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Granet, Marcel

Granet, Marcel



Marcel Granet (1884–1940), pre-eminent French sociological Sinologist, was born at Luc-en-Diois and died at Sceaux. He was admitted to the Ecole Normale Superieure in 1904 and received the agregation d’histoire in 1907. He was named directeur d’etudes at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in 1913 and charge de cours at the Sorbonne in 1920, the same year that he received his doctoratèslettres. In 1926 he became the first director of the Institut des Hautes É tudes Chinoises of the Sorbonne as well as professor at the École des Langues Orientales of Paris. He received the Croix de Guerre for his services in World War I.

It was his teacher Édouard Chavannes who suggested to Granet that his interest in feudalism might well lead to the study of Sinology. Another teacher of Granet’s was Emile Durkheim. The historian Marc Bloch was a friend and fellow student of Granet’s at the Ecole Normale, as was also Marcel Mauss, the nephew of Durkheim. Granet married Marie Terrien in 1919. While Granet was studying in China, from 1911 to 1913, the Ch’ing dynasty was replaced by the Republic of China. He visited China once more, after World War I, as a member of a mission.

Granet was a special sort of pioneer in the social sciences—he became a Sinologist in pursuit of more general interests in social phenomena. After an initial thorough grounding in the discipline of history, he was exposed to Durkheim’s ideas, and these were decisive in developing his more general sociological interests. Granet was also a pioneer figure in stimulating the interest of non-Sinological social scientists in the Far East—most directly in Chinese society, but also, as a consequence of new attention to comparative studies, in Japanese society.

As a Sinologist, Granet freed himself from the dependence on secondary Chinese materials that had hampered earlier social scientists who studied China. He made it clear that difficult language barriers are no excuse for inferior standards of expertise. Moreover, unlike most orthodox Sinologists of his day, he found “inauthentic” texts no less valuable than authentic ones as evidence of social life. Rather than concentrating largely on the question of the “authenticity” of documents, Granet felt social scientists would do well to examine these documents critically in order to distinguish between ideal and actual patterns in Chinese society.

Granet addressed his efforts at broad interpretations of Chinese life, cutting across historical epochs. Mainly, however, he concentrated on feudal China and the transition to imperial China. As was pointed out by Emile Benoit-Smullyan, in a review that introduced Granet’s work to many American sociologists (1936), Granet found Durkheim’s “sociologistic epistemology” especially relevant to his work, leading him to important empirical elaborations of Durkheim’s analysis. Thus, Granet showed the fundamental differences between Chinese and modern European modes of thought and suggested that those differences stemmed from farreaching differences in social structure.

For scholars with a general interest in the social sciences, as well as for many scholars who are not Sinologists in the strict sense, Granet’s most important contributions are to be found in his two volumes Chinese Civilization (1929a) and La pensee chinoise (1934). Both volumes have excellent introductions by Henri Berr, with carefully chosen titles: “L’originalité de la Chine” and “Mentalité chinoise et psychologie comparée.”

Granet’s subtitle of Chinese Civilization conveys an important distinction: “La vie publiqueet la vie privee” (the English translation dropped the subtitle). In this book he subdivided his treatment into political history and Chinese society, and these parts in turn contain discussions of traditional history (through the beginning of the imperial era in Han times), the chief data of ancient history, the people of the countryside, the foundation of the chieftainships, the seignioral town, and society at the beginning of the imperial era. Granet used the ancient texts, the legends, dances, and feasts, and what archeological evidence he could find in an attempt to reconstruct the preimperial background and demonstrate its relevance for an understanding of imperial China. Imperial Chinese society represents one of the most elaborate and sophisticated developments in the varied history of mankind: it was perhaps the only society with a large-scale membership, spread over a vast area, which was nevertheless sufficiently stable in its main outlines to endure for some two thousand years. Granet used the available materials to make a careful attempt to reconstruct both the life of the peasants—the vast majority of the people—and the public roles and the domestic lives of the nobles.

The most complex, powerful, and difficult of Granet’s contributions is La pensee chinoise, and it is this work which still constitutes one of the most important attempts to apply empirically the leads furnished by Durkheim in Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Granet explicitly rejected any interpretation of Chinese thought as mystical or prelogical—any such interpretation, he believed, was “lacking in the humanistic spirit”—and he rested his interpretations of Chinese thought squarely on Durkheim’s view that modes of thought are themselves social manifestations and reflect other social facts. Most notably, modes of thought reflect those forms of social organization whose very persistence, Granet held, in some sense proves their value (1934, pp. 27-29). He began his analysis of Chinese thought with an examination of language and writing, and in so doing, he was at once very French and precociously modern. His chapters on the Chinese conceptions of time and space, yang and yin, numbers, and the Tao are classics, although they are controversial.

Even at the time Granet published his interpretation of China, some scholars felt that his treatment of China as a special instance of social universal led him to overlook or misunderstand many features of Chinese society, and materials discovered since Granet’s time necessitate other qualifications of his interpretation. Yet there is general admiration among scholars for the stimulus Granet’s work gave to Sinology in particular and to social science more generally. His intellectual descendants do him the honor of challenging his positions within the whole field he opened for them.

Marion J. Levy, Jr.

[For the historical context of Granet’s work, see the biographies ofBloch; Durkheim; Mauss. Also related is the articleChinese Society.)


(1912) 1953 Coutumes matrimoniales de la Chine antique. Pages 63-94 in Marcel Granet, ttudes sociolo-giques sur la Chine. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

(1912–1933) 1953 Éudes sociologiques sur la Chine. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

(1919) 1932 Festivals and Songs of Ancient China. London: Routledge. → First published as Fetes et chansons anciennes de la Chine.

(1920a) 1953 La polygynie sororale et le sororat dans la Chine féodale: Etude sur les formes anciennes de la polygamie chinoise. Pages 1-62 in Marcel Granet, Éudes sociologiques sur la Chine. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

(1920b) 1953 Quelques particularites de la langue et de la pensee chinoises. Pages 95-155 in Marcel Granet, Éudes sociologiques sur la Chine. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

(1921) 1953 La vie et la mort: Croyances et doctrines de fantiquite chinoise. Pages 203-220 in Marcel Granet, Éudes sociologiques sur la Chine. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

(1922a) 1953 Le depot de l’enfant sur le sol: Rites an-ciens et ordalies mythiques. Pages 157-202 in Marcel Granet, Éudes sociologiques sur la Chine. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

(1922b) 1953 Le langage de la douleur d’apres le rituel funeraire de la Chine classique. Pages 221-242 in Marcel Granet, Éudes sociologiques sur la Chine. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

(1922c) 1951 La religion des Chinois. 2d ed. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

(1925) 1953 Remarques sur le tao’isme ancien. Pages 243-249 in Marcel Granet, Éudes sociologiques sur la Chine. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

(1926) 1959 Danses et legendes de la Chine ancienne. New ed., 2 vols. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

1928 L’expression de la pensee en chinois. Journal de psychologie normale et pathologique 25:617–656.

(1929a) 1957 Chinese Civilization. London: Routledge. → First published in French.

(1929b) 1953 L’esprit de la religion chinoise. Pages 251-260 in Marcel Granet, Éudes sociologiques sur la Chine. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

(1933) 1953 La droite et la gauche en Chine. Pages 261-278 in Marcel Granet, Éudes sociologiques sur la Chine. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

(1934) 1950 La pensee chinoise. Paris: Michel.

1939 Categories matrimoniales et relations de proximity dans la Chine ancienne. Paris: Alcan.

1952 La feodalite chinoise. Instituttet for Sammenlignende Kulturforskning, Oslo, Serie A: Forelesninger, 22. Oslo: Aschehoug.


Benoτt-smullyan, Émile 1936 [A Book Review of] La pensée chinoise, by Marcel Granet. American Sociological Review 1:487–492.

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