After studies in history and literature, in 1905 he joined his father (Egyptologist Gaston Maspero) in Egypt, and later published the study Les Finances de l'Egypte sous les Lagides. After returning to Paris in 1907, he studied the Chinese language under Édouard Chavannes and law at Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales. In 1908, he went to Hanoi, studying at the École française d'Extrême-Orient.
In 1918 he succeeded Chavannes in the Chair of Chinese at the Collège de France. He published his monumental La Chine Antique in 1927. During the following years he replaced Marcel Granet for the chair of Chinese civilisation at the Sorbonne, directed the department of Chinese religions at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, and was selected to be a member of the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres.
Accused by the occupying German forces of involvement in the French Resistance he was interned in Buchenwald concentration camp in July 1944, and died there weeks before the camp was liberated in April of the following year.
Besides his pioneering works on Chinese history and religions, he also made great contributions to historical Chinese phonology for his works Le dialecte de Tch'ang-ngan sous les T'ang (1920) and Préfixes et dérivation en chinois archaïque (1930).
His Le Taoïsme et les religions chinoises was published in 1971 as Volume II of his Mélanges posthumes. It was published in English (as translated by Frank A. Kierman, Jr.) in 1981 under the title Taoism and Chinese Religion, in nine Books:
- Book I : "Chinese Religion in Its Historical Development"
- Book II : "The Mythology of Modern China"
- Book III : "The Society and Religion of the Ancient Chinese and of the Modern Tai"
- Book IV : "How Buddhism was Introduced into China"
- Book V : "Taoism in Chinese Religious Beliefs of the Six Dynasties Period"
- Book VI : "The Poet Hsi K'ang and the Club of Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove"
- Book VII : "An Essay on Taoism in the First Centuries A. D.", in 4 parts :
- Part 1 : "Individual Religious Life and the Search for Immortality"
- Part 2 : "Taoist Communities and Public Worship"
- Part 3 : "Taoism and the Beginnings of Buddhism in China"
- Part 4 : "The Origins and Development of the Taoist Religion up to the Han Period"
- Book VIII : "How to Communicate with the Taoist Gods"
- Book IX : "Methods of "Nourishing the Vital Principle" in the Ancient Taoist Religion", in 3 parts :-
- Part 1 : "Breathing Techniques"
- Part 2 : "Methods of Uniting Yin and Yang to Nourish the Vital Principle"
- Part 3 : "Gymnastics, Tao-yin"
- François Maspero, his son, writer and famous editor
- Some of his works are available free online courtesy of the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi
- Henri Maspero, by E. Bruce Brooks: biography with photographs.