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A Cultural History Of Modern Science In China. Benjamin A. Elman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. Pp xiii. 336.

Benjamin Elman’s book is a complex history of interactions between the European West and Imperial China involving the transmission of scientific, medical, and technological knowledge over a period of roughly three-hundred years, lasting through the Qing dynasty. Previous to the sixteenth century, China was ripe with science and technological innovation; however, the history of modern science has been viewed with a Eurocentric account, consequently dismissing and undervaluing China’s role in modern science’s development. Elman explains this phenomenon throughout his book as the “failure narrative”; why did China not develop modern science and technology at the rate of its Western counterparts? Elman believes that cultural and historical factors resulted more often than not in an inconsistent and turbulent transmission of scientific, medical, and technological information from the West to China, resulting in a miscommunication of fundamental theories from both sides. Elman’s book focuses on two groups, Jesuit advisers and Protestant missionaries, whom he recognizes as the primary transmitters of modern scientific knowledge from Europe to China prior to the start of the twentieth century. In the early seventeenth century, Jesuits made their way to China and collaborated with literati and the imperial court with their knowledge of astronomy and cartography, helping with the Ming calendar crisis (p.18), and Matteo Ricci showing the Chinese how to utilize latitude and longitude, as well as introducing them to new geographical names of places on the map and the accurate location of Europe (p. 30). Due in part to the “Rites Controversy” and consequently the decline of the Jesuits, coupled with the banning of missionary work in China by the Kangxi emperor, a breakdown in communication ensued for many years. Elman points out that this was “not due to a lack of Chinese interest” (p. 2). Following the failure of the Macartney mission of 1793 to open China to trade, Britain gained advantageous trade rights through defeating China in the First Opium War of 1839-42 (p. 101). A limited acceptance of foreign missionaries in China was one of the consequences of war, and the translations and publications of Protestant missionaries played a significant role in spreading Western scientific and technological developments within China, perhaps most notably in medicine, where missionary doctor Benjamin Hobson produced numerous influential translations of Western medical findings in the mid-nineteenth century (p. 105). However, there were impeding misunderstandings between the two sides. Religious (with missionaries as Aristotelians, translations of Newton’s Principia was delayed for years) and cultural (Fryer blaming the Chinese for various inadequacies in terminology translations) aspects proved ineffective in bridging gaps of difference. In short, “like the Jesuits before them, the Protestants saw science as a way to spread Western knowledge and Christianity”, explains Elman, not yet able to fully separate science and religion. A Cultural History of Modern Science in China is the second of a two-book project, the first being On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550-1900, published the year before in 2005. Benjamin Elman is Professor of East Asian Studies and History at Princeton University; he is currently serving as the Director of the Princeton Program in East Asian Studies. He received his Ph.D. in oriental studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 1980. He previously worked at UCLA for fifteen years before coming to Princeton in 2002. His research focuses include Chinese intellectual and cultural history, 1000-1900; history of science in China, 1600-1930; history of education in late imperial China and Sino-Japanese cultural history, 1600-1850. All of these fields of research were focal points of A Cultural History, no doubt building upon previous research efforts from Elman. For the purposes of class lecture and Science and Technology in World History, Elman’s book is familiar because of significant European names and events rather than the complex history of science within China, as this material is yet to come for class readings. People such as Brahe, Newton, Darwin, Descartes, Ricci, Hobson, Euclid, Copernicus, and Cook are all familiar names to class lecture and readings. The advent of collaboration between West and East, and lack thereof, is a central theme in Elman’s book and also one central to recent class discussions. However, Chinese geography, individuals, and cultural themes are unfamiliar – to this point in the semester – to class, although Elman does a good job of writing clearly and concisely regarding modern Chinese history for those unfamiliar. Some of the Eastern themes are new to class but others, such as the Protestant Reformation, collaboration, and mechanical application are concurrent with class. Elman uses primary sources in his book. These include the Gezhi shuyuan keyi, 1886-1893, Gezhi qimeng, Liuhe congtan, and various accounts from John Fryer, among other sources. Elman complements these primary sources with numerous secondary sources to support his research. Journals like the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies and Journal of Asian Studies are prevalent throughout the book. He also references research he has done in some of his previous books. Refreshingly, Elman also references books familiar to class – Science and Technology in World History, and Margaret Jacob’s Making of the Industrial West. A large majority of the secondary sources Elman uses were published sometime in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Although some may come across as outdated purely from the published date, the themes in his book are foreign in nature and somewhat specialized and therefore possibly have not been revised for a further contemporary vantage point. Since this effort and On Their Own Terms are only several years removed from their published dates, one would believe a historian of Elman’s caliber would use the most relevant source material open to his disposal. Overall, A Cultural History does an excellent job of breaking down communication and deficiencies in transmission of scientific knowledge between West and East. Whereas Elman’s account certainly expands the “failure narrative” to include European transmitters such as the Jesuits and the Protestants, it does not fundamentally debunk this narrative or provide a contrasting image of Chinese knowledge traveling from East to West. However, Elman’s effort does cut into the limitations of what is considered accurate history of modern science; it does not fully offset the Eurocentric account of that history.

Chris Sector
History 453
8 April 2013

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