- Nombres, Astres, Plantes et Viscères: Sept Essais sur l'Histoire des Sciences et des Techniques en Asie Orientale (Numbers, stars, plants, and viscera: Seven essays on the history of the sciences and techniques in East Asia) (review)
- China Review International
- University of Hawai'i Press
- Volume 4, Number 1, Spring 1997
- pp. 62-66
- View Citation
- Additional Information
62 China Review International: Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring 1997 Isabelle Ang and Pierre-Etienne Will, editors. Nombres, Astres, Plantes et Viscères: Sept Essais sur l'Histoire des Sciences et des Techniques en Asie Orientale (Numbers, stars, plants, and viscera: Seven essays on the history ofthe sciences and techniques in East Asia). Mémoires de l'Institut des Hautes Études Chinoises, vol. 35. Paris: College de France, Institut des Hautes Études Chinoises, 1994. xiii, 238 pp. Paperback Fr 120, isbn 285757 -051-1· This volume presents the most recent fruits ofthe dynamic and innovative Parisian "Groupe de Recherche sur l'histoire des sciences et des techniques en Chine, Corée et au Japon" (GDR 798 of the Centre nationale des recherches scientifiques [CNRS] ), founded in 1986 by Jacques Gernet with the aim ofilluminating the intellectual landscape, practice, and originality of scientific thought in China and the civilizations under its influence. The seven essays in this volume—appearing in rough chronological order according to their topics—reaffirm both the perennial strength ofFrench scholarship on East Asian science and the significance of science studies to understanding ofEast Asia's past. Pierre-Etienne Will, current chair ofthe group, reminds readers ofof the group's first decade and its devotion to the Song dynasty (960-1279). By analyzing the wide-ranging set ofnotes called the Mengqi bitan (Brush Talks from Dream Brook), compiled in 1086 by the eleventh-century government official and polymath Shen Gua (1031-1095), the group has aimed to give the many remarkable scientific passages ofthat work a more refined and measured assessment. The volume under review here successfully conveys the actual scope and the main areas ofresearch ofthe group's individual participants, offering fine examples of the range ofthemes in East Asian science. The volume closes with a comprehensive bibliography and a general index. The bibliography is divided into two parts: the first for old Chinese and Japanese texts, and the second for recent Chinese and Japanese works and Western-language materials. Chinese and Japanese characters occur only in the glossary at the end of each essay, making the index ofnames for persons, places, and books indispensable for finding particular concatenations of characters. The prominence of studies related to mathematics and medicine in this collection is representative of the main activities ofthe Paris group as a whole, as is the fact that four ofthe seven essays focus on the period of international exchange© 1997 by University occurring between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries. ofHawai'i PressWhile not aiming to provide any overarching perspective, Professor Will's prefatory remarks suggest some general themes and further research topics nascent in this exemplary collection. For example, vicissitudes in the relations be- Reviews 63 tween China, Japan, and Europe during different periods over the past two millennia have meant that even common vocabularies, techniques, objects, and practices were often used and understood in divergent ways. The essays below explore this web ofdivergence. Karine Chemla, in "Nombres, opérations et équations en divers fonctionnements " (pp. 1-36), begins her comparative studyby asserting the indissolubility of conceptual and historical investigations into what seem to be the same mathematical techniques appearing in different cultures. Her comparisons among Babylonian, Arabic, Chinese, and contemporary methods in positional numeration , quadratic equations, and the changing expressions for techniques emphasize the importance ofcultural context for understanding subtle distinctions between what have often been seen as the same mathematical forms. While modern mathematical systems and notation are indispensable tools for understanding the mathematical systems and notations of the past, neglecting their historical and cultural contexts leads to unwarranted conclusions. Close, literal, philological reading of old mathematical texts, in their entirety, permits a more precise understanding ofearlier mathematics. History and mathematics are equally important in the study ofearlier systems ofcalculation, notation, and relation resting at the boundary between arithmetic and algebra. Dr. Chemla points out that the historical matrix that produced today's mathematics included crucial developmental elements from various cultures whose importance have long since fallen away. By underscoring the continuity between divination with yarrow stalks and games ofchance and the drawing oflots, Marc Kalinowski, in "La divination par les nombres dans les manuscits de Dunhuang" (pp. 37-88), shows the...