On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550-1900

By Benjamin A. Elman | Go to book overview

6
Evidential Research and the
Restoration of Ancient Learning

Chapter 1 described how literati in imperial China collected, studied, and classified antiquities using the epistemology for investigating things and extending knowledge. Ming scholars and printers amply recorded their passion for things, artifacts, utensils, and odd phenomena in encyclopedic collections that stressed the investigation of things, such as the fifteenth century Key Issues in the Investigation of Antiquities, which discussed items retrieved from early Ming naval expeditions.

Here we emphasize how and why eighteenth-century Chinese scholars restored ancient medical and mathematical classics. They remind us of earlier European scholars who in the twelfth century translated ancient Creek and medieval Arabic mathematical and medical texts into Latin and helped forge the Scholastic synthesis that the Jesuits introduced in China as their natural philosophy. Even as mid-Qing literati recovered their classical mathematics and medicine, Europeans went beyond their ancient masters in the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, Europeans in China showed little patience with Chinese efforts to restore the past, forgetting their own debt to Renaissance schoolmen.1

In Chapter 8, we will see that beginning in the nineteenth century Chinese literati-physicians started to take seriously the challenges presented by Western medicine. In this chapter we therefore prepare the ground for understanding that confrontation. When traditional Chinese and modern Western medicine confronted each other after 1850, Chinese medicine had not remained a monolithic tradition. Its intellectual and therapeutic developments increasingly focused on “heat factor” illnesses as a new category of disease, which could no longer be subsumed as a category under perennial “cold factor” illnesses.

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