Interview with François Louis
What brought you to the BGC?
In 1998 the BGC decided to hire a faculty member to develop a curriculum in East Asian design and material culture. Having just completed my dissertation on the history of manufacturing gold and silver artifacts in medieval China, I applied and was offered the job. The BGC was only in its fourth year then, and I had never heard of it. But its mission to give serious academic attention to the history of design and the applied arts very closely matched my own research interests. So I felt comfortable here right away. Teaching here has enriched my scholarship tremendously.
What are your areas of interest?
I am most interested in the history of early and medieval Chinese design and ritual, but my research has occasionally taken me all the way to the 18th century. My primary materials of study are archaeological finds. I am currently investigating two areas. The first concerns the changing Chinese attitudes toward antiquities in all eras, including our own. I have just completed a paper that looks at how scholars of the Tang era—that is, during the eighth and ninth centuries—engaged with ancient bronzes. At that time, ancient bronzes were seen primarily through notions of Daoism. Only later did a Confucian view prevail which saw the bronzes as historical relics of a morally normative past. My second research project re-evaluates the art, design, and material culture of North China in the tenth century—a politically unsettled period in a culturally fluid, multi-ethnic region.
The history of Chinese art and material culture is a rewarding field to study, especially in the West, where it is still comparatively underdeveloped. There are rich, often untapped resources for scholars to delve into, and you do not yet encounter the kind of narrow specialization that is typical of Western art history. The study of the material culture of the 10th century is one such underexplored area, partly because of the political complexities of the time and the limits of primary textual sources. In the past 25 years a lot of new archaeological material has appeared, particularly in the areas around Beijing and the provinces north of the Great Wall, Liaoning, and Inner Mongolia, a region dominated by the nomadic Khitan empire. I am particularly fascinated with finds from Khitan tombs. I am trying to figure out how these discoveries document the creation of a new elite material culture in a cultural borderland. It’s also quite exciting to see how the archaeological discoveries can be matched with the historical records that we do have.
How did you become interested in China?
I guess, because I had an attraction to the exotic—having grown up in the rather homogeneous society of eastern Switzerland. I remember spending a number of my teenage Saturdays in the late 1970s at a run-down and mostly empty cinema watching the historicized martial arts movies from Hong Kong’s Shaw Studios, which provided my first exposure to Chinese language. By the mid- 1980s, China was opening up to the West again, and people where talking more about it. I began studying Sinology and European and East Asian art history in Zurich in 1984.
How does your work fit in the BGC mission?
I think every member of the BGC faculty promotes their work within one or two well-established academic fields. My primary field of reference is art history, but much of what I write, I hope, will also be noticed in the wider world of Chinese or East Asian studies. Chinese art history has devoted so much attention to the study of painting and Buddhist art. But the truth is, most art museums with Chinese collections are filled with bronze, jade, and ceramic artifacts of all types—and many also own furniture and textiles. Yet there is hardly a university that offers a focused study of these artifacts. So I am teaching a wide range of classes that interpret artifacts and living spaces as reflections of cultural ideals and social demands.
What do you hope to pass on to your students?
To instill in them a sense that critical historical thinking and careful analysis are important—even when their careers will take them beyond academia. I also hope that they realize that foreign cultures, such as those of China and Japan, are not all that different from their own in many respects. With relatively little effort a student can get to know a lot about them – and hopefully come to understand, appreciate, or respect foreign points of view.
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