Informal Northern Thai Group Presents: The École française d’Extrême-Orient and its Library in Chiang Mai – A Talk & Presentation by Yves Goudineau, Director of the EFEO Chiang Mai Centre, and Louis Gabaude.

 | Thu 16 Jan 2014 10:47 ICT

The Informal Northern Thai Group talks are given in principle on the second Tuesday of every month at the Alliance Française, Chiang Mai. You can receive the Announcements and Minutes free of charge by sending your e-mail address to
———————————————————————————————————————–Here is a summary by Louis Gabaude of what was said or could have been said by himself or Yves Goudineau.
I. The École française d’Extrême-Orient: History and contemporary situation[1]
1. The Indochina Years
The École française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO), or French School of the Far-East, was founded in 1898 in Saigon as the Archaeological Mission of Indochina, or “Mission archéologique d’Indo-Chine” while Paul Doumer (1857-1932) was Governor-General of French Indochina (1997-1902). Doumer would later become President of France for only one year (1932-1933), ending up as the only French president to die of a gunshot fired by a mentally unstable Russian émigré.[2] Please note that Doumer’s politics in Indochina will also be the topic of the 14 January 2014 INTG talk by Amaury Lorin.
In “French School of the Far-East”, “school” does not mean a school where you send kids to learn and follow some primary or secondary curriculum. “School” refers here to an institution where academics are given the opportunity to study their particular field onsite and not only through books or indirect contact.
The École française d’Extrême-Orient is actually one of five so called “French schools abroad” created between 1846 and 1928 to “open” academic research to new fields of study: the “École française d’Athènes” (1846) for Greek culture studies; the “École française de Rome” (1875) for Roman studies; the Institut français d’archéologie orientale”, kind of “École française du Caire” for Egyptian studies (1880); the “École française d’Extrême-Orient” for Far-Eastern studies (1900); and finally “La Casa de Velázquez” for Hispanic studies (1928).[3] While four Schools cover only one type of culture—Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Hispanic—, the École française d’Extrême-Orient, spanning from Afghanistan to Japan, has to deal with much more varied languages, cultures and civilisations. Logically, these Schools had their headquarters in the country the culture of which they had to study: Athens, Rome, Cairo, and Madrid.
As for the École française d’Extrême-Orient, soon after its creation as the “Archaeological Mission of Indochina” in Saigon aiming at producing an inventory of the cultural heritage of Indochina to be preserved, its head office was moved to Hanoi in 1902. In the meantime, the “Archaeological Mission of Indochina” had become the École française d’Extrême-Orient after it had been realised that the heritage of Indochina could not be understood without a deep study of Indian, Chinese and other neighbouring civilisations. The new name meant the school would not limit its scope neither to “Indochina” nor to archaeology. Besides archaeological exploration and conservation, its main “missions” were broadened to collection of manuscripts, preservation of monuments, inventorying of ethnic groups and languages, including the study of the history of all Asian civilizations from India to Japan. An ambitious academic programme, a library and a museum – which has since become the Vietnamese National Historical Museum – were set up in Hanoi. Other museums would follow in Da Nang, Saigon, Hué, Phnom Penh, Battambang… . In 1907, the EFEO was assigned responsibility for the conservation of the Angkor archaeological site. This early phase of EFEO’s work is still renowned for the contributions of many distinguished Orientalists: Paul Pelliot, Henri Maspero, and Paul Demiéville in Chinese studies; Louis Finot and George Cœdès in Indochinese epigraphy; Henri Parmentier in archaeology, Paul Mus in the history of religion, among many others.
The political and border problems the Kingdom of Siam had with France did not prevent good academic relationships between the École and this country. In December 1914, George Cœdès (1886-1969), member of the École since 1911 and its future director (1929-1946) entered Siam for the first time in company of one high Buddhist monk from Cambodia who wanted to get a set of the Tripitaka for his College of Pâli Studies in Phnom Penh. As for Cœdès, he was commissioned by France to purchase books, documents and antiquities from Siam. From 1917 to 1929, George Cœdès left the École to be appointed director of the Vajirayan Library in Bangkok, the future National Library of Thailand. He used his tenure to work on various incriptions from Thailand and to establish, in 1924, an Archaeological service in charge of the conservation of ancient monuments in Siam.[4] Pierre Dupont (1908-1955) was another member of the École who would have a significant role in the archaeology of Siam through his work on Dvâravati culture in Nakhon Pathom. For a general review of the part the École took in the archaeology of Thailand, please read the article by Pierre Pichard.[5]
It is funny to note that the translation in Thai for “École française d’Extrême-Orient”—?—was coined by Luang Wichitwathakan[6] (?) (1898-1962), the chief ideologue behind the pre-World War II nationalist campaigns.
2. Post-war developments
After 1954, a new period opened for the École. Thanks to a real desire for scholarly cooperation with the newly independent states in the area, EFEO members could pursue their studies in the field for ethnology, Buddhist studies, language studies, literature, and above all archaeology, undertaking huge reconstruction works in Angkor using the new method of anastylosis developed by the Dutch in Indonesia. Unfortunately, the School was forced to leave Hanoi in 1957 for security reasons,[7] and Phnom Penh in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge sent away all foreigners. In this process, EFEO Headquarters were moved from Hanoi to Paris. Paradoxically, the EFEO exploited these troubled years to widen its range of activities and develop new scholarly collaborations. In India, a permanent center was opened in Pondicherry in 1955 to carry out studies in Shivaite literature and the history of the art of the southern part of the subcontinent; later a branch of this center was opened in Pune. During the late 1950’s a center was established in Jakarta for archaeologists and specialists in religious epigraphy. In 1968, the Hobogirin Institute in Kyoto brought together specialists in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, and, a few years later, a center would emerge in Chiang Mai. Distinguished scholars from this period include, among others, Jean Filliozat in Indian studies, Rolf A. Stein in Chinese and Tibetan studies, Bernard Philippe Groslier in the archaeology of Angkor, Charles Archaimbault in Laotian ethnology, and Maurice Durand in Vietnamese studies.
3. Towards the 21st century
The end of the war in Vietnam and Cambodia allowed the École to reestablish itself in the region, in response to requests by several local academic and political authorities. In 1992, the Cambodian government returned to the EFEO its former real estate in Siem Reap, opening the way for a revival of archaeological and conservation work at Angkor. Soon, a new Centre was opened in Vientiane, followed by Hanoi where the EFEO acquired a new building and engaged once again in research and publications in the fields of history, anthropology and epigraphy. This return to the institution’s roots did not slow the opening of new horizons, both geographical and thematic: new Centres were opened in partnership with local institutions in Kuala Lumpur (National Museum), Hong Kong (Chinese University of Hong Kong), Taipei (Academia Sinica), Tokyo (Toyo Bunko), Seoul (University of Korea), and finally Beijing (Chinese Academy of Sciences); in terms of research priorities, the period saw a marked opening to the Social Sciences and contemporary Asia: study of Indian commercial networks, the modern and contemporary demography of highland continental Southeast Asia, ethnic conflict and issues of national and regional integration of minorities, the dynamics of religion in the contemporary societies of China, Thailand and Indonesia, the politics of national heritage conservation. At the beginning of the 21st century the EFEO participates actively in the digital transformation of humanities research and the growing internationalisation of Asian studies. It holds a central position in the network of high-level academic partnerships in Asia and Europe developed since 2007 under the European Consortium for Asian Field Study initiative (ECAF).[8]
II. The Chiang Mai Branch of the École française d’Extrême-Orient[9]
1. The location: Wat Chaimongkhon and the French Consulate
As you know well for coming often at the Alliance Française, the EFEO premises are on the other side of Charoen Prathet Street, the “Country’s-Development Street”. Stretching down from Tha Phae Road or the Wharf road, this street runs parallel to the river and borders or crosses Buddhist, Catholic and Muslim communities as well as the French and British consulates. The Wat Chaimongkhon, right south of the EFEO compound, had also a wharf which, due to the temple’s auspicious name, could be used for royal departures or returns. Local memories tell that when King Inthawichaiyanon (r. 1870-1897) returned from Bangkok in 1886, he landed at Wat Chaimongkhon—the Auspicious-Victory Temple—then went on to Wat Loi Khro—the Floating-bad-luck-away Temple—then to Wat Dap Phai—the Removing-Hazards Temple—ending up at Wat Chiang Yuen—the Everlasting-City Temple—for a Suep Chata or Life-Sustaining ritual.[10] He had good reasons for that: his kingdom was on the verge on being swallowed by Bangkok: he had just given his daughter, Princess Dara Rasami (1873-1933), as a consort to King Chulalongkorn (r. 1868-1910) whose game was to counter the rumour that Queen Victoria had proposed to adopt Princess Dara Rasami for a perfidious purpose!
In those times, the Wat Chaimongkhon premises lied all along the river from its actual site to the late British Consulate now reborn—through the merits of Margaret Thatcher—as a luxurious hotel (first The Chedi Hotel and recently The Anantara Chiang Mai Resort & Spa). For their consular services, the French had been given a strip of land parallel to the Wat Chaimongkhon premises along the Eastern side of the Charoen Prathet Road. The temple did not have any access to the street except probably through a small lane. Seeing the increasing development of the “Country’s-Development Street” and the decreasing traffic on the river, the Wat Chaimongkhon abbot negotiated successfully with the French an exchange of plots: instead of being divided along a North-South line, their two plots of land would be divided along an East-West line: the French would take the Northern side of the temple’s strip and so get an access to the river while the temple would take the southern part of the French strip and gain a broad access to the street. That is why the EFEO premises still enjoy one of the oldest and biggest rain trees in Chiang Mai as well as the remnants of a stupa; both formerly in the temple’s ground.
I have neither enough time nor data to give here a detailed history of the French Consulate in Chiang Mai. Let us just remember here that in the context of the late 19th century Franco-British rivalry in the region, the king of Chiang Mai used his last cards and powers to sell teak concessions to the English and the French. With Shan or Karen people brought in from Burma by the English and Lao or Khmu workers by the French from Laos, the two western powers needed a consulate to control their subordinates and “protect” them from Thai judicial system. British diplomats as well as various English speaking writers have described life in the North during this period. W.A.R. Wood (1878-1970),[11] a British Consul-General in Chiang Mai wrote Consul in Paradise: Sixty-nive years in Siam;[12] Reginald Le May (1885-1972),[13] also a member of the British Consulate Service in Siam from 1908 to 1922 and then economic adviser to the Thai government from 1922 to 1933, published An Asian Arcady: The Land and Peoples of Northern Siam.[14] On the “adventurers” side, Louis Leonowens (1856-1919), the son of the famous Anna (1831-1915), has inspired a most informative, pleasant, and not too politically correct book written by W.S. Bristowe, Louis and the King of Siam, London, Chatto & Windus, 1976. On the teak industry, we can have a glimpse of a British expatriate’s tough life with Reginald Campbell’s Teak-Wallah: A Record of Personal Experiences.[15] This author, by the way, introduced myself to Northern Thailand when I was only 12 years old though his novel La vallée des éléphants,[16] a translation in French of his The Keepers of Elephant Valley: A Story of the Jungle[17] set up in Ngao, Lampang Province and the Mae Ping valley.
From the French side we do not have any important historical testimony about the life of expatriates in the North of Siam. However, one French consul in Chiang Mai, Camille Notton (1881-1961)[18] spent 18 years of his career in Chiang Mai, refusing advancement just to be able to stay in Thailand. In Chiang Mai, he enjoyed himself translating in French and publishing several important Northern Thai texts long before the Northern Thai themselves began to be interested in retrieving their past. An anecdote will illustrate this point.
In the late eighties, I was travelling in Yunnan with Khraisi Nimmanhemin (1912-1992) and we chatted all along. He loved to compare the Dai/Tai in Yunnan with the Thai in Thailand, alluding often to their respective customs and histories. At one point, he told me the following story. Taking advantage of the difficult position of France at the beginning of WWII and exploiting a “Pan-Thai” ideology, the Thai government of Plaek Phibul Songkhram (1938-1944) was stirring Thai opinion against the awful French colonialists in order to take back some “lost” territories to the British and the French. In Chiang Mai, about a dozen nationalist militants gathered at the French Consul’s residence—now the Alliance Française—vociferating against the French. Unfortunately for them, the French consul, Camille Notton, translator as I just mentioned of several Annals of Northern Thailand and other Thai works, had already fled to Bangkok. They entered the house and found several bunches of palm-leaf manuscripts. Holding up one of them, a militant shouted: “You see! This is the proof that the French consul is a spy!”. Then, they brought furiously all the manuscripts down the house and burned them victoriously right in front of the building. There, Khun Khraisi paused, gave me a nudge and said with his smiling bright half-Chinese eyes: “You see, Achan, how clever are the Thai ?”. In Thai, his words were actually more tasty: « ? ? ? ». Sometimes, I hear or read scholars complaining that no one can find the original manuscripts Notton used for his translations. The answer is perhaps there: enlightened and inflaming nationalism!
Besides being a translator, Notton was also a joyful diplomat. Quite as they still do even now, Foreign embassies in Bangkok sent periodically to Chiang Mai consulates various characters gifted, sometimes, some sort of weird interest. Once, Notton had to take care of a French musicologist who wanted to inquire about musical instruments in the North of Siam. After a few days, when the musical expert began to get on his host’s nerves, the latter devised a plan to get rid of the Parisian nuisance by telling him: “You know, in a far away Buddhist temple, there are music-loving monks experts in playing the balls flute.” – “The balls flute? How amazing! That instrument deserves a deep investigation!” approved the serious scholar. And Notton sent him away for a 10 days walk. Once the temple reached, the expert tried to explain his query by drawing a balls flute as he imagined it to the abbot. The story says that the monks understood what he meant. That had nothing to do with music. Furious, the scholar came back to Bangkok and Paris complaining about Notton’s very bad humour, just making everybody laugh.
The French consulate in Chiang Mai was closed with WW2 and never reopened as a full Consulate. The Alliance Française was created in the early 70s by Pierre Petit first on Wang Sing Kham road to be later moved to the former consul’s house. As for the Consulate office, on the other side of the street, it was occupied for a few years by the French missionaries of Betharram who had just been expelled from China until they could have their own residence.[19] A new role for these premises would appear in the late 70’s with the arrival of François Bizot.
2. The EFEO Centre in Chiang Mai
I will now give as briefly as possible an account of what has happened here since 1977 with the arrivals of François Bizot (1977), Anatole Peltier (1980), Louis Gabaude (1981), Michel Lorrillard (1999), Jacques Leider (2008) and Yves Goudineau (2012). Depending on their role in the history of the Centre, what follows is either an abstract or a development of the short bios which can be found on the EFEO website.[20]
François Bizot
Born in 1940, François Bizot began his Asian career in 1965 as a land surveyor and artefacts restorer for the Angkor Conservation Office.[21] Settled in a village within the Angkor complex, he noticed the discrepancy between local practices and official, « orthodox » or politically correct Buddhism. Not only the usual allegedly “non-Buddhist” stuff that any tourist can poke at such as spirit houses or “Hindu” gods in Buddhist temples. But really spiritual if not mystic Buddhist symbolic systems and rituals which did not seem to be understandable through the Sri Lankan norms which were supposed to run Southeast Asian Buddhism since the 13th century. What he saw, what he heard, and soon what he read, seemed to belong to some other Buddhist tradition, but which one? This quest was his main concern throughout his research works published between 1976, the year he became a member of the École, and 1996.
Bizot settled down in Chiang Mai in 1977, first at Notton’s house (now the Alliance Française) before building a wooden house nearby in the former French consulate office precincts. In 1989, the EFEO would add a concrete building near the house so that Bizot could move his office there.
François Bizot had chosen Chiang Mai because he had noticed the presence of Northern Buddhist texts linked to those he had studied in Cambodia.[22] His academic publications can be divided in three categories: the first introducing, editing, and translating texts from Cambodia and Thailand; a second category describing rituals, and a third category trying to systematize his findings scattered in his other works. A History of Buddhism in Southeast Asia is announced but not yet published. [23]
Basically, Bizot has tried to explain the origin of so called “non-orthodox” Southeast Asian Buddhism through two successive [hypo]theses. According to the first one, in line with Heinz Bechert previous suppositions, these special features could be remnants of practices and beliefs coming from the Abhayagiri monastery of medieval Anurâdhapura in Sri Lanka[24] whose teachings had been considered by the Mahâvihâra monastery of the same Anurâdhapura as non-orthodox, i.e. non following the Pâli Canon now called “Theravâda” Canon.[25] According to the second [hypo]thesis, these beliefs and practices would come from the Mûlasarvastivâda tradition, a branch of a “Hinayâna” (but not “Theravâda”) Buddhism transmitted in Sanscrit language.
Bizot’s work has been noticed, made known to the English world and now independently developed by an English Academic, prof. Kate Crosby, now at the School of Oriental and African Studies.[26] According to her last findings, a part at least of the tradition uncovered by Bizot was actually well known and practised in Siam’s main stream Buddhism[27] until various reforms initiated recently under the Chakri Dynasty made it unwelcome and even now unknown by the majority of Thai Buddhist monks.
François Bizot sold the wooden house he had built here to the EFEO and then moved to Vientiane in 1995. However, he remained in charge of the place until 1997.
Bibliography: “A Bibliography of the EFEO Members stationed in Chiang Mai (1977-2013)” p. 5-6.