciences sociales des religions 36 (1991): 169189.

Granet, M. La civilisation chinoise: la vie publique et la vie privée. Paris, 1994.

Granet, M. La pensée chinoise. New edition Paris, 1999.

Granet, M., and R. Mathieu. Danses et légendes de la Chine ancienne. Paris, 1994.

Granet, M., and T. Uchida. Chugoku kodai no sairei to kayo. Tokyo, 1989.

Norman J. Girardot (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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Granet, Marcel

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