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"The Moderns become more precise than the Ancients" - The Precision of Calendars and Chinese Cosmology

Minghui Hu (History, UCLA)

The demand to make a more precise calendar drove "mathematical and astronomical literati" to observe their sky carefully and to produce astronomical tables in detail. Around the seventeenth century, the Jesuit missionaries brought China more precise instruments and cosmological models, and the Manchu state employed them, in lieu of Muslim or Chinese specialists, to handle the imperial calendar. Conflicts and compromises followed. In this process, the demand for the precision of the court calendar gave birth to a new Chinese cosmos in Confucian academies. As historian of science Norton Wise suggests, the demand for precision extends control over nature as well as society. Quantification, instead of mathematization of nature, "derived from the need of administrators for reliable information about particular aspects of the world in order to be able to make reasonable plans: availability of human and material resources, cost estimates, tax revenues, life and annuity tables, maps, location of ships, etc." Quantification on the Chinese soil provides an interesting parallel and contrast. This essay attempts to describe a history of evolving demand for precision in the imperial calendar, and how this demand pulled out more and more elements from various traditions to build a Chinese cosmos by the end of the eighteenth century.

History of precision of calendars begins with a brief excursus on the decline of Chinese cosmology in thirteenth century China, the Jesuit and the Chinese Muslim astronomers in the early Manchu court, and the post-Jesuit astronomy in a consolidated and "prosperous" Manchu empire throughout the eighteenth century. The Demand for precision ceased to be a serious concern around 1850. The last calendrical reform occurred in 1834 to recalculate the epoch in order to maintain the precision of calendar to an acceptable level. By then the Manchu state stumbled through massive peasant revolts and aggressive British imperialism. However, the history of Chinese cosmology grew from this history of precision. A constant movement of mathematical and astronomical literati from court to lower Yangzi academies initiated and continued to assemble a Chinese cosmos throughout the history of precision. A domestic synthesis was undergoing its metamorphosis.

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