Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period/Mei Wên-ting

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MEI Wên-ting 梅文鼎 (T. 定九, H. 勿庵), Mar. 16, 1633–1721, writer on astronomy and mathematics, was a native of Hsüan-ch'êng, Anhwei. A hsiu-ts'ai of 1647, he became interested in the study of the calendar and calendrical methods—a subject that attracted widespread interest and controversy after the official adoption, in 1645, of the Calendar as revised by the Jesuits (see under Li T'ien-ching). After the efforts of Yang Kuang-hsien [q. v.] to substitute ancient Chinese and Mohammedan calendrical methods for Western ones collapsed in 1669, Western astronomy and mathematics were acknowledged to be more precise and therefore attracted the attention of a number of Chinese students of whom Mei Wên-ting was one. Mei was also interested in studying ancient Chinese calendrical methods for purposes of comparison.

In 1662 he completed his first work on the calendar, entitled 曆學駢枝 Li-hsüeh pien-chih, in 4 chüan, being notes and comments on the calendars of the Yüan and Ming periods, known as Shou-shih li 授時曆 and Ta-t'ung li 大統曆 respectively. Ten years later (1672) he completed a work on algebra, entitled 方程論 Fang-ch'êng-lun, in 6 chüan, which explains methods of elimination in equations. Although Chinese mathematics had by the thirteenth century gone far beyond such elementary manipulations, its development during the Ming dynasty was so arrested that many works of the old masters were practically unknown, even to specialists, and many important earlier works were only gradually re-discovered after the latter half of the eighteenth century (see under Tai Chên and Juan Yüan). Mei came to the conclusion that the merits of westerners in this field had been overrated and that many of the principles of algebra and geometry were foreshadowed in such early Chinese mathematical works as the Chiu-chang suan-shu (see under Hsü Kuang-ch'i). He knew that Chinese mathematics was founded on the manipulation of calculating rods (ch'ou-suan, see under Ch'êng Ta-wei), but made the mistake of using the term, Ch'ou-suan, as the title of a 7 chüan work on Napier's rods, printed about 1682.

In 1689 he went back to Peking where he stayed four years, except for brief sojourns in Tientsin. While in Peking he became acquainted with many scholars, and lived for a time in the home of Li Kuang-ti [q. v.]. He corrected the chapter on the calendar which Wu Jên-ch'ên [q. v.] had written for the draft History of the Ming dynasty, and himself wrote a chapter entitled 明史曆志擬稿 Ming-shih li-chih ni-kao. In 1692 he produced a work on geometry, 幾何補編 Chi-ho pu-pien, in 4 chüan, as a supplement to Euclid's Elements which had been put into Chinese by Matteo Ricci and Hsü Kuang-ch'i [q. v.] under the title Chi-ho yüan-pên, in 1607. In 1695 he became a senior licentiate, and four years later made a trip to Fukien. By this time a bibliography of his works was compiled, listing 62 titles on the calendar and 26 on mathematics—17 of the former and 16 of the latter having previously been printed. This bibliography, entitled 梅勿庵曆算書目 Mei Wu-an li-suan shu-mu, was copied into the Imperial Manuscript Library (see under Chi Yün) and was also printed in the Chih-pu-tsu chai ts'ung-shu (see under Pao T'ing-po). About 1701 Li Kuang-ti printed nine of his works and in the following year submitted one of them, the 曆學疑問 Li-hsüeh i-wên in 3 chüan, to Emperor Shêng-tsu. The Emperor was interested in the book, and when he made his fifth tour of South China in 1705 summoned Mei Wên-ting to an audience at Tê-chou, Shantung. As Mei was then too old to serve at Court his grandson, Mei Ku-ch'êng [q. v.], was later made an official instead. Mei Wên-ting died in 1721 at the advanced age of eighty-nine (sui).

The most comprehensive collection of his works, entitled Mei Wu-an li-suan ch'üan-shu (全書), numbering 29 monographs in 74 chüan, was printed in 1723 by Wei Li-t'ung (see under Wei I-chieh). Another collection, numbering 25 monographs in 62 chüan, edited by Mei Kuch'êng, was printed in 1771 under the title 梅氏叢書輯要 Mei-shih ts'ung-shu chi-yao (also known as 曆算叢書 Li-suan ts'ung-shu). The former was copied into the Imperial Manuscript Library, as was also a work on the Ming calendar, entitled Ta-t'ung-li chih (志), in 8 chüan. His collected prose works, entitled 績學堂文鈔 Chi-hsüeh-t'ang wên-ch'ao, in 6 chüan; and his verse, entitled Chi-hsüeh-t'ang shih-ch'ao (詩鈔), in 4 chüan, were edited by Mei Ku-ch'êng and printed in 1752. Several other works by Mei Wên-ting were printed in various collectanea, among them a 2 chüan supplement to the Li-hsüeh i-wên, which appears in the collectanca, 藝海珠塵 I-hai chu-ch'ên. An unpublished work, whose existence is questionable, was a history of the Chinese calendar, entitled 古今曆法通考 Ku-chin li-fa t'ung-k'ao, in 70 chüan—the first historical treatment of this subject in China.

A brother of Mei Wên-ting, named Mei Wên-mi 梅文鼏 (T. 爾素), wrote a work on astronomy, entitled 中西經星同異考 Chung-hsi ching-hsing t'ung-i k'ao, 1 chüan. Among their contemporaries in the same field were: Wang Hsi-shan 王錫闡 (T. 寅旭, H. 曉庵, 1628–1682), known for a work on the Calendar, entitled 曉庵新法 Hsiao-an hsin-fa; and Hsüeh Fêng-tso 薛鳳祚 (T. 儀甫, d. 1680). The latter collaborated with the Polish missionary, Jean-Nicholas Smogolenski 穆尼閣 (T. 如德, 1611–1656, arrived in China in 1646), in writing twenty works known collectively as 曆學會通 Li-hsüeh hui-t'ung, or T'ien (天)-hsüeh hui-t'ung. Hsüeh and Smogolenski wrote primarily on astronomy and the calendar, but they incidentally introduced spherical trigonometry and logarithms into China.

The actual contributions of Mei Wên-ting to the sciences of mathematics and astronomy are not of great significance, but his labors served to popularize these subjects in China and to revive an interest in older Chinese mathematical discoveries.


[Mei Wên-ting nien-p'u in Chung-suan shih lun-ts'ung (see under Lo Shih-lin); 1/511/8a; 3/417/1a; 4/132/1a; Mikami Yoshio, The Development of Mathematics in China and Japan (1913), pp. 121, 122; Ch'ou-jên chuan (see under Juan Yüan), chüan 37–39; Wylie, Chinese Researches, pp. 160, 189; Ssŭ-k'u, 106/9b, 107/11b; Pfister, Notices, p. 265.]

Fang Chao-ying