Professor Augustin F. C. Holl:
Distinguished Professor, Department of Anthropology and Ethnology, College of Humanities, Xiamen University
Director, Africa Research Center, the Belt and Road Institute
President, International Scientific Committee for Volume IX of General History of Africa, UNESCO
2012-2014 Vice-President, International Relations, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, France
2012-2014 Director, Confucius Institute, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, France
Deputy Director, French National Center for Scientific Research Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences, Paris, France
Member of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
In 2017, Prof. Augustin Holl donated his precious archaeological collection of cultural relics to Xiamen University (XMU) for teaching and research and established a professional laboratory of archaeological anthropology. Under his facilitation, the UNESCO Conference of General History of Africa Volume IX was held at XMU in December 2017.
Research areas: African history; prehistoric archaeology; bioarchaeology
Prof. Augustin Holl discusses his journey from Africa to China, his experience in China and his life as a faculty member at Xiamen University. He touches on his current research and shares his thoughts on China’s BRI policy, improvements that could be made at XMU and the current state of the anthropological field in China and beyond.
1. Would you please share the story of your journey from Africa to China?
To make a long story short, I came to China for the first time in 2012 and it was in that year I visited Nanjing University, Xiamen University and Sichuan University. I started teaching here in Xiamen during the 2015 summer classes. Step by step, of course, I started being trusted due to the way I taught the students, and a department chair asked me if I may be interested in coming here and I thought it was a good idea. They said I should think about it and so I took some time. Then finally, in 2017, I resigned from my job at CNRS and came to Xiamen.
2. What made you decide to come to China?
Because of different considerations I’ve been a kind of international vagabond for quite some time. When I left Cameroon a long time ago, I went to graduate school in Paris, France. I taught at Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, France for a number of years, 14 years to be exact. Then I left to go to the US where I spent 15 years, and then went back to France for 6 years. Then, I came to China. Thus, it is basically because I have come to realize that Chinese universities are on the rise and that there are lots of opportunities to create new research programs in China. Also, being an African who has lived in the West for almost 35 years, I’ve tried to work with African colleagues from a different perspective. So I thought maybe I can rely on my Chinese colleagues and African countries to have a kind of equal partnership in developing research. The Chinese government also has an optimistic attitude towards the development of world class universities in China; it provides a means to move forward and create good research institutions of non-colonial legacy that reflect the China-Africa relationship. Such institutions make a balanced and equal partnership between Chinese institutions and Chinese-African institutions possible. Of course, there is an imbalance of wealth between China and Africa. China is an economic superpower and African countries are still struggling to find their own way. However, because of this imbalance I think collaboration with China and Chinese institutions will lead to more effective research and such.
3. How was life in China at the beginning when you first arrived? What challenges did you face?
It is difficult. It is a challenge. But I've lived in so many different countries and different cultures. For example, in the West it is easier to handle because in France I speak French. In the U.S., I speak English. It is not the case in China. In China, I teach in English, and while staying on the university campus it is okay, but when I'm outside of the university campus, it is a real challenge to get around. But I was well aware of that before coming, so I took up the challenge of learning Chinese. I am trying. But it is not that easy because I have too many things to do and I do not have enough time to focus on learning languages. I'm just here to learn and make sense of what I see and can understand, if not I ask for assistance.
4. How has China and XMU changed since you first arrived in China?
Maybe I am not skilled enough to notice because I'm living inside the university campus. But I know that in long-term policy terms there have been significant changes in shifting the engine of economic growth from an economy being driven by exports to one driven principally by internal consumption. This change can be seen through the important tax rebate that took place at the end of the last year or so. It is a fantastic policy. It means, if it works well, it will help boost domestic consumption and in the long run decrease the dependence on exports to fuel national economic growth. Former President Zhu always tells me that in China, one has to be patient. Sometimes things work very well but sometimes progress is slow. For instance, I donated my archaeological collection to the University to create a research lab. It took almost 2 years to have this collection delivered to the campus because it was delayed in China's Custom Services for various reasons.
5. In your opinion what aspects of the University can be improved or changed?
I can make many suggestions. I do think that mostly mid-level personnel need to understand what the motto of the University is. Striving for excellence and becoming an international institution requires a significant change in daily practices to support and enhance new developments. It means we’ll have to adjust our administration to our goals, not the opposite. This is the key. I do not want to seem like I am lecturing people, but if we don't change then we will be the same as a small local university teaching local things, rather than being oriented towards becoming a world-class university. For example, doing something like creating overseas XMU courses that students can undertake for credit towards their degree clearly requires a more flexible and supportive administrative structure. We need to be backed and supported in order to do the best for our students. It is very important, otherwise the University’s motto is just an empty slogan. And to add to that, we really need to make some serious adjustments to achieve the goal of the university. It is what Xiamen University is looking for.
6. Can you briefly describe your ongoing research work?
Right now I am trying to organize the material from my last expedition in Senegal. We have made some interesting discoveries. At some point, in the past, people started relying on shellfish along coastal areas. There is evidence of this in Brazil and in different places in Senegal along the Atlantic Coast. The research project takes place in the Saloum Delta in Senegal, West Africa. It started in 2017, began to involve Xiamen University undergraduates in 2018 and has continued in 2019. The results show that the cultural adaptation that sustained the intensive exploitation of shellfish started much earlier that general accepted: around 10,000 years ago instead of 2,500 years as indicated by current archaeological research.
7. What do you think about the development of archaeological research in China?
China is very active in archeological research, mostly concerning the dynastic period. This is a country with a very long history. The time when people started growing rice, millet and domesticating pigs in different parts of China, in the Central Valley, the Yellow River, and the Yellow Sea areas, is called the Neolithic period. Of course, that area features different agricultural systems. We call it the Neolithic Period. It is well researched in China, but still needs more research – we had a workshop on the Neolithization Processes this year during the World Humanity Forum in April 2019.
8. Students who are interested in archaeology often worry that if they choose this major it may be difficult to find a job after graduation. What would you say to these students?
It is precisely what I said to my students in class this morning, which also happened to be the very first class of this semester: I know they are anxious about their future and the future of their children, and they are very anxious about whether they will find a good job, and they are anxious because the job market is completely clogged. They don't know what to do. I told them that when I was in high school, I had a philosophy professor (it is unfortunate we do not teach philosophy in high school these days) who said something very simple: the job of a student is to study. But you know what else he said after that, it's interesting, he said: be good at what you are doing, and probably everything else will take care of itself. It means it does not make sense to worry about the future because there is nothing you can do about it. What you can do is be good at what you do and if you are good you will enjoy what you do, in this way there will be a future for you. But there is no way for you to know what your future holds because the future is basically unpredictable. Just forget about it. Enjoy being a student, be good, and if you study you will have your future assured, it doesn’t matter which subject you are studying. Worrying does not help you and worrying about the future is even more worthless. I’ll give an example of the internet: nobody thought when it was declassified in the 60s that it will ever be used by anybody. Now it’s everywhere and people are making lots of things with it and no one can live without it.
9. What are your views on China's Belt and Road Initiative policy?
As I said in my first comment about cooperation between Africa and China: it's a great initiative. Despite the wealth imbalance, it can really help African countries develop along a certain way.
10. Would you please shed some light on the issues related to BRI from an African perspective?
As we say, everything in political science is not a matter of sentiment, states have interests. African states have interests, the Chinese state and companies have interests. But the idea is to find common interests that can benefit everyone because it will not always be 50/50 in everything, and it is in this case that partnering Africa and China makes sense. It is trying to build momentum for the federal state of Africa and an integrated continent. We hope that in the next two generations there will be a United States of Africa. Things are moving forward slowly but surely, and we do feel better having a real partner in China. Individual countries in Africa in the Belt and Road Initiative can really benefit from having the whole continent as a partner, not tiny separate countries. And the new research project I will be developing starting from next summer in Kenya is really part of the Belt and Road Initiative because now it is focusing on Africa-China interaction. If we want people to understand each other, we have to complement each other.
We convey our sincere gratitude to Professor Augustin F. C. Holl for taking time out of his busy schedule to participate in this interview…