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TU Berlin

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Natural history in the scientific contact between China and Europe

Fa-ti Fan (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

This paper examines a prominent but little-studied aspect of the scientific contact between China and Europe in the 19th century. It also argues for a new approach to the study of the transmission of western science and technology to China. Much has been written about the introduction of western mathematics, astronomy, and machinery into China; little is known, however, about European research into China's natural history and the Chinese involvement in this scientific enterprise. Drawing on new archival material, this paper illustrates how European naturalists in China carried out their research. It focuses on the ways in which they utilized the established political and social institutions such as the consular services and commercial relationships to facilitate their research. This paper also argues that to better understand the scientific encounter between China and Europe, we should "reach down" to material culture and practical knowledge. In natural history, for example, one cannot properly understand the process of scientific exchange without taking into consideration of gardens, specimens, and folklore on natural history. The current literature on the transmission of western science and technology in China has been focused mostly on government-involved enterprises and, in the case of science, a number of major thinkers. This limited perspective not only excludes some important and extensive sciences like natural history, but also distorts the picture of the scientific encounter between China and Europe in the 19th century.

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