Jean François Billeter

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Jean François Billeter (Born June 7, 1939, in Basel, Switzerland; Chinese name : 毕来德 / 畢來德 Bì Láidé) is a Swiss[1] sinologist[2] and honorary professor of the University of Geneva, where he created the sinology department in 1987. After directing it for twelve years, he retired in 1999 to spend more time writing.


Jean François Billeter was born in Basel on the 7th of June 1939 to parents originating from Neuchâtel. His mother-tongue is French, but he received an education in German until the end of high school and the baccalaureate (specializing in Greek and Latin). At university, he studied French literature in Basel (under Georges Blin), and then in Geneva (under Marcel Reymond), where he obtained his BA in 1961. The following year, he set out to study Chinese in Paris at the French School of Oriental Languages (now INALCO) and pursued his studies in Beijing from 1963 to 1966 at the Preparatory School for Foreign Students and then at the Department of Chinese Literature (classical literature) at Peking University. He witnessed the climactic period of Maoism and the onset of the Cultural Revolution. In early 1966, he married Cui Wen (Ts’ui Wen) 崔文 who at the time was practicing medicine. After spending a year in Switzerland, they were unable to return to Peking as they had planned, since the Chinese universities had by that time all been closed. Billeter and Cui Wen spent the year 1967-1968 in Paris and then departed for Japan, where Billeter was admitted as a Junior Research Fellow at the Research Institute for Humanistic Studies 人文科學研究所 at Kyoto University (1968-1970), studying under the guidance of Shimada Kenji 島田虔次. At Kyoto he began what would become his PhD dissertation on Li Zhi 李贄 (1527-1602), a heterodox thinker from the Late Ming. This extensive course of study was completed with an academic stay (1970-1971) at the New Asia College of Hong Kong (now a part of the Chinese University of Hong Kong). Billeter’s studies were first funded by a grant from the University of Geneva, then by sustained financial support from the Swiss National Research Fund (FNRS). His dissertation under the supervision of Jacques Gernet was defended in 1976 in Geneva, and published in 1979.


In 1970, Billeter was appointed teaching assistant at the Ostasiatisches Seminar, at the University of Zurich (under Paul Kramers), where he worked until 1978. At the Faculty of Humanities, University of Geneva, he began giving course on Chinese history in 1971 and set up a curriculum in Chinese studies in 1973. It would develop into a fully-fledged course in Chinese language and civilization, leading to a BA in Chinese studies in 1987, at which point Billeter was granted a professorship. After leaving academia in 1999, five years before the legal age of retirement, in order to fully dedicate himself to his work, Billeter took stock of his experience in Mémoire sur les études chinoises à Genève et ailleurs (A Report on Chinese studies, in Geneva and beyond). A generous grant from the Taiwanese Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation had already enabled him to take a two-year sabbatical , from 1992 to 1994, and carry out his research on the Zhuangzi.

With very little leeway and tight financial conditions, Chinese studies in Geneva had to prioritize a solid and well-designed course in Mandarin. In order to meet this need, Billeter and his wife, who had then become his closest collaborator, devised their own method of teaching  the Chinese language. Their method, effective and fine-tuned over two decades, resulted in a novel understanding of the “basic moves” of speech” in modern Chinese. Billeter plans to present this approach in a book together with an essay devoted to this “art of teaching”.

Prizes and honors: in 1990, Stanislas Julien Prize from the French National Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres for L’Art chinois de l’écriture (The Chinese Art of Writing); in 2013, Cultural Prize (Prix culturel) awarded by the Leenaards Foundation (Lausanne); in 2015, Prize of the City of Geneva.


The Chinese art of writing

Aside from his Ph.D dissertation, the only book Jean François Billeter ever published during his teaching careeer was The Chinese Art of Writing (Skira, 1989), with illustrations both in black and white and colour. T his book is a general presentation of Chinese calligraphy and deals with the distinctive features of the Chinese writing system, the technique of the brush, the switch from ordinary writing to true calligraphy. It examines what calligraphers from various periods have said about their practice, as well as the different functions calligraphy fulfilled throughout Chinese history. Parallels are drawn and comparisons suggested between this art of writing and several artistic practices in Europe, such as drawing, painting or the practice of musical instruments. A new version of this book was published by Allia in 2010, in paperback with black and white illustrations. Chapter 9 was rewritten for the occasion: the author offers a take on his subject that appears quite distinct from what he had advanced in the 1st edition. He sheds light on the close ties between the Chinese art of writing, an almost sacred reverence for script and finally a certain idea of civilization that translated into a political order in China’s past.


The most astonishing early Chinese philosopher, Zhuangzi, died around 280 BC. The eponymous work, the Zhuangzi, took the form in which we still read it today around 300 AD. A tradition of commentary took shape during this period which was to exert a decisive influence  on the way the Zhuangzi was subsequently read in China. Billeter has attempted to read the Zhuangzi afresh, leaving out of consideration the traditional commentaries which he considers  to have biased the original significance of the book. Assuming, like a number of previous scholars, that the Zhuangzi has no unity of purpose or content, Billeter focused his attention exclusively on certain parts of the book, leaving the rest for a later stage. He has translated and interpreted a set of texts that offer, in his view, a description of decisive moments in human experience in general. He translated them with a view to conveying the sense and significance of these universal human experiences while carefully accounting for his personal choices as translator. Through this approach, a new insight was gained on the Zhuangzi, and these ancient texts became accessible to a wide readership beyond the sole sphere of sinologists.

Billeter presented his work on the Zhuangzi in a series of four lectures at the Collège de France in the autumn of 2000. These lectures became a book, Leçons sur Tchouang-tseu (Lectures on Zhuangzi) first published in 2002, regularly reprinted and translated in several languages since. In 2006 Billeter published Études sur Tchouang-tseu (Studies on Zhuangzi), a collection of studies and articles previously published in academic journals. The Chinese translation of the Leçons sur Tchouang-tseu was published in Peking in 2009 and in the same year was the subject of a symposium at the Academia Sinica in Taiwan. Billeter published a critical review of this symposium in another essay, Notes sur Tchouang-tseu et la philosophie (Notes on Zhuangzi and Philosophy). He has now turned to other projects even though he expects one day to resume his inquiry on the Zhuangzi.

Philosophy (provisional translation)

One of Billeters concerns was to bring to the fore the common ground of Chinese and Western history of thought and hence to see more clearly what they have in common and what makes them different. He wondered whether a concept of the human subject could be worked out that would not be dependent on either of these traditions and would make it possible to establish a relationship between both. He put forward such a conception, at first as a means to understand from the inside some important aspects of Chinese thought, and later for its own sake. He sketched it out in a philosophical essay titled Un Paradigme (A Paradigm), published in 2012, and elaborated it further in his Esquisses (Sketches) in 2016. This second essay discusses the political significance of his conception of the subject. The next edition of Esquisses, to be published in 2017, will provide revised arguments on these issues. Billeter proposes a way of thinking that he thinks resolves some key problems of modern western philosophy.

Until recently, Billeter felt that his different lines of work had been pursued independently. Only with hindsight did he realize the congruence and the logic behind them, as if all his previous studies had been driven by the same desire to make fully understandable what at first sight appeared obscure or confusing. In doing so, he relied on the readily observable background of common human experience, as he recounts in a reflection on his intellectual pursuits published in 2013, « Cheminement d’un sinologue » (A Sinologist’s Journey).


Billeter has always been particularly fond of the German thinker Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1746-1799). Considering that this Enlightenment author hat been poorly received in France, in 2014 a volume of exerpts from his famour Notebooks (Sudelbücher) along with an introduction, a brief biography and a general account of his writings.

In the same year he published Three Essays on the Art of Translating. The first of these essays was previously published in an academic journal in 1986, and the two others were part of his Études sur Tchouang-tseu. These brief essays deal with the translation into French of classical Chinese, of Chinese poetry in particular, holding it as a case study valuable which would shed light on problems encountered in the act of translation in general.

Critique of relativism

Billeter has always been a strong opponent of cultural relativism, according to which every society should be understood exclusively in terms of its own ideas and judged on the sole basis of its own values. He has long bemoaned the influence of this opinion, which has become pervasive in Chinese studies as well as inside China, and is particularly noticeable in the ideological  stances of the Chinese government. In his pamphlet Contre François Jullien (Against François Jullien, 2006), Billeter vented his criticism the most brilliant and successful champion of such views, and proffered some methodological principles to be followed lest one fall in the traps and spurious pretences laid by the supporters of relativism.

Chinese history

One of these principles is the following: “When one considers from the onset thing to be different, one loses sight of what is common. When one starts from their common ground, on  the contrary, the differences appear by themselves.” Billeter has abided by this principle in all his writings, in particular when examining Chinese history are their different conception of political power. This major difference, which so often impedes our understanding of things Chinese, becomes comprehensible when one proceeds from what is common to all societies in recorded history: 1. Every society is in need of power, or authority. 2. All the various forms of authority  that exist were devised at some stage of the historical process. 3. These forms of power can last for a very long time and outlive many radical transformations of society. 4. They can be replaced by newly invented forms. In a brief but wide-ranging essay entitled Reflections on Chinese History, according to Spinoza (Essai sur l’histoire chinoise, d’après Spinoza), he attempted to redefine the Chinese form of imperial power and show in what circumstances it was devised and what role it played in subsequent history. According to Billeter, it has left a deep mark on what we regard – and the Chinese themselves regard – as the Chinese civilization. In a text published three decades before, Le système des statuts de classe en République populaire de Chine (1986), he had already pointed to the rebirth of traditional conceptions under the new political regime.

Reflections on Chinese History, according to Spinoza is the second part of a small book published in 2000, Chine trois fois muette (China’s Triple Silence) published in 2000. In the first part, titled On China and Contemporary History (Essai sur l’histoire contemporaine et la Chine (On China and Contemporary History), Billeter contends that China’s recent history cannot be fully understood when viewed in isolation, as Chinese historians, Western specialists, and Chinese and Western mainstream opinion tend to do. A deeper understanding of China’s recent history requires that we situate it amid the “chain reaction” triggered by the birth of capitalism  in Europe and its progressive worldwide spread.

Already in his 1976 Ph.D. dissertation on Li Zhi 李贄, Billeter had already raised crucial issues about the way Chinese modern history should be construed. The tragic fate of Li Zhi points to aborted development of the autonomy of the human subject, a principle that lies at the heart of the Reformation and which led to the Enlightenment in Europe. In other circumstances, might this new spirit have eventually prevailed in China too? Was such a process suddenly halted by the new authoritarian dispensation of the Manchu dynasty, after 1644? These are the questions, among others, that make late Ming intellectual life so interesting. Billeter would  gladly resumed this investigation and brought to completion his unachieved work on Li Zhi, but will probably never have time to do so. He would gladly set out to write a biography of one of the most fascinating  character  of  the time, Fu  Shan 傅 山 (1607-1684). Yet he  hopes  to be able  to tackle another question which occured while studying the Zhuangzi and the history of its reception in China: how is one to account for the fact that this, from the imperial period onwards, this book was no longer understood for what it is? What is the precise connection between this longstanding misunderstanding of the Zhuangzi and the immense influence it nonetheless exerted on two millennia of Chinese history?

Personal writings

Two writings of a more personal kind are to be published in fall 2017. In Une rencontre à Pékin (An Encounter in Peking), Billeter recounts how he met his wife in the sixties and how they learned much later about her family’s past. In Une autre Aurélia (Another Aurelia), he has collected notes he jotted down since her death in 2012. He closely observes the “restorative processes” that too place and tries to understand “of what stuff we are made”.



  • Li Zhi, philosophe maudit (1527-1602), Contribution à une sociologie du mandarinat de la fin des Ming, Droz, Geneva, 1979. (298 pp.).
  • Le système des statuts de classe en République populaire de Chine, Institut universitaire des Hautes études internationales, Geneva, 1986. (100 pp.)
  • L’Art chinois de l’écriture, Skira, Geneva, 1989. (320 pp.)
  • Mémoire sur les études chinoises à Genève et ailleurs, Geneva, 1999. (94 pp.)
  • Chine trois fois muette : Essai sur l’histoire contemporaine et la Chine, suivi de : Bref essai sur l’histoire de Chine, d’après Spinoza, Allia, Paris, 2000. (148 pp.) 2e éd. revue et corrigée, 4e éd., 2010.
  • Leçons sur Tchouang-tseu, Allia, Paris, 2002. (152 pp.) 13e éd., 2015.
  • Études sur Tchouang-tseu, Allia, Paris, 2006. (294 pp.) 2e éd. revue et corrigée, 2006.
  • Contre François Jullien, Allia, Paris, 2006. (122 pp.)
  • Notes sur Tchouang-tseu et la philosophie, Allia, Paris, 2010. (112 p.)
  • Essai sur l’art chinois de l’écriture et ses fondements, Allia, Paris, 2010 (édition remaniée de l’ouvrage de 1989). (414 p.)
  • Un Paradigme, Allia, Paris, 2012. (126 p.) 3e éd., 2014.
  • Trois essais sur la traduction, Allia, Paris, 2014. (120 p.) 2e éd. augmentée, 2017.
  • Lichtenberg, Allia, Paris, 2014. (168 p.) 2e éd. revue et corrigée, 2014. Esquisses, Allia, Paris, 2016. (128 p.)
  • Une rencontre à Pékin, Allia, Paris, 2017.
  • Une autre Aurélia, Allia, Paris, 2017.
  • Esquisses, édition remaniée, Allia, Paris, 2017.

Selected Articles[edit]

  • « Deux études sur Wang Fuzhi », T’oung-Pao, Leiden, 1970, LVI, p.147-171. « Essai d’interprétation du chapitre XV du Laozi », Études asiatiques, Berne, 1985, 39/1-2, p.7-44.
  • « Florilège des Notes du Ruisseau des rêves (Mengqi bitan) », traduit et annoté par J.F. Billeter et trente et un étudiants de l’Université de Genève, Études asiatiques, Berne, 1993, 47/3, p.389-451.
  • « Fu Shan (1607-1684) : Les Saints font le mal », in En suivant la Voie Royale. Mélanges en hommages à Léon Vandermeersch, École Française d’Extrême-Orient, Paris, 1997, p.169-177.
  • « François Jullien, sur le fond », Monde chinois, Paris, n°11, automne 2007, p.67-74.
  • « Cheminement d’un sinologue », Retour d’y voir, Mamco, Genève, 2013, nos.6/7/8, p.116-130.
  • « Poésie chinoise : que faire ? », La revue de belles-lettres, Lausanne, 2015/1, p.145-152.


The French publisher Allia displays several reviews of and texts about Billeter’s works on its website. Type : Éditions Allia / recherche: Billeter / titre de l’ouvrage / au-dessus du titre: about and around. Certain lectures given at the University of Geneva between 1985 and 1999 were audiorecorded and can still be accessed. Recorded for students who were unable to attend, these were not intended for broadcasting. Billeter has not listened to them, and supposes they may convey views and opinions that are not his any longer. These lectures refer to handouts and lists of Chinese characters, quotations in Chinese and French, and bibliographical references, all of which are no longer available. Type : / cours, Billeter Jean-François.


  1. ^ Catriona MacLeod; Véronique Plesch; Charlotte Schoell-Glass (2009). Elective Affinities: Testing Word and Image Relationships. Rodopi,. p. 389. ISBN 978-90-420-2618-6. Retrieved 7 November 2010. 
  2. ^ Spence, Jonathan D. (1993). Chinese roundabout: essays in history and culture By. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 104. ISBN 978-0-393-30994-2. Retrieved 7 November 2010.