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  • On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550–1900
  • Franklin J. Woo (bio)
Benjamin A. Elman. On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550–1900. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005. xxxviii, 606 pp. Hardcover $55.00, ISBN 0–674–01685–8.

At the very beginning of this book Elman is quick to make the disclaimer that this study is “not a straight forward historical survey of the Chinese sciences” (p. xxi). For that, he says, readers will have to go to others who have written more extensively on the subject, especially scholars such as Joseph Needham and Nathan Sivin, the latter being one of the three persons to whom the author dedicates this volume.1 Despite the “Science in China” subtitle of this volume, Elman’s focus is on the much broader “Chinese natural studies” and how these are further expanded or deepened by the “natural philosophy” and precise knowledge, scientia, brought to China by seventeeth-century missionaries of the Society of Jesus (founded in 1540). By the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Protestant missionaries arrived in China, the precise knowledge of Western scientia had not only developed, but was undergoing more than two centuries of a modernizing and secularizing process of which science and technology (“techno-science” for Elman) have been the major driving forces.

Long before science ever became science, however, people simply observed and recorded their observations of life and its environs, as Elman suggests:

Museums became a venue to experience nature. From the sociology of collecting and its cultural logic, we can see that in late imperial China this sort of collecting and classifying knowledge about things occurred within the pages of collectanea and encyclopedias. Just as the museum was firmly set in the premodern European tradition of catalogs and the vocabulary of collecting, so the daily use of compendia of the late Ming were sites of classically derived knowledge where individuals of privilege and learning earned the right to collect and classify the world.

(p. 58) [End Page 87]

Elman’s perspective on Science in China is one of longue durée,2 “a quieter story of long-standing Chinese interest in the natural world, medicine, the arts and crafts, and commerce that sets the stage for the interaction with European science, technology and medicine from 1600 and 1900” (p. xxiv). In placing Chinese “science” in the context of natural studies, Elman avoids the common pitfall of measuring science in premodern China with the yardstick of science as it has developed in modern times. He takes seriously the fact that the antecedents to modern science must be studied in their own right. Furthermore, his wider inclusive net allows readers to see how the Chinese were able to selectively incorporate from the new knowledge of the West (which many Chinese persistently claimed to have had Chinese origin) what was needed in and useful to China.

In contrast to the common practice of interpreting history from a short, more immediate perspective, in this case from the vantage point of the victors of war, Elman’s tracing the development of natural studies in China is corrective history. After China lost wars (with France, 1884–1885 over Vietnam), and more signifi- cantly with Japan, 1894–95, largely over Korea), Japan was seen by Chinese themselves as being superior in science and technology. A central focus of Elman is to question this privileged position of Japan in virtually being the model for Chinese self-strengtheners in the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to enrich and militarize the empire, when China itself in fact possessed the means to do so. However, that model for China ended when Japanese aggression became overt in the Twenty-One Demands on China in 1915. For Elman it is unfortunate that the flip side of this mistaken perception of Japanese superiority in science and technology is that all Chinese appropriation of new learning and science from the West prior to 1895 (which he honors by giving thorough accounts) was facilely regarded by many Chinese and Western historians as unqualified failures. In actuality Chinese military and naval development in the 1890s was well in advance of that of Japan...