- China’s Transition to Modernity: The New Classical Vision of Dai Zhen by Minghui Hu
With China’s Transition to Modernity, Minghui Hu presents a superb social and cultural history of mathematical astronomy culminating in Dai Zhen’s 戴震 (1724–77) scholarship and life. Hu’s approach invites reflection on the role of biographical approach in the historical study of China, modernity, and science. Thoroughly researched and engagingly written, the book will appeal to two audiences: the China specialist interested in eighteenth-century evidential scholarship (kaozheng 考證) or astrocalendric knowledge and its political role, and the general reader in search of a comprehensive synthesis of existing scholarship on Qing intellectual life and the Jesuits. [End Page 224]
The book’s core themes—the transmission of Jesuit and European learning and its (negative or positive) impact on Qing politics and visions of politics; Qing knowledge and culture with its debates around Han and Song learning and the rhetoric of an ideal past; individualism; and modernity—are probably among the best-researched subjects in historical research on science during the Qing era. Hu’s aim is to present “a new perspective on both intellectual history and the history of science in China” (p. 23). His overarching thesis is that, from around the 1660s to the end of the eighteenth century, Qing scholarship should be understood as being in a state of intellectual transition. As a member of the new “technical literati” (p. 133), Dai Zhen exemplifies the nature of this dynamic transition.
True to his aim, Hu chronologically unravels how the influx of Jesuit scientia and political events in China changed state rituals, cosmography, and notions of astronomical accuracy (chaps. 1–4), thus creating space for Dai Zhen’s ideas (chaps. 5–8). The Muslim Chinese litigation master Yang Guangxian 陽光先 (1597–1669) denounced the Jesuits, and the European visitors became pawns in the game of imperial politics. Nevertheless, their new technical capacity in calendric astronomy and eclipse prediction was convincing, and Chinese scholars accordingly revised their cosmological claims, reinterpreting classical scripts, in particular the Book of Changes (Yijing 易經). In due course, spherical trigonometry developed as a new link between cosmology and imperial politics. Under the Kangxi 康熙 emperor (1654–1722), a political faction coalesced around mathematical astronomy, ensuring this discipline’s institutional continuity at the imperial court, even surviving the Yongzheng 永 正 emperor (1678–1735), who curtailed astronomy’s political role.
This was the world Dai Zhen, a merchant’s son who had a bad memory but liked deductive reasoning and empirical methods, was born into. Dai taught himself by “decoding the classical scriptures” (p. 117) and affirmed the classics as the source of all knowledge when Jesuit learnings were falling from imperial grace. Influenced by Jiang Yong 江永 (1681–1762) and Qian Daxin 錢大昕 (1728–1804), Dai declared “classical lexicology, analytical phonology, historical geography, and mathematical astronomy the foundation of classical knowledge” (p. 134). In the Palace of Light (Mingtang 明堂), Dai found a mooring from which to pursue his lifelong search for a detailed depiction of the [End Page 225] cosmos and formulated a political vision in which institution building and political organization mattered more than moral responsibility and self-cultivation. The period emerges, then, not as an era of intellectual ruptures, but as a time of dynamism and reaction—both issues that Dai Zhen, the intellectual, embodied by innovating evidentiary methods while remaining a dedicated Neo-Confucian, firmly anchoring universal knowledge in pre-Han texts.
Hu draws nuanced conclusions from his comprehensive primary research in a deeply ploughed research field. His contribution is to produce a historical view that reconciles private scholarship, developments at the imperial court, Jesuit and other cultural influences on astrocalendric methods, and astronomy as an instrument of imperial rituals and Qing daily life. This layered perspective shows that the ritual embedding of astronomy contributed to Dai Zhen’s central role, as well as his innovative view of human nature, as historians of Dai’s Evidential Analysis of the Meaning of Terms in the Mencius (Mengzi ziyi shuzheng...