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  • Shen Gua’s Empiricism by Ya ZUO
  • James D. Sellmann (bio)
Shen Gua’s Empiricism. By Ya ZUO. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2018. Pp. xii + 348. Hardcover $49.95, ISBN 978-0-67-498711-1.

History of science students will want to read this book. Professor Zuo animates the life, career, and thought of SHEN Gua (1031–1095) in this delightful historical, biographical work. SHEN Gua (沈括) embodied the classical spirit of the scholar-official during the Song dynasty (960–1279). Shen is the author of Brush Talks from Dream Brook (Mengxi Bitan 梦溪筆談), a canonical text in the study of the history of science in China and in the Notebook (Biji 筆記) style of writing. Zuo argues, using a double-narrative structure, that Shen’s intellectual life and career are fused in his scientific empiricism.

This book is a complete study containing a List of Tables and Figures, three pages of Acknowledgments, a List of Abbreviations, a 19-page Introduction, 11 chapters, three interesting and useful appendices, 28 pages of detailed notes, an extensive Bibliography, and a seven-page Index. The third Appendix, A Selection of SHEN Gua’s Writings in Translation can be found at or at URL links.

In the Introduction, Zuo explains that, rather than writing a biography of a genius, her approach is to uncover the broad and intricate conceptual and historical conditions that shaped Shen’s empirical stance based on his decisions concerning what needs to be known and the means to gain knowledge. She begins with a brief critique of early 20th Century propagandist attempts by the Chinese to embrace modernization in their own terms by using Shen’s discoveries as evidence of China’s earlier discoveries, thereby affirming his apparent superiority. In recorded history, Shen was the first person to discover astronomical refraction, geological erosion, petroleum, and movable-type printing. He studied optics, astronomy, mathematics, chemistry and medicine.

In Chapter 1, “Peripateting the World (1051–1063),” Zuo examines Shen’s early life, especially how his humble beginnings and a decade of hardship helped shape his critical view concerning what it meant to be a literatus while facing the harsh reality of surviving in the vast Song bureaucracy.

Chapter 2, “Envisioning Learning,” investigates Shen’s epistemology. “Things” were getting in Shen’s way; he was overburdened by the multi-tasking requirements of his office, but rather than getting lost in things, he turned to study them in detail, developing a hands-on practical approach to study, [End Page 1] discovery and invention. He investigated the intricacies of music using a quantitative approach. His early book learning and then his practical learning paid off as he became a Presented Scholar (jinshi 进士) in 1063 and started to be promoted in office.

In Chapter 3, “Measuring the World (1063–1075),” we learn how Shen moved to Kaifeng, and was promoted from an associate position in the Imperial Libraries to the policy-making bureau. Wang Anshi recruited Shen to create sluice gates in the canal to drain the fertile silt into the fields and dredge the canals. The simple tools to measure the canal were insufficient. Shen devised a system of reservoirs that divided the canal into manageable sections, allowing him to adjust the overall altitude of the canal. He applied his quantitative methods to the study of the heavens, reforming the imperial observatory, and making a new calendar. He improved the clepsydra (water clock). He measured the border, using geographic and textual evidence to win a debate against officials of the Liao or Northern dynasty, setting the Song border at Mount Huangwei.

In Chapter 4, “Individuating Things,” Zuo analyzes Shen’s epistemology, distinguishing things first as static objects, and, then, as process relationships. She proposes that this reflects the duality of things, rather than appealing to a nondual interpretation. Her discourse on the thingness of things begins to sound something like Plato’s two world essentialism. She argues that Shen distinguished the thing as substance from our analytical interpretation, using number. She then analyzes number as function, basic component, and fundamental operational principle. Shen was an expert reader of the interaction of nature’s yin-yang...


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