Twofish's Blog

July 27, 2006

Epilogue to Cambridge History of Early Qing China – Social Roles of Literati

Filed under: academia, china, massachusetts institute of technology, wikipedia — twofish @ 3:56 am

I was in the University of Texas at Austin library doing some research in the mid-19th century Qing literati, when I made an interesting discovery.  I’d always thought that the evidential school was of interest, but always thought it was a concidence.  To quote the Cambridge History and an article written by Benjamin Elman..

During the seventeenth century, a unified academic field of empirically based classical knowledge emerged among the literati scholars in the Yangtze delta provinces of Kiangsu, Chekiang, and Anhwei and eventually informed the examination curriculum authorized from Peking.   (…) By making precise scholarship rather than reason, the source of acceptable knowledge, Ch’ing classicists contended that the legitimate reach of ancient ideals should be reevaluated through comparative delineation of the textual sources from which all such knowledge derived.

This turn to empirically based classical inquiry meant that abstract ideals and a priori rational argumentation gave way as the primary objects of elite discussion to concrete facts, verifiable institutions, ancient natural studies, and historical events.  (…)  The empiricial approach to knowledge they advocated, namely “to search for truth from facts” placed proof and verification at the heart of organization and analysis of the classical tradition. (…)

A full-blown scientific revolution as in Europe did not ensue, as in evidential (kao-cheng) scholars made the study of topics related to astronomy, mathematics, and geography high priorities in their research programs.  (…) evidential scholars such as Tai Chen (1724-77),  Ch’ien Ta-hsin(1728-1804), and Juan Yuan (1764-1849) successfully incorporated technical aspects of Western astronomy and mathematics into the literati framework for classical learning.

It goes on to talk about the development of private academies of learning in the lower Yangtze valley.  Now poses an interesting question.  What ever happened to this tradition of indigenous astronomy and mathematics.   Most histories make it seem like it fell when the Qing dynasty fell, but here you have a Chinese-American who has a Ph.D. in astronomy, who is trying to use mathematics to understand the Chinese economy, and who regularly posts on mailing lists involving Chinese law and politics.  It also so happens that my father is from Zhejiang, and my mother is from Anhwei.

And now I think about it, there are a lot of reasons to believe that there is a very, very interesting story to be told that connects the private academies and research in mathematics and astronomy in China in the mid 19th century with current events.  For example, it is interesting that the phrase used by 18th century scholars is the one that Deng Xiaoping used to justify economic reform.  It is also interesting that the graduate school of Science and Technology in China is in Anhwei, and I seem to recall that a lot of my classmates at the University of Texas at Austin were from Anhui and Zhenjiang, and that astrophysics in China seem to have a tendency toward political activism.

This has some interesting points of scholarship.  Has any astronomer or mathematician actually looked at the research they were doing in 19th century China?  What is the provincial distribution of scientists from China?  When Deng Xiaoping used the term “seek truth from facts”, did most people get the allusion?

I think the main problem is that there has been this assumption that “Chinese science” wasn’t “real” because it didn’t look like European science, with scientific specialists and institutions that didn’t look like European ones.  But that opens up the question not of why science and the humanities were unified in China (and in my mind still are unified) but about how this separation occurred in Europe.

This explains something else which is why I got allow so well with my high-school Latin teacher.  He was a Latin teacher because he was an “old school” Catholic.  Now this makes sense because he and I were part of a conversation that started when the Jesuits went to China in the 1500’s.

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