On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550-1900, and: A Cultural History of Modern Science in China (review)
- East Asian Science, Technology and Society: an International Journal
- Duke University Press
- Volume 4, Number 2, 2010
- pp. 359-362
- Additional Information
Benjamin A. Elman, On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550–1900. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005. xxxviii + 567 pages. ISBN: 9780674016859 Benjamin A. Elman, A Cultural History of Modern Science in China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006. xv + 308 pages. ISBN: 9780674023062 Yuehtsen Juliette Chung Received: 29 September 2009 /Accepted: 29 September 2009 /Published online: 26 June 2010 # National Science Council, Taiwan 2010 The two books under review, both by the American scholar Benjamin Elman, mark an epoch in the history of Chinese science: the former book is dedicated to Elman’s teachers, Nathan Sivin and Susan Naquin (and to Elman’s mother), and the latter to his students. Both works detour around Joseph Needham’s famous question about China’s alleged failure to develop modern science, instead incorporating a halfcentury ’s scholarship into a narrative that covers four centuries of achievements. While Needham’s training in biochemistry led him to emphasize mathematized and testable hypotheses and experiments, Elman views science as a body of knowledge produced through the systematic study of nature and universe. Where Needham saw no indigenous development, Elman speaks of lively engagement with the Jesuits from 1550 to 1800 and the Protestant missionaries from 1840 to 1900. The defeat of Qing China by Japan in the first Sino-Japanese War convinced many of the members of the May Fourth generation that Chinese civilization had ended in failure. Consider, for instance, the comments made by Liang Qichao in Ou you xin ying lu 歐遊心影錄 (A Record of My Impressions of a European Tour) in 1920 and the lecture given by Hu Shi at the University of Chicago in 1933: they agreed that their homeland had produced no indigenous science despite the scientific spirit noticeable in a number of areas. The zigzag views of “what China is and is not” have constituted one of the field’s defining problematics. East Asian Science, Technology and Society: an International Journal (2010) 4:359–362 DOI 10.1007/s12280-010-9140-3 Y. J. Chung (*) Institute of History, National Tsing-Hua University, No.101, Section 2, Kuang-Fu Road, Hsinchu, Taiwan e-mail: email@example.com Since A Cultural History of Modern Science in China is a textbook adapted from On Their Own Terms, this review focuses on the latter book. On Their Own Terms consists of five parts, made up of 11 chapters. Part 1 depicts the reactions of Chinese literati to the learning imported by the Jesuits, as many tried to absorb the elements of Western science without upsetting the indigenous theory of knowledge. In the wake of improvements to printing technology and commercial networks in the late Ming, encyclopedias of natural studies not only functioned as repositories and practical manuals of popular science but also maintained the categories of knowledge into which Western learning was forced. Part 2 explores Chinese astronomy through the late Ming calendar crisis. With the consent of the Chongzhen emperor, the Jesuits contributed their expertise to the Astronomical Bureau, improving the prediction of eclipses and explaining other celestial anomalies. Literati interest in these new techniques drew them close to the Jesuits, who employed a strategy of adaptation and indigenization in the vain hope of gaining converts. For the Chinese, Western learning was, to quote Elman, “an alternate form of the investigation of things and a confirmation of Chinese ancient learning.” The dynastic shift from Ming to Qing did not immediately interrupt the cultural exchanges between elite officials and Jesuit missionaries, but with time, fierce competition broke out between the staff of the Astronomical Bureau and the Jesuits. The formal disputes between Ferdinand Verbiest and Yang Guangxian motivated the Kangxi emperor to learn mathematical astronomy from his French guests. In addition to mathematical astronomy, the Jesuits also contributed their expertise in mensuration, artillery, geography, cartography, clockmaking, glassware, medicine, anatomy, architecture, and other areas. A series of controversies over ancestor worship and Confucian rites pitted the Vatican against the Qing court, and in 1827, the court confiscated all missionary property. Part 3 shows how Qing scholars who excelled in evidential research incorporated Jesuit learning into their effort to restore ancient medical and mathematical classics. Elman depicts this as an inward turn, comparing it with...