- On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550-1900
Among the many emblems of the modern age, there are few that have been afforded as much attention as "modern science." As a translator and a diplomat, it has bartered enduring peace agreements between concepts that once battled in our minds as irreconcilable opposites: the infinite and the infinitesimal, matter and energy, application and abstraction, the line and the curve, the square and the circle. In its less than benign manifestations, it has collaborated with the modern state to achieve a power at once devastating and clinical, where a simple "go code" can, through a cascade of transmissions and subdivisions of the horrific totality, project power transoceanically and turn whole cities and their inhabitants into dust. The modern age, it sometimes seems, was itself a by-product of the rise of modern science.
Among the many loose ends in this narrative, there is one in particular that deserves a nice, sharp tug: how do we reconcile modern science's claims to universalism with its parallel claim to European origins? How can it be both universal and occidental at the same time? Is it not curious that, without exception, the sciences now deemed modern were coined, formalized, and professionalized by scholars hailing from a small handful of western European countries—many of which were emerging as global colonial powers at roughly the same time?
In his bold new work, On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550–1900, Benjamin Elman sets out to reposition the classically Eurocentric account of modern science. The author mounts a resplendently empirical argument, which commences with a brief but engrossing analysis of late Ming modes of knowledge formation. This is followed with a sustained exploration of a three-part process of transmission, mediation, and incorporation that shaped China's encounter with European science. In each of these three stages, a complex interplay of historical and cultural factors resulted more often than not in a checkered and turbulent [End Page 509] transmission of scientific information from the West to China, a choppiness that, for Elman, partially explains the uneven development of modern science in China as compared to Europe.
Elman's study focuses on two groups, Jesuit advisors and Protestant missionaries, whom he identifies as the primary transmitters of modern scientific knowledge from Europe to China prior to 1900. Starting in the early 1600s, the Jesuits made inroads into the imperial court by drawing upon their astronomical and cartographic knowledge to answer the emperor's call for a more accurate calendrical system and more precise maps of the empire. Protestant missionaries arrived some two centuries later, responding to the growing demand among Chinese reformers for advanced industrial and military technologies—a demand that, as Elman notes, was itself prompted by China's defeat at the hands of the British in the Opium War.
These three hundred years of scientific transmission exposed Chinese intellectual circles to many of the key elements of Western science. Many of the most important theories and principles, however, did not make the journey. Channels of transmission were frequently filtered or obstructed by powerful mediating forces, particularly the religious commitments of the Jesuits and Protestants themselves. In deciding which scientific theories to convey and how to portray them, these Christian missionaries sometimes delayed or prevented many of the most critical components of the scientific revolution from ever reaching China. As committed Aristotelians, for example, the Jesuits were remiss when it came to introducing the principles of Newtonianism, a factor that delayed the full translation of the Principia by over a century. Similarly, Protestant missionaries were highly selective in their portrayal of Darwinism, shaping Chinese understanding of the theory so that it would correspond as much as possible with their own creationist orientation. In other cases, the Jesuits and Protestants themselves had simply lost touch with contemporaneous developments taking place back home, resulting in the not-infrequent transmission of obsolete or disproved theories, which the Chinese then mistook for cutting-edge Western science.