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BOULNOIS Lucette (1931-2009)

In memoriam by Marie Lecomte-Tilouine [1]

Lucette Boulnois, both parents of whom enrolled in the French army, travelled extensively during her childhood and developed a taste for foreign languages at an early age. She later devoted her time to studying Russian and Chinese at the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, Paris, where she passed her degree in 1953. She first worked as a librarian at the Documentation Centre on Contemporary China at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and she began at the CNRS in 1963 as a research engineer. In 1965, she joined the documentation centre at the new "RCP Népal" team (headed by J. Millot), housed at the Musée de l’Homme. As Corneille Jest recalls, one of the founding members of this team, "at the time the centre only housed a few books taken from the museum’s main library". From its inception, Lucette Boulnois therefore supervised the design and organisation of the Centre for Nepalese studies (later: Centre for Himalayan Studies). She managed it remarkably well for nearly thirty years, helping to make it one of the most important centres in the world in this field at the time of her retirement in 1992. Lucette Boulnois not only carefully catalogued all the documentation she was responsible for, but also indexed a whole set of older publications related to Nepal in a near exhaustive manner and identified the places where they were available in France and abroad. This work, the importance of which cannot be stressed enough, is at the disposal of researchers and students using the CNRS’s Centre for Himalayan Studies in the form of a file (for which, unfortunately, the references of publications not owned by the centre have not yet been digitalised), but also of the whole international community, through the publication of La Bibliographie du Népal. Organized thematically, the first volume of this bibliography is devoted to the humanities. Published by the Editions du CNRS in 1969, it lists all the references related to Nepal in European languages that were published up to 1966. Lucette Boulnois added to this volume in 1977 with a large supplement covering the period 1967- 73. In Tome 1 of Volume 3 of the Bibliography of Nepal, published in 1973, Lucette Boulnois provided another valuable tool which is worth mentioning: an index of all the maps of Nepal kept in libraries in both Paris and London . It is worth noting here that Lucette Boulnois’s interest in cartography led her to make an important contribution to our knowledge of the war between Nepal and Tibet ("Chinese maps and prints on the Tibet-Gorkha war of 1788-92", Kailash, 1989, vol.15, No 1/2, p.83-112).

Thanks to her hard work, Lucette Boulnois offered specialists of Nepal a proper search engine well ahead of its time, and she organized disciplines by classifying and indexing them using keywords. She pursued this line of work in a more comprehensive way over subsequent years by publishing numerous articles in English on literature related to the Himalayan area and on French research conducted in this region (several of these articles, written by her or in collaboration with others, were published in the European Bulletin of Himalayan Research (1981, vol.1, No.3, p.23-33, 1986, vol.6, No.1, p.51-75, 1992, No.3, p.23-39 ; 1992, No.4, p.22-31 ; 1996, No.11, p.77-80).

Lucette Boulnois was not only an outstanding librarian and research assistant, but she also juggled with a remarkable career as a researcher. In her free time, during her holidays and week-ends, but also, as Katia Buffetrille recalls, every morning before going to work, she spared some time for her own research. Her first book, La Route de la soie (The Silk Road), was published by Arthaud in 1963. Twice reissued, and completely revised in its Olizane edition (La Route de la soie : Dieux, guerriers et marchands, Genève : Olizane, 2001, 558p), the book has been translated into nine languages (English, German, Spanish, Polish, Hungarian, Portuguese, Italian, Japanese and Chinese). She explained the genesis of this book in an interview to A360: "It is not the revelation of any old travel book that drew me to these regions, but reading Soviet newspapers on a regular basis. Out of family loyalty maybe? With respect to my remote Russian ancestors, and also because they made me read the great writers of the nineteenth century? I had learned Russian at the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales. In the 1950s, I regularly went through the press from the five Soviet Republics of Central Asia; more than literature, reading newspapers gives a vivid picture of countries and their people. I also frequented good Russian bookstores in Paris, including the Maison du livre étranger, rue de l’Eperon. One day, carrying a book I wanted to translate, I introduced myself to Sylvain Contou of Editions Arthaud. He declined my offer to translate the book, but made another offer: he planned to publish a book on the Silk Road in the series Signes des temps. It was an adventurous idea since the areas in question were closed to foreigners because of the Cold War. The image Westerners had was closer to legend than reality: like children who, when reading Jack London, imagine the great north teeming with trappers, we had an image of these countries similar to A Thousand and One Nights ... I myself was drawn to the East and the Far East. Having spent two years in Hanoi, I had been enthralled by the fascination and the dominance of Chinese civilization. I can tell you that I accepted this offer and immediately set to work."

La route de la soie revealed Soviet and Chinese Central Asia to the French readership, as her friend and colleague, Jacqueline Thevenet recalls.

In 1972, Lucette Boulnois completed a thesis at EPHE in Paris on the trade route between Nepal and China and its socio-economic consequences on Nepal since 1950 ("Les échanges entre le Népal et la Chine et leurs implications socio-économiques au Népal depuis 1950") .

All in all, Lucette Boulnois ’s contribution to the study of Tibet has been just as remarkable. Rémi Chaix, who is pursuing some lines of research initially explored by Lucette Boulnois, offers this assessment, which underlines their importance and relevance:

"Lucette Boulnois’s contribution to Tibetan studies is characterized by her unique approach to economic facts in the Himalayan world. The quantitative approach to the economic history of this region remains an area totally neglected in Tibetology. The work of L. Boulnois has still not had as much exposure as it deserves, both insofar as the use of the data she so meticulously collected and interpreted and the methodological approach she adopted are concerned. Her research, based on Chinese, Nepalese and Western sources, related to gold powder and silver coins in Tibet (published as Poudre d’or et monnaies d’argent au Tibet , Paris, CNRS, 1983) is a call for Tibetologists to pursue their collection and use of data in Tibetan, now punctuated by the brilliant demonstration made by L. Boulnois of the communications networks and exchange of goods, as well as for their production and their uses."

The list of publications by Lucette Boulnois is available in the documentation centre’s catalogue that she created and managed:

All members of the team "Centre for Himalayan Studies", with whom she worked for almost 30 years, wish to express their gratitude to her here.

Keywords : history, exchanges, trade, silk road, gold

Fieldwork : China, Tibet, Nepal, Central Asia

Main publications :

1963/ 1986 / 1992, La route de la soie, Paris : Olizane, 393 p., cartes. Traductions publiées à l’étranger : allemande : 1964 ; anglaise : 1966 ; espagnole : 1967 ; polonaise : 1968 ; hongroise : 1972 ; japonaise : 1980 ; chinoise : 1982 ; italienne : 1993 ; portugaise : 1999.

1983, Poudre d’or et monnaies d’argent au Tibet (principalement au 18ème siècle), Paris : Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 248 p., illustr., carte dépliante. (Cahiers népalais). Traduction en chinois : 1999.

2001, La Route de la soie : Dieux, guerriers et marchands, Genève : Olizane, 558 p., cartes.

[1Social anthropologist and former member of CEH