Kuhn’s publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions exerted a significant influence upon the historiography of science. However, prior to the 1980s, its impact on Chinese studies on the history of science was limited, despite the fact that research on the history of science began at the end of 1910s in China. This article focuses on the process of the professionalization of history of science, as well as the influence of Eurocentrism on historical research in main land China.
Early Motives for Chinese Scholars’ Research on the History of Science
Historiography was a well-developed subject in pre-modern China, and included certain contents related to astronomy, geography etc. As a result, Yuan Ruan (1764–1849)
It wasn’t until the twentieth century, under the influence of modern learning, that the significant transition of historiography occurred in China. The history of science began to capture the attention of Chinese scholars, and gradually become a “specialized subject.” Some Chinese scholars, especially those who were not only proficient in science but also fond of history, became especially interested in studying the history of science. As a teenager, Yan Li
At the same time, foreign historians of science had a clear impact on diverting the attention of Chinese scholars towards science in history. Co-ching Chu
In the 1950s, the Communist Party’s ideology in the context of the Cold War had am impact on almost all Chinese scholars on the mainland, including scientists and historians of science. Patriotism caused people to pay more attention to the study of scientific discoveries and inventions in China’s past. In the early phase of the Korean War, The People’s Daily published a series of articles on scientific achievements in ancient China, which met the social needs of “advocating patriotic education and criticizing blind faith in foreign things.” Co-ching Chu
Thirty years ago, a bourgeois idealist philosopher
Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) made the following statement in terms of the contribution that ancient Chinese art, literature, philosophy and natural sciences had made to the history of world human culture: “There is no reason to doubt the intrinsic capacity of individual Chinamen for the pursuit of science. And yet Chinese science is practically negligible.”2 Whitehead’s subjective and biased conclusion is obviously untrue. This question can only be answered after studying the specific facts in history [...] As we know our ancient history has left rich heritage in natural sciences, therefore, they should be categorized, comprehensively analyzed and summarized [...]
Scientific materials in history can not only boost economic construction, but also facilitate basic theoretical research on the basic disciplines [...]
The important issue is not which happened first, but the influence of those invented or transmitted during cultural exchange on the people. [...]
History of natural sciences is a part of the cultural history. Works of world history published in capitalist countries were imbued with the fascist ideology of “western nations are the best nations,” while Chinese culture was seldom mentioned. Ancient history of Chinese natural sciences resembles a barren countryside but filled with treasures. It is the responsibility of historians and natural scientists to discover the treasures, whether for patriotism sake or the sake of internationalism. (Chu 1954, 3)
Generally, the first generation of Chinese historians of science, most of whom followed a career path from being a scientist to becoming a historian, wanted in the first instance to discover the science that existed in pre-modern China. At least some of them argued for Chinese contributions to science and invention in order to overcome or refute Eurocentrism or the centrism of Western culture (Zhang 2001). In their opinion, Joseph Needham
The Professionalization and Institutionalization of Research on the History of Science
The professionalization and institutionalization of research on history of science was carried out by national scientific institutions throughout the 1950s. In 1952, entrusted by the president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Moruo Guo
In September 1956, Co-ching Chu
With the commencement of the policy of reform and opening up to the world in 1978, research on the history of science was quickly revived. The Chinese required an understanding not only of the pre-modern scientific traditions, but also the history of modern science and technology in the West. Historians of science from CAS were invited to give the leaders of the central government a lecture on the modern history of science and technology in 1980. The politicians were very interested in the key roles played by science and technology in economic and social modernization. In such an environment, many scholars and scientists were attracted to history and philosophy of science, resulting in the creation of the Chinese Society for the History of Science and Technology (CSHST) in 1980. Twenty-five years later, the IHNS and CSHST succeeded in hosting the 22nd International Congress of History of Science in 2005.
Since the 1990s, the institutionalization of teaching and research of the history of science has been developing quickly in Chinese universities. In 1999, for example, Shanghai Jiao Tong University established the Department of History and Philosophy of Science in collaboration with the IHNS, while the University of Science and Technology of China set up the Department for the History of Science and Scientific Archaeology. Not long afterwards, Inner Mongolia Normal University established the Department of the History of Science and Scientific Management.
Methodology in the Field of the History of Science in China
History is the most extensive and essential branch of knowledge. It is the mirror to the citizen, and is the source of patriotism of a nation. Now, a half of the reason why nationalism is well developed in contemporary Europe and why European countries are making progress in civilization, belongs to the contribution of the study of history.
If now we want to advocate nationalism and let our 400 million compatriots gain a strong standing on this world, in which the superior wins and the inferior loses, national history should be a subject everyone must pursue, no matter they be old or young, male or female, intelligent or unintelligent, worthy or unworthy. (Liang 1936)
In the same article, Liang says: “History is a branch of knowledge to narrate progressive development.” Yan Li
The first generation of Chinese historians of science received a modern science and technology education, that is, they were trained in a discipline of science or technology. They approached the subject from the perspective of modern science, beginning their research on the history of the field with which they were familiar, in accordance with modern discipline criteria. They selected and analyzed historical sources and archaeological finds, and revealed scientific discoveries or technological inventions in order to construct the so-called history of ancient “disciplines.” They spent a great deal of energy in solving the problem of what existed historically in the field of science and technology? They constructed a research framework or criteria on the basis of Eurocentric modern sciences, yet they argued in favor of Chinese culture, reconstructing knowledge in ancient China to disprove Eurocentrism.
Some advocates hoped that historians would focus not simply on science and technology, but also their social context. In the foreword to the first issue of Annual of History of Science, Co-ching Chu
In the 1980s, Chinese scholars, and even the public, were very interested in the so-called “Needham Puzzle”
The “scientific revolutionist” Thomas S. Kuhn (1922–1996) came to the attention of Chinese scholars in the 1980s (Wu 2012). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was translated into Chinese and published in 1980. This book, as well as his The Essential Tension, quickly made Kuhn well known among Chinese scholars, resulting in keen discussions about the concept of scientific revolutions. Underlying this phenomenon lay the desire to achieve modernization through the development of science and technology, and the possible opportunity for a new scientific revolution. In 1998, CAS encouraged historians of science to start the study of science policy and strategy from historical perspectives. Some historians of science have also become interested in scientific culture or the relationship between science and humanities since the early twenty-first century.
Since the end of the 1990s, Chinese historians of science have been thinking about and testing how to break the research model of “achievement-identifying and -describing” and how to reconstruct the history of science in context in order to avoid destroying the original structure of pre-modern scientific knowledge, and to cast off the Eurocentrist framework (Zhang 2007). They place great importance on such questions as: How was scientific knowledge created and transmitted in the Chinese cultural context? How did Chinese knowledge interact with the scientific knowledge transmitted into China from other cultural traditions, such as from Europe? Chinese historians are also devising new questions about modern science. For example, some of them are making a study of the relationship between scientific revolutions, industrial revolutions and the modernization of nations.
In the early twentieth century, the modern era of the history of science in China began, and Chinese scholars started to study the history of science under the influence of Western missionaries, Sinologists and pioneering historians of science, such as George Sarton
Chu, C. C. (1954). Why Study the History of China’s Ancient Science. People’s Daily
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Guo, S. J. (2008). George Sarton’s Bosom Audience from China—The Diffusion of the New Humanism in China before 1949. Science and Culture Review 5(5): 45-58
Li, Y. (1917). Zhongguo suan xue shi yulu (On the history of Chinese mathematics). Science 3(2): 238-241
- (1931). A Brief History of Mathematics in China. Shanghai: The Commercial Press.
Liang, Q. C. (1936). The New History. Yin Bing Shi He Ji, No.9 of Collection of Papers. Shanghai: Zhonghua Book Company.
Qian, B. C. (1935). Preface of Gu suan kao yuan (Über den Ursprung der chinesischen Mathematik). Shanghai: The Commercial Press.
Whitehead, A. N. (1926). Science and the Modern World. London: Cambridge University Press.
Wu, G. S. (2012). Kuhn Revisited. Science and Culture Review 9(4): 24-31
Xi, Z. Z. (1997). Institute for the History of Natural Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences: 1957–1997. Studies in the History of Natural Sciences 16(2): 101-108
- (2002). Zhu Kezhen (1890–1974) and Chinese Studies in the History of Natural Science. In: A New Catalogue of Ancient Novae and Explorations in the History of Science: Self-selected Works of Academician Xi Zezong Xi’an: Shaanxi Normal University Press 291-299
Zhang, B. C. (2001). Preliminary Reflections on Chinese Scholars’ Studies in the History of Science and Technology. Journal of Dialectics of Nature 23(3): 88-94
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See, for example, Iwo Amelung. Sinology and the History of Science—Some examples from Frankfurt University. Presented at the Institute for the History of Natural Sciences, CAS, on September 18, 2012: (http://english.ihns.cas.cn/ns/am/201209/t20120917_91084.html), accessed 16 September 2015.