Maspero, Henri

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MASPERO, HENRI (18831945), French Sinologist and pioneer of Daoist studies. Son of the Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, Henri Maspero did his first research in 1904 in Cairo on the financial system of ancient Egypt. In 1907 he obtained his licence en droit and his diploma in Chinese. From 1908 to 1920, he was a member of the École Française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO) and was stationed in Hanoi, whence he traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia and China. He was in Beijing during the winter of 19081909, at the time of the death of Emperor Tezong and the Dowager Empress Cixi, and he witnessed some of the ensuing revolutionary agitation. His research and publications covered an amazing range of subjects: the administrative geography of ancient Indochina, the beginnings of Buddhism in China, Chinese epigraphy, history of law, architecture, art, and astronomy, as well as linguistics. His articles on the Thai languages and on the phonetics of Annamese were the first serious studies of Southeast Asian languages. The Chinese elements in Annamese led him, before Bernhard Karlgren, to the study of ancient Chinese phonology.

In 1914, on a study mission to China, Maspero began an investigation of contemporary Chinese religious life, which he continued among Chinese expatriates in France during World War I. This fieldwork enabled him later to describe the modern Chinese folk religion in a remarkably lively fashion.

Maspero initiated and supervised, until 1920, the vast EFEO collection of Indochinese documents, a unique repository of the history of this region. Some of this material served him for comparative studies on modern Thai and ancient Chinese religion, studies that confirmed the results of Marcel Granet's epoch-making work (1919) on the Book of Odes.

In 1920 Maspero was recalled to Paris and appointed the successor of Édouard Chavannes at the Collège de France. The only book he published in his lifetime, La Chine antique (1927), is a history of China from the beginnings to the third century bce. The remaining years of his life were devoted to a thorough preparation of a second volume dealing with Chinese history up to the Tang dynasty.

The summaries of Maspero's courses at the Collège de France (19211944) show that, among many other aspects of Sinology that he treated in numerous articles, he was most interested during this period in the emergence of the Daoist religion. This was virgin territory, uncharted not only by Western scholars but also by Chinese scholars, who traditionally had despised everything Daoist except the philosophers Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. In 1926 the sole remaining complete set of the Daoist canon was published in 1,120 Chinese-style volumes. Maspero was the first to start extracting from this huge store of documents (dating from the fourth century bce, in the case of the early Daoist mystical writings, to the sixteenth century ce) a chronology of texts and a coherent history of the origins and the first five centuries of the Daoist religion. He discovered that this religion, far from being the popular hodgepodge of superstitions described by missionaries, or the illiterate and seditious demon-worship denounced by the Chinese scholarly elite, was in fact the native high religion of all classes of Chinese society, with a literate tradition going back to the second century ce. Realizing the importance in Daoism of physiological longevity techniques and of mystical techniques for gaining union with the Dao (and participating in its immortality), Maspero devoted a detailed study to them.

On July 27, 1944, Maspero was expected in vain at a session of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belle-Lettres, of which he was president at the time. He had been arrested by the German occupation forces because of his son's activities in the French Resistance. On August 15, 1944, he was aboard the last prisoner transport to Germany before the liberation of Paris. He succumbed to disease amid the horrors of Buchenwald on March 17, 1945, less than one month before the liberation of this concentration camp by American troops.

See Also

Granet, Marcel.


Maspero's La Chine antique (Paris, 1924) has been translated as China in Antiquity (Amherst, Mass., 1979), and the majority of Maspero's studies on Daoism have been collected in Le daoïsme et les religions chinoises (Paris, 1971), translated as Daoism and Chinese Religion (Amherst, Mass., 1981). Among Maspero's writing on Buddhism are "Le songe et l'ambassade de l'empereur Ming" and "Communautés et moines bouddhistes chinois au deuxième et troisième siècles," both of which appear in the Bulletin de l'École Française d'Extrême-Orient (Hanoi) 10 (1910): 95130 and 222232, respectively, and "Les origines de la comunauté bouddhiste de Lo-yang," Journal Asiatique 225 (1934): 88107. On mythology and popular religion, see "Légendes mythologiques dans le Chou king," Journal asiatique 204 (1924): 1100; "The Mythology of Modern China," in Asiatic Mythology, edited by Joseph Hackin and others (New York, 1932); and "Les ivoires chinois et l'iconographie populaire," in Les ivoires religieux et médicaux chinois d'après la collection Lucien Lion, edited by Maspero, René Grousset, and Lucien Lion (Paris, 1939).

An obituary by Paul Demiéville, including a useful bibliography, appears in Journal Asiatique 234 (19431945): 245280, and Demiéville's summary of Maspero's contribution to Chinese studies, "Henri Maspero et l'avenir des études chinoises," can be found in T'oung pao 38 (1947): 1642.

Anna Seidel (1987)