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A Comparative Research on Technology Diffusion in China and in the West

Iwo Amelung (Technical University Berlin)

In 1886 the Shanghai Polytechnic initiated a contest of essays on topics related to science and general progress in China. Under the direction of the reformer-journalist Wang Tao this contest was probably the most successful undertaking of the various efforts to spread knowledge on the Western Sciences in China of this somehow ill-fated institution. A surprisingly large number of men from all over China participated in the contest. The essays were evaluated by leading reform-oriented bureaucrats of the day and the best ones were published.

Although in the first place focussed on scientific and technological problems other topics of political and administrative relevance were addressed as well. It clearly was one of the objectives of the iniatiators of the contest to promote a scientific approach in dealing with practical and administrative problems. A close examination of these price-winning essays thus provides fascinating insights into the process of the dissemination and reception of Western sciences and Western ideas in late 19th century China.

Given the widespread occurrence of natural and man-made disasters in late imperial China and the pityful state of famine relief especially in comparision to the very efficient relief operations of the 18th century, it is not surprising that in 1887 and again in 1889 disaster-prevention and disaster-relief were chosen as subjects for the essay contest. Even a cursory reading of the published essays reveals that these proposals represent a major departure from the methods of dealing with disaster-prevention in traditional China. Traditional writings on disaster-prevention and disaster-relief were very much handbooks on famine administration and/or part of the "moral economy" approach of the Qing empire. The price winning essays however may be viewed as a step towards "political economy" thus dealing with problems more or less neglected or not being included in the framework of disaster- prevention and disaster-relief up to this time.

In this paper I will analyse the price-winning essays of these two contest and try to answer the following questions:
1. How do the measures proposed in the essays relate to traditional models of disaster prevention and disaster-relief in China?
2. To which extent were the proposed measures influenced by Western concepts and what sources did the authors use?
3. Were these proposals realistic or were they even put into practise in late Imperial times?

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