Poo Mu-Chou (prononcer Pou Mou-Tcho) enseigne l’égyptologie à Taiwan. Son parcours ne fut pas des plus faciles : il n’y avait pas, avant lui, d’études égyptologiques en République de Chine.

How did you become interested in Egyptology?

I was originally interested in Greek and Roman studies when I was in college. I found out, after graduation, that without proper language training in Greek and Latin, it was very difficult to get into a graduate program, as I was trying to apply for graduate study in the U.S. I subsequently found out that one could begin to study Egyptology in graduate school, therefore I applied for Egyptology and was admitted to Brown University by the late Professor Ricardo Caminos. This was 1976.

What are the paths of your studies and your career?

I practically began from zero when I went to Brown University and studied with Caminos. Thus it was very hard for me to begin with, with all the language requirements and the study of history and literature. I appreciate Professor Caminos' patience with me and his encouragement. After one year at Brown, Professor Caminos was to go to Egypt and finish his work on the Gebel Silsile epigraphical survey, so I was transferred to the Johns Hopkins University to study with Professor Hans Goedicke. I spent next six years at Johns Hopkins, and wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on the offering of wine. I returned to Taiwan in 1984 and have been working in the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica.

What is the situation of Egyptology in Taiwan?

In Taiwan I am still the sole Egyptologist who teaches Egyptian history in a university (Taiwan University). The interest in ancient Egyptian culture has been growing in recent years (I have 99 students in my Egyptian history class last year), but serious interest in pursuing Egyptology has yet to come.

What is your current post, and your topics of research?

My position here at the Institute of History and Philology is a research position, although I also teach as an adjunct professor at National Taiwan University.

My main research interest in recent years is comparative ancient history. I am currently working on a book entitled "On the Edge: Looking for the Alien in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China." This is a study of the attitudes toward foreigners in these three ancient civilizations. It is a reassessment of the cultural consciousness of the ancient peoples, as well as a re-examination of the nature of civilization.

However, since I am stationed here, I also devote part of my time to do research in ancient Chinese history and religion. My recent publication is "In Search of Personal Welfare: A View of Ancient Chinese Religion" (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998).

What is the contribution of comparatism ?

In the study of ancient civilizations, it is customary that scholars pay attention to the achievement of a particular civilization: art, history, religion, and philosophy, etc. It is also customary, furthermore, that scholars approach their subjects employing a positivistic, straightforward method. For examples, in the field of Egyptology, if one wishes to know about religious beliefs, one could study such religious texts as Pyramid Texts and Book of the Dead; if one wishes to know about social values and moral principle, one could study biographical texts and wisdom literature. A picture of the characteristics of Egyptian civilization thus gradually emerged from such studies. This is a legitimate method, and important and irreplaceable result has already been achieved.

However, one aspect of Egyptian civilization, or any civilization for that matter, can not be satisfactorily illuminated by such method. This is the cultural consciousness, the self-perception, of a given people. It is often said that one of the most difficult tasks for man is to know himself. One cannot know himself and establish his identity, however, without somehow knowing the others. The character of a person, furthermore, can often be revealed by his attitude toward others. The same may be said of a culture, as its character constructed by the above-mentioned positivistic method tends to represent only one side of the picture. We cannot unconditionally accept the picture that a given culture has represented itself without comparing this self-portrait to its portraits of other cultures.

From a people's portrait of other cultures, that is, their attitudes toward and knowledge about foreigners and foreign cultures, even though this may not reveal the true character of the cultures that they were trying to depict, one could learn much about the people who produced such portraits. Some of the essential questions are, how did people treat foreigners, and why did they treat them the way they did? Did people treat all foreigners the same way? If not, what had caused the difference? Moreover, did people in the ancient world distinguish different groups of people on racial grounds, or on cultural grounds? Were the foreigners really different culturally, or was the difference constructed by artificial means and subjective prejudice? What is the implication of this? By clarifying these questions, we hope to better understand the characteristics of the cultural consciousness in each of these ancient civilizations, which is illuminated in an oblique way by their attitudes toward other cultures.

By comparing such attitudes, furthermore, we may begin to see the differences or similarities of the cultures in question from a particular perspective, one that reveals the self-perception of individual culture, and, eventually, the nature of « civilization. »

Entretien réalisé en 1999 par R. de Spens.


© Renaud de Spens, 2000