Twofish's Blog

July 28, 2006

The missing link and the smoking gun…..

Filed under: china, history, massachusetts institute of technology — twofish @ 4:08 am

Wow!!! I think I found something really cool!!!!!

OK. You read Benjamin Elman’s book about Chinese science in the Qing dynasty, and it ends in 1900, with the literati in the southern Yangtze valley doing astronomy and mathematics and using this for the Self-strengthening movement. Now you take a book about 20th century Chinese science, and it starts in the 1900. It’s the same people, and the book mentions in passing that they are from literati families, and they start forming societies like the Science Society and sending students off to Cornell and Yale. These two stories are linked. The early 20th century academic societies like the Science Society are *exactly* the same as the academic societies that had been forming in Zhejiang throughout the 19th century.

Here’s the smoking gun…….

The origins of the Evidential School in the early 17th century had to do with the fact that they believed that in the distant past there had been a golden age. The believed that the classical texts had been corrupted by Buddhist influence during the Song dynasty, and that it was necessary to carefully remove the corruption to return China to the golden age that had existed before the time of Confucius. They called their school, the school of “Han Learning” as opposed to the school of “Song Learning.”

Sounds a bit silly doesn’t it?

****Except that this is almost exactly the myth of Chinese stagnation that is in a lot of current textbooks****

Look at it. China was in some golden age of wealth and power until the Song dynasty and has been stagnating since the Song dynasty because of bad and oppressive Confucian philosophy. That’s what a lot of textbooks about China today say. They don’t realize it, but once you stare at it they are just copying a myth that was invented in China by Chinese in the early 18th century to justify the Han Learning school.

Now if you look at the actual evidence, China wasn’t continuous stagnanting since the Song dynasty. So where did the idea that it did come from? A lot of it came from Joseph Needham, who was fascinated by the “missed opportunities” of the Han dynasty. But I’m pretty sure that if you look closely, you’ll see it came from all those scientists that came out of the lower Yangtze valley in the early 20th century to Cornell and Yale.  But all of those early 20th century scholars came from literati families which meant that they were molded by the intellectual ideas of the 17th and 18th century, which included the idea that the philosophy of the Song dynasty had destroyed China.

One of the interesting books has been by Lionel Jensen in which he argued that Jesuit missionaries invented the idea of “Confucianism.” What it looks like to me is that the “myth of Chinese technological stagnation since the Song dynasty” seems to be have been invented in China by scholars of the 17th century.
One final thing.  A lot of what happens becomes a lot clearer if you stop the “nervous tick” of referring to scholars, literati, and bureaucrats as Confucian scholars, Confucian literati, and Confucian bureaucrats.  It’s just lot referring to a modern politician as a Aristolean politician.  It’s a “nervous tick” that has no meaning, and once you stop doing it, you suddenly realize that the “Confucian scholars” of 1890 were by and large historically contiguous with the “anti-Confucian scholars” of 1920’s.


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