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Benjamin A. Elman

Abstract

Arguably, by 1600 Europe was ahead of China in producing basic machines such as clocks, screws, levers, and pulleys that would be applied increasingly to the mechanization of agricultural and industrial production. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, Europeans still sought the technological secrets for silk production, textile weaving, porcelain making, and large scale tea production from the Chinese. Chinese literati in turn, before 1800, borrowed new algebraic notations (of Hindu-Arabic origins), Tychonic cosmology, Euclidean geometry, spherical trigonometry, and arithmetic and trigonometric logarithms from Europe. Until 1990, Chinese elites and their Manchu rulers interpreted the transition in early modern Europe—from new forms of scientific knowledge to new modes of industrial power—on their own terms. Each side made a virtue out of the mutually contested accommodation project, and each converted the other's forms of natural studies into acceptable local conventions of knowledge. The Ming and Qing imperial court induced Jesuit calendrical, military, and land mensuration experts to work as imperial minions in the government bureaucracy to augment each dynasty's own project of political and cultural control. Consequently, it would be a historiographical mistake to underestimate Chinese efforts to master on their own terms the Western learning of the Jesuits in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.

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Benjamin A. Elman

Scholars often contend that civil examinations were what made imperial China a political meritocracy. They point to the examination system to show that the selection process served more as a common training program for literati than as a gate-keeper to keep non-elites out. Despite the symbiotic relations between the court and its literati, the emperor played the final card in the selection process. The asymmetrical relations between the throne and its elites nevertheless empowered elites to seek upward mobility as scholar-officials through the system. But true social mobility, peasants becoming officials, was never the goal of state policy in late imperial China; a modest level of social circulation was an unexpected consequence of the meritocratic civil service. Moreover, the merit-based bureaucracy never broke free of its dependence on an authoritarian imperial system. A modern political system might be more compatible with meritocracy, however. One of the unintended consequences of the civil examinations was creation of classically literate men (and women), who used their linguistic talents for a variety of non-official purposes, from literati physicians to local pettifoggers, from fiction-writers to examination essay teachers, from Buddhist and Daoist monks to mothers and daughters. If there was much social mobility, i.e., the opportunity for members of the lower classes to rise in the social hierarchy, it was likely here. Rather than “social mobility,” this phenomenon might be better described as a healthy “circulation” of lower and upper elites when compared to aristocratic Europe and Japan.

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Benjamin A. Elman

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Benjamin A. Elman

Abstract

This article is about the contested nature of "science" in "modern" China. The struggle over the meaning and significance of the specific types of natural studies brought by Protestants (1842-1895) occurred in a historical context in which natural studies in late imperial China were until 1900 part of a nativist imperial and literati project to master and control Western views on what constituted legitimate natural knowledge. After the industrial revolution in Europe, a weakened Qing government and its increasingly concerned Han Chinese and Manchu elites turned to "Western" models of science, medicine, and technology, which were disguised under the traditional terminology for natural studies. In the aftermath of the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, Chinese reformers, radicals, and revolutionaries turned to Japanese and Western science as an intellectual weapon to destroy the perceived backwardness of China. Until 1900, the Chinese had interpreted the transition from "Chinese science" to modern, universal scientific knowledge - and its new modes of industrial power - on their own terms. After 1900, the teleology of a universal and progressive "science" first invented in Europe replaced the Chinese notion that Western natural studies had their origins in ancient China, but this development was also challenged in the aftermath of World War One during the 1923 debate over "Science and the Philosophy of Life."

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Edited by Benjamin A. Elman

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Benjamin A. Elman

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Edited by Benjamin A. Elman

The authors consider new views of the classical versus vernacular dichotomy that are especially central to the new historiography of China and East Asian languages. Based on recent debates initiated by Sheldon Pollock’s findings for South Asia, we examine alternative frameworks for understanding East Asian languages between 1000 and 1919. Using new sources, making new connections, and re-examining old assumptions, we have asked whether and why East and SE Asian languages (e.g., Chinese, Manchu, Mongolian, Jurchen, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese) should be analysed in light of a Eurocentric dichotomy of Latin versus vernaculars. This discussion has encouraged us to explore whether European modernity is an appropriate standard at all for East Asia. Individually and collectively, we have sought to establish linkages between societies without making a priori assumptions about the countries’ internal structures or the genealogy of their connections.
Contributors include: Benjamin Elman; Peter Kornicki; John Phan; Wei Shang; Haruo Shirane; Mårten Söderblom Saarela; Daniel Trambaiolo; Atsuko Ueda; Sixiang Wang.