Thoughts on writing about science 100 years or so ago…

I have been reading Benjamin Elman’s “A Cultural History of Modern Science in China”. Or rather, in researcher style, I have read the parts of it that are of use to my research right now, and filed the rest of it mentally away to read when there is more time for casual reading. The book treats the cultural history of modern science, medicine, and technology from c. 1550 – 1900. Covering the Qing dynasty from its thriving heights to its near-end, it places scientific development in the context of a changing China, as it slowly absorbs Western science. The West – i.e. Europe – were more than happy to oblige, having been in the throes of colonialisation [of other countries] at the time anyway.

I happily dived in at the end of the story, close to the 1900 mark of the book. Please bear in mind that this is actually the second half of the book, and that it is not a case of each-year-gets-an-equal-share, and I was not being massively lazy. Elman describes China at odds with itself despite the country’s earlier prowess in both scientific discoveries and technological inventions – we felt that the West was developing faster than ourselves. This evolved into large translation missions of Western texts, headed by John Fryer and Li Shanlan; essay competitions based on these translated texts; and, as usual, a wildly opinionated public debate on whether Western or classical Chinese medicine was better.

Things that struck me:

1) One of the translators, Joseph Edkins, who belonged to the league of “confused” gentlemen (yes, I subscribe to Darwinism, so quote me), was put in charge of rendering some evolutionary texts available to Chinese scholars, but wished to retain the protestant state of mind. He therefore modified Darwin’s catchphrase “survival of the fittest” to “survival of the fittest as selected by the heavenly beings [sic]”. I am amused that he got away with this. Strike one for peer review.

2) The essays of the prize essay competitions. These were based on the aforementioned translated texts (“Science Outline Series”, 1882-1898; Primers for Science Studies, 1886; and more). Due to the sometimes-modified editions of Western scientific knowledge, persons such as Darwin and Huxley have even been placed in the wrong fields of scientific study. Strike two for peer review.

3) Inter- or cross-disciplinary studies are not so new after all. Perhaps they have recently resurged, just like 1980s fashion. In the appendices of the book are lists of contents for the topics covered in the Science Primers and Science Outline Series. They demonstrate the vast interests of a developing nation, but also some interesting tastes in defining science: among usual suspects such as astronomy, botany, chemistry, and algebra (the Chinese have long been more algebraic in their mathematical methods than the more geometrical  Westerners – “you’re so square, har har” -), one can discover Political Economy, Greek History, Roman History, European History, and, err, Folklore.

4) The competition between Western and Classical Chinese medicine that continues to this day. To that, I only have this to say:

4000yearsofmed. (This came from here, but was uncredited. If you know the source, let me know, and I’ll add credit. Otherwise, no copyright infringement intended.)
Finally, it was a really good book. I now know more about the naval equipment used in the Sino-Japanese war than I know to do with, but it was a fascinating and easy read.

One thought on “Thoughts on writing about science 100 years or so ago…

  1. Sv: Jag tackar och tar gladeligen emot lite musiktips, här har vi bakgrundsmusik hela dagarna och behöver verkligen lite nytt 🙂

    Det funkade toppen, tack ska du ha! Vi biter ihop och håller för öronen då och då 😉 Snart är bägge barnen tonåringar och vi önskar oss tillbaka till skrikbebistiden 🙂

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