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Arnaud Bertrand,
Sinologist &
Executive Director - AFAO

Defining Arnaud Bertrand is not easy because he is a man of many talents, an energetic driving force behind many projects in various directions. The easiest way would be to describe him by his background. An archaeologist with a doctorate in sinology, specialising in relations between the Chinese and Central Asian worlds in antiquity, Arnaud Bertrand is a man of the field who has spent part of his research life in Asia, the United States and Europe. Attached to the laboratory: "ArScAn" - Archaeology of Central Asia, he participates in numerous archaeological missions and translations of ancient texts. Naturally inclined to share knowledge and to extend his knowledge, he is an author for the famous Nota Bene channel on Youtube, teaches at the Faculty of the Institut Catholique de Paris while holding the position of executive director at the Association Française des Amis de l'Orient (AFAO). It is in this context that he joined the board of Printemps Asiatique, as head of cultural activities since 2022.

Since last year you have been in charge of the cultural program of Printemps Asiatique, could you tell us more about your ambition for this new edition?

The Printemps Asiatique has gradually established itself as a highlight of the knowledge of Asian civilizations in Paris. The previous edition marked a notable change from previous years. More than 40 events (conferences, visits, round tables, workshops, immersive sessions) had succeeded in conquering a national and international public.

 

This year, we had to confirm this good reputation, Paris having become a place of welcome for these famous Asian Art Weeks as it is the case in London or New York, but also innovate. We came up with the idea of developing a program designed to introduce the public to little-known places in Paris (George Clémenceau, Museum of the Philharmonic of Paris, Fondation Custodia...), while at the same time enriching the public with visits to museums associated with Asian arts (National Museum of Asian Arts - Guimet, Cernuschi Museum, Museum of Quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Museum of Decorative Arts), and workshops with Drouot. 

 

Another essential axis is to take the public to all the partner places with Printemps Asiatique, and in particular to the contemporary art galleries (Ye Xingqian, Arnaud Lebecq) and ancient art galleries (Ortega, Brugier, Toit du Monde). Our public is international and transgenerational. We must therefore bring in people from different backgrounds, and help them discover the city of Paris in a different way through the prism of Asian arts.

Finally, the round tables and evening conferences are an opportunity to create a meeting between experts and amateurs of various subjects. We are partnering with the Cité de l'architecture et du Patrimoine for a round table on the future of Asian art museums in the world with Guimet, the EFEO, ACA-Project and the Asia Collections Network - Europe. Another popular topic was Haute Couture and fashion in the context of Asian-Western cross-influences. This was an opportunity for us to work with Aurélie Samuel to develop a round table at Guimet with the participation of the fashion houses Dior and Yves Saint-Laurent.

Let's go back to your background. Why did you specialize in the history of China?

I began with a classical course in art history and archaeology at the University of Paris-IV Sorbonne. At the end of my degree, it was suggested to me that I take an interest in Central Asia, in Xinjiang (a relatively unstudied subject compared to the Florentine arts to which I was then predestined). I combined my skills with learning Chinese for 3 years at INALCO.

 

I then had the opportunity to go to Yale for a year to develop my research. I traveled extensively in North China with American scholars and archaeologists from Yale, Harvard and Columbia. It was there that I realized that in order to write my dissertation, I needed to spend a lot more time in the field, working with my future Chinese colleagues, and taking into account all the sources at my disposal.

 

Upon my return from Yale, I was associated with the Franco-Uzbek archaeological mission of Bactria to excavate the remains of Greek and Kushan cities (post-Alexander the Great), under the direction of Pierre Leriche. I stayed there for several years, savoring the benefits of local life. I then excavated in Ferghana, Uzbekistan, and I prospected for many years with the Dunhuang Research Institute (north-west of China), and the Gansu research centers. In short, I have always been on both sides of the Pamir between the Taklamakan on one side, the Gobi on the east and Bactria on the west, in these connected worlds that forever animate my thought constructions.

 

To answer your question about my specialization on China, in fact, I am a China enthusiast. What interests me has always been more to ask myself questions, to push my knowledge. My first relationship with China is linked to the practice of martial arts. I was immersed in the practice of Northern and Southern Shaolin boxing (traditional Kung Fu). I have a background of 13 years of practice in Sanda, self-defense fighting. I learned from a Chinese master, this relationship of master to student was quite fascinating to me. I learned a lot about Chinese culture through this.

What do you retain from these moments spent in the field in Asia?

You can write your thesis in the library or on the University benches, but when you do field research, the most important thing is this dialogue with your colleagues on the spot. We talk about everything, in fact it simplifies the discourse because they know the field perfectly. My strongest moments have always been with the so-called "workers". They are almost professional excavators and are very young. They are Uzbek high school students who have the choice between working in the cotton fields in the summer or on archaeological digs. Their choice is made very quickly. They are experts but also very benevolent. I really felt like I was learning with them, rather than being the one giving the information. The reality is the land, what you touch. All the theoretical aspects of great civilizations, of great empires, in the end, it is just bricks, walls, pieces of ceramics scattered around and sometimes a Greek coin that one manages to decipher after having soaked it in coca-cola one evening after a good day’s excavation. All this is very difficult to explain and to understand. We are with people who do not carry this theoretical baggage, but when they are on the ground, they understand. When we write a story, it is in relation to what we see.

Any anecdotes to tell us?

I spent a lot of time traveling with a very good friend and colleague, Li Junming, from Dunhuang to find ancient sites. We were traveling in a 4x4, in the Gobi desert and I was the only one who knew roughly what this fortress planted in the desert should look like. We kept getting lost. Once, we arrived at the level of a very very high mountain, and I showed him a tower, which looked interesting but was at the top. My Chinese colleague, who is literally 30 years older than me, says to me: "All right, let's go!” I answer him "Let's go there, now? because we are not equipped, there is a little snow above”. He tells me "don't worry, it's low altitude”. So we went there. The driver stopped us, he left. I saw the end of my life coming because I was with my backpack and maybe half a bottle of water. We climbed to the top for 3 hours, it was very cold, and then we came across a tower that was about 50 years old.

This is to say that it is part of the risks of the job to make a mistake when mapping.

Can you describe the AFAO and tell us a bit about your missions?

After my thesis, I became the executive director of the Association Française des Amis de l'Orient (AFAO), an association that I did not know well. But as my missions as head of scientific programming progressed, I discovered a structure that had finally worked to transmit knowledge about Oriental and Asian civilizations since the end of the First World War. From the very beginning, the AFAO's ambition was to serve as a bridge between specialists and "enlightened amateurs". It organized the cultural program of the Guimet museum, held study days, shows and concerts (it even had a partnership with an Indian music vinyl record company in the 1970s). She was one of the first to launch group trips to Asia after the Second World War, all over the place, even reaching Iraq a few months before the arrival of the Americans in 2001.

 

Following in the footsteps of the most famous orientalists of their time, Paul Pelliot, Sylvain Filliozat, Joseph Hackin, Jean Buhot, Pierre Gentelle, I had to continue to make the actions of the "knowledge brokers" known to a wide audience. Partnerships with museums, cultural institutes, universities seemed to be the first tracks to develop in order to reinforce the implementation of common programs. Of course there was 2020 which forced the AFAO, like many other associations, to distinguish itself by online conferences, for lack of travel.

 

Above all, it is important to know that the treasure of the association lies in the cultural lecturers, especially those who guide trips, and the volunteers. These people are very attached to the association and interact with the members to ensure a constant link. My role is therefore to offer both broad and specific themes so that everyone can find their way around, while at the same time articulating a strategy that will allow the AFAO to punctuate the week with various activities, to rejuvenate its structure, its communication and its links with the world today.

 

To do this, we need to expand a network so that our members can benefit from everything that is happening in France and in Asia. My courses at the Institut Catholique of Paris contribute greatly to this, as does everything I do on the side. Finally, I spend my time weaving a network to help different audiences benefit, to help researchers make themselves known, and to help doctoral students break free from the sometimes too closed academic framework.

 

I love to create, to imagine the impossible, and this is what still drives me in my missions today.

I saw that you were working with the Youtube channel "Nota Bene", can you tell us about this collaboration?

Yes, it's a collaboration that I am keen on. It developed in 2020 when we also had to find a way out of covid-19. Benjamin Brillaud and I got along well right away. I have written many texts on China and now on Eastern and Asian civilizations. Internet users seem to appreciate the subjects we write about (sometimes more than a million views) and this allows me to try other themes (such as the discovery of a Buddha in Sweden or the history of an Egyptian colony in China). The Internet users are also very hard, and correct you at every mistake. It's a change from students who don't ask any questions!

A discovery that has marked you?

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The discovery on the site of Termez in Uzbekistan, of an emblem representing a young Heracles overcoming a giant anguiped.

The medallion (emblem) Central western sector Dimensions: 200 x 180 x from 20 to 40 mm. young Heracles pushing back a giant anguiped. Kushan building of Termez on Oxus (S. de Pontbriand, P. Leriche : 2012)

Your latest artistic favorite ?

The "Kimono" exhibition at the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac museum: sublime!

A book that has marked you?

The History of the Red Man, by Svetlana Alexievitch.

What subject would you like to cover next?

The history of Jewish communities in China.


 

TO LEARN MORE :

Official website of the Association Française des Amis de l’Orient : Here

Upcoming AFAO trips: Discover

Upcoming AFAO conferences : Découvrir

Next AFAO guided tours : Découvrir

 

Arnaud Bertrand x Nota Bene : 

The origins of the Great Wall of China

The Forbidden City - History of China

Is China an Egyptian colony ?

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