Paul Eugène Pelliot (28 May 1878 – 26 October 1945) was a French sinologist and philologist. In 1906, he was chosen to lead a government-sponsored archaeological mission to Chinese Turkestan, with Doctor Louis Vaillant and photographer Charles Nouette. At a time of scientific competition between Great Britain, Germany, Russia and Japan, he was the first major western scholar to reach Dunhuang after the initial visit by Marc Aurel Stein in 1907.
Pelliot acquired numerous manuscripts from the site, as well as works of art such as spectacular silk banners, paintings and rare wood sculptures, which now form the core of the collections of the Musée Guimet and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, in Paris. One of the noteworthy achievements of Pelliot's expedition was also to produce thousands of photographs of the caves, still invaluable for the study of their murals.
Dunhuang, Cave 120F, left wall. (C) RMN-Grand Palais (musée Guimet, Paris) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi, 4515353
During his journey along the Silk Road, he wrote very detailed notebooks, which are of particular interest for us as they include fascinating accounts of his time in Dunhuang. Held in the Musée Guimet, these have been transcribed and published in 2008 in Paul Pelliot: Carnets de route 1906-1908. Not only do they give us crucial insight into his travel itinerary, day-to-day life and work, but, because they were never destined to a public use, they are also extremely personal, taking us straight to the deepest recesses of Pelliot's mind.
Extract from one of Pelliot's small notebooks, open on the date of 7 March 1908. (C) Musée Guimet, bibliothèque, Pel. Mi 7
On the 26th of February 1908, exactly 108 years ago today, Paul Pelliot started to explore the caves of the Thousand Buddhas. He had arrived from the nearby town of Daquan at 6 pm the night before, after delays due to the disappearance of his guide's horse. Here is a translation of the extract where he recounted his first day in the caves:
"I spent my day in the first ten caves at Qian Fo Dong. I unearthed a Chinese stele in clay and cob, with white characters inscribed on a black background: but only a few characters on each of the 32 lines are distinguishable; a date is precise concerning the day and month, but the nianhao and number of the years are missing. However, I have already managed to find quite a few names of patrons, plus some Mongolian [language], a bit of Xixia and some 'Phags-pa. Finally, I completed Xu Song’s decipherment of Li Taibin’s inscription as well as the one on the back; I managed to establish that the latter one was dedicated to a certain 李明振 [Li Mingzhen]. I am quite proud of having succeeded where Xu Song had failed.
Tonight, we were to get some straw, but the monk who was supposed to bring carts back could not find any for hire: there is nothing specific to be learned from Ting who is, like every night now, under the influence of alcohol; he is becoming truly unbearable. On top of that, the man who guided me to the Xihu did not show up today to give me news of the horse. Early in the morning I will send Ting to the yamen to try and organise a different means of transport.
(Some Chinese people who came to Qian Fo Dong today were telling me that they came to get some saksaoul (Suosuo chai) which is abundant in the mountains 70 or 80 li from here.)
Small difficulties aside, I am thrilled to practise some of my career here."
Many days followed after this one, when Pelliot meticulously kept examining Dunhuang caves and their content. He notably managed to get access to the Library Cave which contained an important hoard of manuscripts, going through them at an incredible speed thanks to his impressive command of Classical Chinese and other central Asian languages.
Paul Pelliot, shown seated in Cave 17 at Dunhuang in 1908 reading the manuscripts. (C) The Musée Guimet, AP8187
Upon his return to France, Pelliot was criticised for wasting public money and suspected of coming back with forged manuscripts. Ironically, these charges were only proven false with the publication of Ruins of Desert Cathay in 1912 by his greatest rival, the British-Hungarian explorer Aurel Stein. In this book, Stein supported Pelliot's account and clearly stated that he had left some manuscripts behind after his visit, clearing Pelliot from all accusations.