This Saturday I joined the Science March in Munich to show support for scientific research and decision-making based scientific evidence. As a Sinologist I am no scientist in the strictest sense, but that is partly just a language problem: in German “sciences of spirit” (Geisteswissenschaften), i.e. Humanities, are a legitimate subset of sciences alongside “natural sciences”, “social sciences”, “economic sciences” or “legal sciences”.
Apart from a sense of belonging between me and sciences that the German language creates, I actually believe that scholars in the humanities should have some knowledge of basic scientific principles. Even though I focus on Chinese literature now, I was first attracted to Chinese Studies, because un Germany it forms part of Cultural Studies and as such combines such diverse fields of research as Literature, History, Philosophy and many more. Though I mostly read novels now, I still have frequent contact with other areas of Chinese studies: religious and philosophical thought, religious iconography, the technicalities of book printing and distribution, or literacy levels in society, to name just a few.
People are at the center of all these fields, and just like people today, they did not exist in a bubble of pure and disinterested “culture”, but were in a world shaped by scientific principles. Those in turn heavily influenced culture and arts, social structures and policies. In fact, most popular uprisings in Chinese history can be traced back to climatic and geological changes that let do crop failures. Therefore, effective flood control and the storage of grain became standard policies for famine prevention. Governments were supposed to provide people with the means to provide for themselves. The great tyrants of Chinese history as presented in historiography, philosophical treatises and popular literature, were therefore not only charged with excessive cruelty and moral transgression, but also with neglected towards their people. 民不聊生, “the people had no way to make a living” is an idiom 成語 from the Shiji 史記 (94 BCE) that found its way into many later texts.
But not every encounter with science is a life and death situation. On a smaller scale, it might be interesting to explore the natural phenomena behind popular religion and its iconography. One example might be the light observed on ships towards the end of storms at sea: This phenomenon is named St-Elmo’s-fire, after a Christian saint, in Western languages, but used to be called Mazu’s fire 媽祖火 (after the sea goddess), by Chinese sailors. As someone studying popular cults, I do not need to know the exact science behind this phenomenon, but it helps to know that I’m dealing with something that actually exists in the real world.
For Chinese literature, often a good knowledge of China’s geography is really helpful. Even fiction is usually set in places that actually exists and understanding the space often helps understanding the story. This is still true even today. China is also a massive and diverse country, and it makes all the difference to the feeling of a scene, if we are in humid marshland, on snowy forests or on sandy beaches. How people travel is also affected by this: In the Jiangnan 江南 region around Nanjing 南京 and Suzhou 蘇州 you travel by boat; on the plains and in the forests you might ride or walk; and if you want to cross mountains you do it during the day and in groups, otherwise you might fall prey to tigers, as people do regularly in Shuihu zhuan 水滸傳 (Water Margin). These are recurrent motifs in Chinese literature, and they are not purely symbolic, but very much a result of nature shaping culture.
A basic grasp for science and technology is also necessary to understand the views and discussions of leading Chinese thinkers. For reformers at the end of the 20th c. who saw China lose to Western colonizers in the Opium Wars (1839-1842, 1856-1869), technological advancement and education were the only way to bring the nation forward. Their world view already was global: many of them studied or visited (or went into exile) abroad, in nearby Japan and Southeast Asia, but also in North America or Europe. They wanted to abolish the examination system that required prospective officials to be knowledgable in Confucian morals instead of modern politics. The wanted to establish and strengthen high-schools and universities. They also sought to teach scientific principles to the masses through science fiction novels, which lead to a first wave of Chinese science fiction around the year 1900. These reformers were not immediately successful, but they certainly helped push China forward. Also, they did not give up when faced with an inflexible state apparatus still living in the past.
I personally certainly don’t know as much science (other than “sciences of the spirit” of course) as I’d like to, but China’s scientific knowledge has already somewhat been studied in the West, especially in the book series Science and Civilization in China (1954-2015) that was initiated and largely edited by Jospeh Needham (1900-1995) and so far comprises 27 books in 7 volumes. While this book is a good start, there is definitely still room for further research into the history of science and technology in China and the interplay of technological progress and society. Let’s get to it!
Joseph Needham: Sience and Civilization in China in 7 volumes, check it out on Wikipedia.