Marcel Granet

France Marcel Mauss Luc-en-Diois
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Marcel Granet
Marcel Granet
Born(1884-02-29)29 February 1884
Died25 November 1940(1940-11-25) (aged 56)
Scientific career
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese葛蘭言
Simplified Chinese葛兰言

Marcel Granet (29 February 1884 – 25 November 1940) was a French sociologist, ethnologist and sinologist. As a follower of Émile Durkheim and Édouard Chavannes, Granet was one of the first to bring sociological methods to the study of China. Granet was revered in his own time as a sociological sinologist, or sinological sociologist, and member of the Durkheimian school of sociology.


Granet was born in Luc-en-Diois (Drôme), France. His father was an engineer, and his grandfather, a landowner. He attended lycée at Aix-en-Provence and then at the prestigious Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, which traditionally attracted bright students striving to gain entrance to the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.

Granet passed the baccalauréat examination and entered the École Normale in 1904, just as the tumultuous Dreyfus Affair was coming to a close and the French educational system was changing. The École Normale was reunited with the University of Paris at the Sorbonne in 1903, and the former's students, called normaliens, took classes at the Sorbonne with University students. Émile Durkheim, the sociologist and founder of Année Sociologique in 1898, who would greatly influence the life and work of Granet, began teaching a course on pedagogy at the Sorbonne—it was compulsory for all students from 1904 until 1913. Therefore, Granet first became introduced to Durkheim and his theories during his first year at the École.

At the École Normale, Granet embraced philosophy, law, and history, along with sociology, though his work in any field would adopt a Durkheimian character. He became part of an elite group of students which included future medieval historian and founder of the Annales school of history Marc Bloch, the geographer Philippe Arbos, sociologist Georges Davy, Hellenist and future librarian of the École Normale Paul Étard, mathematician Paul Lévy, and more. In 1905, Granet joined a socialist study group whose membership included Durkheimian sociologist, anthropologist, major contributor to the Année and nephew of Durkheim himself, Marcel Mauss; future ancient Greek specialist and editor of Année Louis Gernet; and future Durkheimian sociologist, philosopher and contributor to Année, Maurice Halbwachs.

After earning his agrégation in history in 1907, Granet was appointed to teach history at a lycée at Bastia, on the island of Corsica. In 1908, he received a grant through the Fondation Thiers to pursue research on feudalism. He apparently spoke to Lucien Herr—the librarian of the École Normale from 1888 to 1926 who was associated with Durkheim and his students, and who was active in the socialist movement and the Dreyfus Affair—who advised Granet, when the latter thought of considering the Japanese case, to seek the advice of respected sinologist Edouard Chavannes, then apparently the nearest Granet could get in Paris to an expert on Japan. Chavannes in turn counseled Granet to begin with Chinese as the necessary first step towards Japanese studies, warning him that he would get entangled in Chinese, never to reach Japanese.

Granet spent three years at Thiers, working alongside fellow pensioners Bloch and Louis Gernet, both former normaliens. Granet's own work on feudalism, often framed in Durkheimian sociological theory, apparently influenced and oriented the work of Bloch and Gernet, in particular Bloch's interest in rites and myths.

In 1911, Granet published his first work, a socialist pamphlet titled “Contre l’alcoolisme, un programme socialiste,” and that same year, left the Fondation Thiers upon receiving a grant from the French government to study classical Chinese texts in China. Interest in the country was high at the time. In Beijing (then known in anglophone countries as "Peking"), he met the Frenchman André d'Hormon [fr] who possessed great knowledge of Chinese and Chinese scholars. In 1912 Granet sent Chavannes a paper, “Coutumes matrimoniales de la Chine antique” upon the latter's request, which Chavannes submitted for publication in the T’oung Pao, a major sinological journal. In March of that year, Granet was caught in the middle of the Chinese revolution, as the Republic of China was replacing the Qing dynasty. Granet wrote to friends at home, “We pack up: the twenty-four historians, in their frail cases, decorated with green characters, make a shaky structure. The Année Sociologique is in my hand bag. I stuff my suitcases.” (Freedman)

Upon returning from China in 1913, Granet earned a teaching position in the history department at the Lycée de Marseille in March, and in October, at the Lycée de Montpellier. In December, he replaced Chavannes as Directeur d’Études pour les religions d’Extrême-Orient at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, after Chavannes resigned his post.

Like most men of his era, and of his promotion, Granet served in World War I from 1914–1918, earning the Croix de Guerre. He stayed briefly in Beijing in 1918 while on a mission there. Throughout the war he continued his studies of China and worked on two doctoral theses.

In 1919, Granet returned to France and in June, married Marie Terrien, after which he resumed his academic life. In January 1920, he was examined for his doctorate, the jury for which included the British anthropologist Sir James Frazer. In 1922, upon a request from Maurice Solovine to write a short book for the series “science et civilization,” Granet composed La religion des Chinois (The Religion of the Chinese People) in six weeks while traveling back and forth between Paris and Tonnerre (Yonne), where his wife taught at a lycée and cared for their infant son. In December 1922, Granet replaced Mauss, when the latter scalded his foot, as a member of the committee for Georges Davy's thesis, “The Swearing of Faith,” and subsequently published harsh criticism of it in the Journal de Psychologie Normale et Pathologie.

Acknowledging the decline of Année following Durkheim's death in 1917, several Durkheimians met in March 1923 in Paris to design a plan to resuscitate the journal. Also in attendance at the meeting were Henri Hubert, Henri and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, and Mauss. Granet was to work on the sections of religious sociology and legal sociology. In 1925, he was named professor of geography, history, and institutions of the Far East at the École Nationale des Langues Orientales Vivantes, and in 1926, helped to establish the Institut des Hautes Études Chinoises. From then on, he acted there as administrator and professor of Chinese and Chinese civilization.

Two years after his friend and colleague Mauss became president of the fifth section of religious science at l’École Pratique, Britain declared war on Germany, and in 1940, Granet replaced his friend upon the latter's resignation. Mauss, of Jewish heritage, sought to “safeguard the interests” of the school. (Fournier)

One month later, after the defeat of the French Republic, Granet died at Sceaux, outside Paris, at the age of 56. Mauss had considered Granet “one of [his] best and most beloved friends.” (Fournier)

As a teacher, Granet, “a bristling and cantankerous disputant, a rich mind powerfully stimulating those of others” (Gille) apparently instructed his students to “read slowly and always slowly.” According to one student, Polish sinologist Witold Jablonski, Granet did “not care for popularity”: "He is a scholar, he is a thinker, sometimes, perhaps, a wizard.” (Jablonski) The sinologist shared his commitment to learning the language of the texts he studied, and analyzing all materials, whether primary or secondary, critically. He divided his teaching into the mythique and the juridique (the latter primarily consisting of rights and duties of kinship and marriage), though he did not necessarily succeed in eliciting in his students the same enthusiasm he possessed for both areas simultaneously. Among his students were also Korean-Japanese Itsuo Tsuda, who developed the école de la respiration and several future sinologists. Granet's work, meanwhile, brought Durkheimian sociology into the classical Chinese realm, from his analysis of the Book of Odes to a sociological study of Chinese numerology. Although he is remembered as a significant figure of both Durkheimian sociology and French sinology, his two roles are rarely recognized or thoroughly understood in tandem.



Major works