History of Science in Non-Western Traditions: China

William C. Summers


Archeological evidence for scientific and technological knowledge in China extends at least to the Neolithic period (ca. 6000 BC) while written material is available from as early as the Shang period (ca. 1700 – 1025 BC).  Early traditions, dating from the Shang, include divinations written in the precursor to modern Chinese on flat bones and turtle shell (“oracle bones”) and technically advanced bronze castings.  The Zhou dynasty (1122 – 256 BC) was characterized by the development of the dominant philosophical schools of traditional Chinese thought: Daoism, Confucianism, Moism, and Legalism.  By the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) comprehensive cosmological views of the universe had been developed by the Daoists  based on a few universal principles: yin and yang complementarity, the relations and correspondences of wu xing (the five phases of the universe: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water), together with notions of qi (vital force, or “matter-energy”) and li (natural order, or organizing principle).  The most coherant and comprehensive exposition of this basic cosmology is found in Huai-nan Tzu (ca. 139 BC), a summary of learning sponsored by Liu An, King of Huai-nan.

One theme in Daoist thought which is of major interest is the quest for elixirs of immortality.  This activity was both theoretical and experimental, and led to the development of the Chinese “alchemical” tradition, not concerned with transmutation of metals as in the West, but in the formation of substances which could confer immortality and sagehood.  Much knowledge of the properties and behavior of natural substances emerged from this work. This tradition started at least 2 millenia ago and was well-established by the end of the Three Kingdoms period (220-265 AD) when Ge Hong (Ko Hung) compiled his work on daoist “alchemical” techniques, Bao pu tzi (Pao-p’u tzu) (ca. 317 AD).

Another approach to the natural world was through the organization of plants, animals, and minerals into their uses by mankind in the form of books called “ben cao” (often translated as pharmacopoeia).  The ben cao are texts that include natural history, biological classifications, and practical and medical uses of natural materials, in modern terms, biology, geology and medicine.  By the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD), great, comprehensive ben cao texts had been compiled that are still used in China today, for example the Ben cao gang mu (1596 AD) by Li Shi-zhen.

Also during the Ming dynasty, China took an active interest in the learning of the West that was brought by Jesuit missionaries.  Because of the importance of calendrical science in the cosmology of Chinese thought and its role in political affairs, the Ming rulers were especially interested in the recent advances in European astronomy the associated mathematical approaches.  The interplay of two quite different cosmologies during this period gives an especially interesting opportunity to examine the role of politics, culture and tradition on the development of science and the change in beliefs about nature.

By the time of the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911) the many interactions between China and the West provoked reactions within China, at one extreme, to adopt Western scientific learning in toto, and at the other extreme, to reject it completely in favor of indigenous traditions.  While other Asian countries (e.g., Japan and India) were able to follow their own paths to modernization, China was racked by internal strife and external assaults from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century.  During this period of about 100 years, China struggled to modernize its science, education, technology and industries under the handicaps of civil wars and rebellions, and probably most importantly, lack of capital for investment in these essential activities.  For the historian of science, then, this period in Chinese history affords a clear example of the role of economic and social factors in the course of the scientific enterprise.

In the twentieth century, China has struggled to find its “national philosophy of life” through wrenching debates in the early 1920s and to decide on the proper balance between politics and science since the 1950s.  The role of ideology in scientific inquiry is clear in the case of genetic research in China under the influence of the Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko.  Likewise, the role of national politics can be studied in scientific and technological projects such as the development of nuclear weapons and the construction of the hydrological project on the Yangtze river known as the Three Gorges Dam.

The study of some of these themes might be organized on the Chinese achievements in cosmology, technology, and modern science.

The stability and durability of the Chinese cosmology—that is, the yin-yang and wu xing model—is quite remarkable.  It has survived for over 2000 years and is still alive and well in both folk beliefs and in traditional Chinese medicine.  It has wide explanatory power and adaptability.

The achievements of Chinese artisans, engineers, and scientists in papermaking, metallurgy, hydrology, agriculture and medicine are well-described in the Western literature and provide interesting comparisons with Western approaches to similar practical problems.

The particular Chinese way of approaching the problems of how science relates to politics and the state is another possible way to study science in China.  The interplay of ideology of the state and culture and the ideologies of scientific inquiry has been of concern in China for a long time.  While it has surfaced in the twentieth century in more obvious ways (e.g., genetics, economics, physics), in earlier times daoist research on elixirs of immortality had political overtones, and “independent thinking” often led to politically subversive ideas.

Another approach to better understand science in China is to study the works and lives of major figures for whom significant descriptive material is available in English.  Four such individuals, representing chronologically different periods, are the daoist “alchemist,” Ge Hong (283-343), the Sung polymath, Shen Gua (1031-1095), the great ben cao author, Li Shi-zhen (1518-1593), and the modern architect of public health in China, Wu Lien-te (1879-1960).


A text on the history of Chinese civilization which has more than the usual focus on the history of ideas and events in history of science, medicine and technology is the comprehensive survey by Jacques Gernet, A History of Chinese Civilization, Second Edition, Cambridge University Press, 1996.  The major reference source in the study of history of science in China is the massive series compiled under the leadership of Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, Cambridge University Press, 1954- .  This multi-volume work, still in progress, is organized into two introductory volumes followed by individual volumes devoted to specific scientific fields, e.g., mathematics, meteorology, botany, etc.  Abridgements of some of these volumes, useful as classroom texts, have been prepared by Colin Ronan together with Joseph Needham under the title The Shorter Science and Civilization in China, Cambridge University Press, 1978 – .

Current scholarship on the history of science in China is published in a wide variety of places, apparently depending on the scholarly affiliation of the author.  Some work appears in journals devoted to Asian studies, some in those on history of science and medicine, and some in sources covering particular diciplines, e.g., philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, etc.  One central source for this scholarship is the annual Current Bibliography, published by Isis, the journal of the History of Science Society.  The only journal in English devoted to this field is Chinese Science, published sporadically by the International Society for the History of East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine (ISHEASTM).  The Newsletter for the History of Chinese Science is published by the Institute of History, Tsing Hua University, Hsinchu, Taiwan, and is in Chinese.

International meetings are organized periodically by the International Society for the History of East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine.  The address of the society is ISHEASTM/SIHSTMAO, Instituts d’Extrême-Orient, 52 ru du Cardinal Lemoine, 75231 Paris Cedex 05, France.  A major center for scholarly research in this field is the Needham Research Institute, 8 Sylvester Road, Cambridge CB8 9AF, United Kingdom.  The URL for the world-wide-web site for the Needham Research Institute is http://www.soas.ac.uk/Needham/ (the final backslash is required).  The NRI publishes a periodic newsletter which is free upon application.  An internet bulletin board on East Asian Science can be found at easci@ccat.sas.upenn.edu and is moderated by Nathan Sivin at the University of Pennsylvania.

Day 1

Origins of Chinese Scientific Thought – I:  Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism

Theme: Man and nature

The period known as the Eastern Zhou dynasty (771- ca 453 BC), when the Zhou  moved their capital from the Wei valley to Loyang in the east of China, was when the Chinese world view was beginning to take shape. In the following period of politcal fragmentation, known as the Warring States period (453- ca 221 BC), the major schools of Chinese thought were developed and refined.  Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism and Moism all had their origins in this period.  Buddhism, an important strain of Chinese thought, was a later import from India (1st-3rd c. AD).  The aims of each of these schools of thought was to understand man’s relationship to nature and to other human beings.  Thus, theories of man as a social and moral entity and man as part of the universe were developed.  To understand the background to later refinements of Chinese views of nature, it is important to have in mind the basic assumptions and world-views upon which these later ideas were predicated.  Key concepts include the emphasis on relational aspects of the world, the notion of a parallelism between the earthly realm and a heavenly realm, and many forms of correlational thinking leading to elaborate theories of correspondences.  In addition to general background reading in the cultural history of this period (e.g., Gernet, Chaps. 1-5), a selection from one of the three great Confucian thinkers, Hsün Tzu (fl. 298-238) illustrates a strongly realistic view of nature which attempts to channel the Confucian tradition into less superstitious and more rational directions.  From this selection one can see Hsün’s own rationalist position as well as something of the prevalent ideas of his time against which he was arguing.

Student Reading
  1. “Rationalism and realism in Hsün Tzu”, pp. 112-127 in DeBary, Chan and Watson, Sources of Chinese Tradition, Columbia University Press (1960).
  2. Chapters 4-5 (pp. 19-57) Ronan and Needham, The Shorter Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 1, Cambridge University Press (1978).
Extended Reading
  1. Chapter 1 – 5,   pp. 37 ‑128 in J. Gernet, A History of Chinese Civilization, Second Edition, Cambridge University Press (1996).

Day 2

Origins of Chinese scientific thought – II: The Huai nan tzu

Theme: A description of the Chinese world

The Huai nan tzu is one of the earliest texts which deals in a comprehensive and consistent way to formulate a view of what we would call nature.  It is known in various editions and has been extensively studied and commented on by scholars in China since its composition in about 139 BC.  Unfortunately, it is not available in a complete translation in English even now.  Recently, two scholarly translations of selected chapters have appeared, and we will read the introduction to the Huai nan tzu from Le Blanc’s book.  We will read two different selections from the Huai nan tzu translated by two eminent Western scholars made at different times and for different purposes.  You will note that the style and level of scholarly comment varies greatly between these two selections.

The Huai nan tzu has 21 chapters as follows (from Le Blanc):

  1. Searching out Tao
  2. The Beginning of Reality
  3. The Patterns of Heaven
  4. The Forms of Earth
  5. The Seasonal Regulations
  6. Peering into the Obscure
  7. The Seminal Breath and Spirit
  8. The Fundamental Norm
  9. The Craft of the Ruler
  10. On Erroneous Designations
  11. Placing Customs on a Par
  12. The Responses of Tao
  13. A Compendious Essay
  14. An Explanatory Discourse
  15. On Military Strategy
  16. Discourse on Mountains
  17. Discourse on Forests
  18. In the World of Man
  19. The Necessity of Training
  20. The Grand Reunion
  21. Outline of the Essentials

The first translation by E.R. Hughes in 1960 was made for a general survey of Chinese thought.  It tends to be in familiar vernacular English with rather free paraphrasing.  Still, one gets the general idea of what the work is about.  Hughes gives us a selection from Chapter 1 (which he translates as “The Universe from the Angle of the Tao”), one from Chapter 2 (“The Beginning of the Universe from the Angle of Being and Non-Being”), and one from Chapter 3 (“The Beginning of the Universe from the Angle of Speculative Astronomy”).

The second translation by John S. Major has been published in 1993 and is a detailed translation and critical study of only Chapters 3, 4 and 5.  Comparing Major’s translation of Chapter 3 (which he translates as “The Treatise on the Patterns of Heaven”) with that of Hughes, for the same material, shows the difference between a “free” translation and a “scholarly” one.  In addition to general cosmological notions, this chapter includes detailed description of astronomical observations and theories for each planet

Student Reading

Primary Text: Selections from the Huai nan tzu (ca. 139 BC):

  1. Pp. 287-292 in E.R. Hughes, editor, Chinese Philosophy in Classical Times, Dent/Dutton (1960).
  2. Pp. 62-75 in J.S. Major, Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought, SUNY Press (1993).
Background Reading
  1. Pp. 1-8 in Charles Le Blanc, “Huai Nan Tzu”, Hong Kong University Press (1985).
  2. Chapter XI, “The Universal Order,” in DeBary, Chan and Watson, Sources of Chinese Tradition, Columbia University Press (1961).
Extended Reading
  1. Chapters 7-11 (pp. 78- 215) Ronan and Needham, The Shorter Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 1, Cambridge University Press (1978).

Day 3

Alchemy: The Nei pien of Ge Hong

Theme: Medicine, belief and alchemy

Medicine, alchemy, botany and the like are modern categories which do not alway correspond very well to the patterns of thought, writing and activity in past times.  This holds for both East and West, of course.  The treatise Nei pien by the 4th-century scholar, Ge Hong (Ko Hung), brings together ideas, theories, processes, and aims that we associate with both chemistry and medicine.  It is also rooted in the cosmology of his time.  A major interest of Chinese scholars for many centuries was the search for ways to attain immortality.  Certain beliefs (especially of daoist origin) led to the idea that physical immortality was naturally possible.  The search for understanding of this phenomenon involved many things we class under the rubric of chemistry, alchemy or even medicine.  Because of the search for “elixirs of immortality” there were famous cases of failure with poisonings.  The Ware translation of the Nei pien is the only one widely available but is heavily contaminated throughout with Western categories, assumptions and terminology.  Reading it with an eye on these sorts of problems can be a useful exercise.  The basic ideas, however, give some sense of the medieval Chinese view of this aspect of nature.

Student Reading
  1. Ge Hong (Ko Hung), Nei pien, Chap. 4: “Gold and Cinnabar” and Chap. 11: “The Genie’s Pharmacopoeia,” in J.R. Ware, Alchemy, Medicine and Religion in the China of A.D. 320: The Nei P’ien of Ko Hung, Dover (1981).
Extended Reading
  1. J.Needham and Ho Ping‑yü, “Elixir Poisoning in Medieval China”, Chap. 16 in J. Needham, Clerks and Craftsmen in China and the West, Cambridge University Press (1970).

Day 4

Ben Cao (Pen Ts’ao) Traditions

Theme: Natural history and materia medica in China

Two of the most important texts in Chinese medicine are Huang di nei jing, and Ben cao gang mu (“The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine” and “The Great Pharmacopoeia”).  These texts are still used as the bases for Chinese Traditional Medicine.  The Huang di nei jing is  (probably) a multiauthored text in which a dialog between the mythical Yellow Emperor and one of his chief ministers explors many aspects of medicine: the concept of the body and its function, the detection, causes and treatment of illness, and the way remedies act.   The Ben cao gang mu is a compendium of medication (in the broad sense) which gives the historical background for the drugs, much botanical information, as well as the indications for the uses of the materials.  The literary tradition of such treatises on drugs gives a good idea of thinking about those areas now identified as botany, geology and mineralogy, as well as pharmacology and physiology.

Student Reading

Primary Texts:

  1. Selections on therapy in Huang di nei jing, Book 4, pp. 147‑158 in I. Vieth, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, University of California Press (1966).
  2. Li Shi zhen: Ben cao gang mu (1596), pp. 145‑168 in P.U. Unschuld, Medicine in China: A History of Pharmaceutics, University of California Press (1986).
Background Reading
  1. Pp. 11‑28. In P.U. Unschuld, Medicine in China: A History of Pharmaceutics, University of California Press (1986).
Extended Reading
  1. Chapter 3 ‑ “Unification of the Empire, Confucianism, and the Medicine of Systematic Correspondences” in P.U. Unschuld, Medicine in China: A History of Ideas, University of California Press, 1985.

Day 5

East-West Interactions

Theme: Unity and diversity

Contrary to the view of many Americans, China, and Asia in general, has not been isolated from the rest of the world.  During several periods in Chinese history government policies were expansionistic and embassies to distant foreign lands were dispatched.  Chinese ships ventured widely and trade routes flourished between China and Europe.  These interactions were sometimes interrupted for long periods, but there is much evidence to suggest substantial cultural and technical interchange.  These suggested readings provide a general idea about such East-West interactions (Needham) and give two specific cases of such contact during the Tang (618-ca 900 AD) (Schafer), and the Ming (1368-1644) (Spence).

Student Reading
  1. Chapter 1- “The Glory of T’ang,” in E. A. Schafer: The Golden Peaches of Samarkand; a Study of Tang Exotics, University of California Press (1963).
  2. Chapter 1 – “Shall and Verbiest: To God Through the Stars,” in J. Spence, To Change China: Western Advisers in China, 1620-1960, Penguin (1980).
Extended Reading
  1. Chapter 7 – “Conditions of travel of scientific ideas and techniques between China and Europe,” in J. Needham, Science and Civilization in China, Volume 1, Cambridge University Press (1954).

Day 6

Science in Contemporary China

Theme: Scientism, Marxism, Genetics and Bombs

Beginning in the late 19th century, reformers in China increasingly looked to Western learning to help China solve both internal and external problems.  One aspect of such Western thought was Marxism.  Another was Science.  The two were somewhat related, since Marxism claimed to be a “scientific” approach to the world.  The last century in China has seen a major struggle between traditional views of man, society and nature and some Western views of these things.  Reformers in new Republican China initiated a major debate in the early 1920’s about the “proper” philosophy for China.  Belief in “Science” was a keystone of the reformers position.  The victory of “scientism” in this struggle for the hearts and minds of the Chinese was a major factor in Chinese thought in this century.  The other major influence was the Sinicised version of Marxism as developed by Mao and his followers.  The politics of the Cold War were played out in such sensitive scientific fields such as genetics and atomic physics.  The two suggested readings serve to illustrate the interplay of science, politics and ideology in the 20th-century Chinese context.

Student Reading
  1. Pp. 1‑9; 77‑89, in L. Schneider: Lysenkoism in China: Proceedings of the 1956 Qingdao Genetics Symposium, M.E. Sharpe (1986).
  2. Pp. 1-34 in J. Huxley, Heredity East and West: Lysenkoism and World Science, Henry Schumann (1949).
  3. Chapters 1‑ 4, in J.W. Lewis and Xue Litai, China Builds the Bomb, Stanford University Press (1988).
Extended Reading
  1. Chapter 1 in D.W.Y. Kwok, Scientism in Chinese Thought, 1900‑1950, Yale University Press (1971).

Possible Student Research Topics

  1. The nature of “proof” in Chinese mathematics
  2. History of mechanical calculating aids
  3. Chinese cosmology in art, literature, religion
  4. Chinese conception of time and timekeeping devices
  5. Natural history as art in the East and West
  6. Genetics and crop breeding in early China
  7. East-West exchange of natural products, plants and animals
  8. Historical role of the Nei Ching in Chinese medicine
  9. Comparison of the search for elixirs of immortality, East and West
  10. Western medicine in China in the 20th C.
  11. The role of the physician in Chinese society
  12. Physics, cosmology, and Chinese music
  13. History of ethanol in China
  14. History of navigational theory  practice in China
  15. Epidemic disease in China and societal responses
  16. Medicine, physicians and healing as portrayed in Chinese literature
  17. Forensic science in China
  18. Cross-cultural comparison of some particular concept about nature
  19. Calendrical science in China
  20. Books of historical importance in Chinese medicine