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TU Berlin

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The Past and Present of Chinese Sciences in the late 19th century - Historiography of Science in China as reflected in the Competition Essays of the Gezhi shuyuan

Martina Siebert (FU Berlin)

The competition essays (keyi) of the Shanghai Polytechnic Institution and Reading Room (Gezhi shuyuan) stood in a tradition of essays on a given theme conducted under the supervision of a private school or the state. In the context of the Gezhi shuyuan some new aspects come into play: the subjects are concerned either with acute problems of the time or with scientific and technical knowledge. Within the area of the latter, some of the questions offered the possibility of showing one's knowledge in the modern Western sciences, while others - which are more interesting to us - focussed on a comparison of Chinese and Western sciences, e.g. questions on land surveying and cartographic principles or the discussion of Yang zis refutation of the gaitian-theory. Due to the great interest in taking part in the competitions of the Gezhi shuyuan, Xiong Yuezhi took the keyi as an indicator for the broad spreading of Western scientific knowledge at the end of the 19th century. However, I think the essays can be read as proof of something else: Within the process of adapting the new and foreign sciences of the West, Chinese literati (and this is what they still where at the time) developed an awareness of autochthonous scientific achievements in the course of their own history. The theory of the "Chinese origin of Western science" (xixue zhongyuan) is certainly one ingredient that shaped thinking on that subject. But a close reading of the published competion essays shows that this theory was not the main case in point. Rather many literati were convinced that it was possible to prove that similar mathematical procedures, surveying techniques or medical principles had existed in the Chinese past, but waned or were forgotten in the course of the centuries. Thus, these essays anticipate Needham's monumental project to dig up and filter out "scientific" achievements that could compete with those of the West from Chinese historical sources. My paper will focus on the structure of their argumentation in favour of the existence and historical development of "Science" in China.

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