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The Founding of Chinas first Polytechnic Institution

Christoph Kaderas (Berlin)

nnovation in the field of science and technology needs an environment receptive to new ideas, one in which the dominant social groups are prepared to consider innovation seriously. Such receptivity may be limited to specific fields of innovationfor example, improvements in weapons or in navigational techniquesor it may take the form of a more generalized attitude of inquiry, as was the case among the industrial middle classes in Britain during the 18th century, who were willing to cultivate new ideas and inventors, the breeders of such ideas. What-ever the psychological basis of inventive genius, there can be no doubt that the existence of socially important groups willing to encourage inventors and to use their ideas has been a crucial factor in the history of technology.

In China an interest in Western technology had begun to develop among a few private citizens and provincial officials in the early 19th century, but their efforts to introduce modern technology received little support from higher authorities. In the opinion of the Manchu court and bureaucracy, Western technology would cost too much and would endager established interests. In the very same period, with respect to foreign investment in China the Qing government became even more conservative and unyielding. However, the interest in Western arms was never entirely lost and began to revive sharply in the early sixtees as the lessons of campaigns against both rebels and foreigners were driven home. On the one hand, since technological change obviously lead to social change, Chinese officials of the early sixtees vehement opposed Western technology. On the other hand, almost every government official conceded the advantage of using Western-type ships and guns. The memorials advocating the manufacture of modern arms emphazized that this was simply a craft, which Chinese could learn.

The foreign settlements of the treaty ports became not only a centre for the transfer of merchandise, but for western knowledge in general. In Shanghai a till then unseen balance of forces in Sino-Western relations permitted the establishment of new schools and training workshops. Between 1857 and 1885, in Shanghai besides the Gezhi Shuyuan 夊潅�贞 (School for Search after Knowledge), the Shanghai Literary and Scientific Society, and the Chinese Scientific Book Dept numerous institutes for the international exchange of knowledge were founded.

During the seventies many literati-officials, of whom Li Hongzhang is but the most prominent figure, maintained that a new era had dawned in China because of the introduction of steamships and railways. Consequently, to the end of the seventies many gentry members regarded the introduction of Western technology as the crucial point for the development of a new China. In this paper I should like to sketch out the beginning of Chinas first polytechnical institution as it is documented in the First Report of the Chinese Polytechnic Institution and Reading Rooms, Shanghai, first published in 1875. It is very interesting to see, that in China the first institution comparable with nowadays technical universities originate in an ambitious project of a few Westerners then staying in Shanghai.

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