Popular Science Monthly/Volume 79/December 1911/Science Among the Chinese I

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I. Introduction

(a) Chinese Science a Case of Arrested Development.—In scientific knowledge, as in nearly everything else, China presents a case of arrested development. Chinese conceptions regarding the body of man, the materials of the earth's crust, the surface forms of our globe, of its origin and process of formation, of the vast celestial universe through which it whirls, of the nature and origin of matter and of cosmogony in general, are the conceptions characteristic of western peoples before and during the middle ages. Not only so, but they are the same as were held by her own sages centuries before that period; in many cases they express the best thought of China's deep thinkers in the days of Pythagoras and perhaps prior to his time, while in others they give us the cream of Chinese philosophy as developed during the early days of the glorious Sung dynasty (A.D. 1020—1120). While of course those who have within the last few decades read the books of the west have modified their previous notions, the number of such as compared with the general people, though rapidly increasing, is still small and the purely Chinese conceptions of anatomy, physiology and medicine still consist of interacting functions of hypothetical organs, the intermixings of various vital fluids, and the subtle influence of capricious humors; chemistry is still alchemy; geography, mere guesswork; geology, vague mythology; astronomy, astrology; and exact physical science, nil. Science in China has made few advances during the last few centuries and is now but slowly responding to a new impulse from abroad in all its departments.

(b) Their Inventions, Arts, Engineering, not Evidence of Scientific Attainment.—To be sure, several striking inventions are probably to the credit of the Chinese—gunpowder, printing, mariner's compass, paper, etc., but the original crude forms or methods were not improved. Their use among the Chinese apparently had no direct effect in promoting their development among western peoples, and in nearly every case the invention was founded on the specific properties of matter discoverable directly and did not involve any scientific concept of principle established and tested by observation. It would seem too that much of the Chinese servile imitation in mechanics, metallurgy and other arts is due to ignorance of the real nature of the materials they use, and yet it is not for long that such things have been intimately known to ourselves of the west. The Chinese have made little progress in investigating the principles of mechanics, but have, however, practically understood most of the common mechanical advantages involved in various simple appliances. The lever, wheel and axle, cog wheels, wedge and rack and pinion, have long been known, but the screw is not frequent. In many of their contrivances there is an excessive expenditure of human strength; in many the object is merely to give a direction to this strength, not to decrease it, as in their manner of carrying a heavy stone, instead of constructing a simple truck that would transport it with half the expense of human power; yet the use of a truck would require something more in the way of good roads than most parts of China can boast of, and again human labor is almost the cheapest thing in China.

While it is true that the manufactures of silk, of porcelain and of lacquered-ware were original with the Chinese, and that in none of these have foreigners yet "succeeded in fully equalling the native product, and while the French looms are practically the same as those in Canton, except that steam power takes the place of human feet, it is also true that the mechanical arts and implements of the Chinese have a simplicity which suggests that the faculty of invention died with the initiator.

Three accomplishments in Chinese engineering, however, challenge the rest of the world to show similar feats in any remote time. The Great Wall, traversing high mountains and large rivers, built two hundred years before the Christian era, still stands as the most extensive monument of antiquity to attest the high engineering skill and kingly energy of that day. Of like herculean proportions and for a more useful purpose is the Grand Canal which up to the date of its construction was the greatest public commercial work ever undertaken. The Great Sea Wall along the north shore of Hangchow Bay, judged in the light of the tremendous difficulties involved in its construction merits even greater praise for native energy and skill.[1] And yet the very present condition of the Grand Canal, which has doubtless been its condition for a century or more, is an eloquent witness to arrested development due to failure to apply hydraulic improvements.

While giving due credit for what they have done, we feel justified in concluding that the arts and the inventions of the Chinese do not, after all, witness to any degree of scientific attainment among them. Many of the later modern inventions of western people are the result of applied science, which certainly was not the case with these early inventions of the Chinese. There seems, however, to be room for a difference of opinion even among authorities. In 1839 G. T. Lay asserted in writing about Chinese musical instruments:

It has been declared that the Chinese have no science, but of a surety, if we advance in the free and scholar-like spirit of antiquarian research, we shall be obliged to set our feet upon the head of this assertion at every step in our progress.

And yet in his authoritative work, Williams closes his rather compendious account of "Science among the Chinese" with this summary:

On the whole it may be said that in all departments of learning the Chinese are unscientific; and that while they have collected a great variety of facts, invented many arts, and brought a few to a high degree of excellence, they have never pursued a single subject in a way calculated to lead them to a right understanding of it, or reached a proper classification of the information they possessed relating to it.

It may be of interest then to notice some of the leading ideas in what we may call "Chinese science" and to inquire into the causes of China's scientific backwardness as compared with modern western knowledge. In doing this we shall be largely indebted to Williams's "Middle Kingdom" for many of our facts and to Martin's "Lore of Cathay" for suggestive lines of thought.


II. The Content of "Chinese Science"

1. Anatomy.—Wylie has noted fifty-nine Chinese treaties in medicine and physiology (some of them belonging to the earliest days), many of which contain good sense and sound advice amid the strangest theories. Harland has lucidly and in detail described the Chinese ideas (apart from the gradually spreading foreign teaching) concerning the organization of the body and the functions of the chief viscera—false ideas which a very little dissection, a prohibited practise, would have banished. We shall not pause to consider these, but merely note that the most curious is perhaps their idea of the liver, which they place on the right side of the body.

It has seven lobes; the soul resides in it; and schemes emanate from it; the gall-bladder is below and projects upward into it, and when the person is angry it ascends; courage dwells in it; hence the Chinese sometimes procure the gall-bladder of tigers or bears, and even of men, especially notorious bandits executed for their daring crimes, and drink the bile, with the belief that it will impart courage.

Theories are numerous to account for the nourishment of the body and the functions of the viscera, and upon their harmonious connection with each other and the five metals, colors, tastes and planets is founded the well-being of the system, the whole intimately connected with the all-pervading functions of the yin and yang—those universal solvents in Chinese philosophy.

2. Materia Medica, Botany and Zoology.—The advance made by the Chinese themselves in the study of natural history is shown by the contents of the two chief works—"Pun Tsao," or "Herbal," compiled by Li Shi Chin after thirty years spent in collecting information, published about 1590 (40 octavo volumes—52 chapters), and "Chili Wall Ming-shih Tu-kao," or "Researches into the Names and Virtues of Plants," 60 volumes with plates, some of them good drawings, published in 1848.

The author of the first of these treatises was the first and last purely native critical writer on natural science. He consulted some eight hundred previous authors and selected fifteen hundred and eighteen prescriptions, to which he added three hundred and seventy-four new ones, arranging the whole in what for his day was a scientific manner.

After two introductory chapters on the practise of medicine and an index to the recipes contained in the work, which fills the first seven volumes, there are two chapters (filling three and a half volumes), giving a list of medicines for the cure of all diseases, and this with an essay on the pulse in the final volume constitutes the therapeutic section of the treatise. The remaining forty-eight chapters cover, after the fashion of the author, the whole range of natural objects—treating of inorganic substances under "water" and "fire" and minerals, as earth, metals, gems and stones, throwing into a polyglot chapter what could not be included in the preceding sections; the vegetable kingdom is presented under the five divisions—herbs, grains, vegetables, fruits and trees; these again into families containing members which have no real relationship to each other, the lowest term sometimes being a genus, a species, or even a variety, as Linnæus used these terms.

In the classification of the minerals, etc., the influence of the language itself is shown, for, as pointed out by Williams, the division is exactly that of the seven radicals which stand for fire, water, earth, metals, gems, stones and salts, under which the names of inorganic substances were classified in the imperial dictionary. The same thing is true for other parts of the treatise.

In classifying herbs, the habitat is taken as the criterion, an "herb" denoting whatever is not eaten or used in the arts or which does not attain to the magnitude of a tree.

The zoological grouping is as crude and unscientific as that of plants, though the sixteen zoological characters in the language are not so far astray from being true types of classes as the eleven botanical ones, and these groups, though containing many anomalies, are still sufficiently natural to teach those who write the language something of the world around them.

The properties of the objects spoken of are discussed in a very methodical manner, so that a student can immediately turn to a plant or mineral and ascertain its virtues.

3. Geography.—A few sentences from Williams's "Middle Kingdom" will show the state of geographical knowledge among the Chinese prior to western influence.

Their geographical knowledge is ridiculous. Maps of their own territories are tolerably good, being originally drawn from actual surveys made by nine of the Jesuits, between 1708 and 1718, and since that time have been filled up and changed to conform to alterations and divisions. Before the day of western influence, and even long after, to a great extent until the present decade, in fact, the Chinese did not teach geography in their schools, even of their own empire. The common people have no knowledge, therefore, of the form and divisions of the globe, and the size and position of the kingdoms of the earth. Their common maps delineate them very erroneously, scattering islands, kingdoms and continents, as they have heard of their existence at haphazard and in various corners beyond the frontiers. . . . Their notions of the earth 's inhabitants are equally whimsical. . . . Charts for the guidance of the navigator, or instruments to aid him in determining his position at sea, the Chinese are nearly or quite destitute of; they have retrograded rather than progressed in navigation, if one judges from the accounts of their former trade with ports in the Persian Gulf, on the Malabar coast, and in the Archipelago.

Of course in the modern schools now under way throughout the empire correct geographical notions are being taught; but such schools have been so few up till 1900 and the total number of modern students so small even since then, that the notions of the common people are still subject to Williams's characterization. To what extent even the supposedly more intelligent are still "at sea" in such matters is well shown by two recent cases, which illustrate also some effects of presentday scientific ideas upon Chinese minds educated according to the methods which have prevailed in China for ages.

At the Shansi University, in discussing the search for the North Pole, a holder of the Chinese first degree seriously suggested that when the ship had proceeded as far north as possible, the pole might be seen with the aid of a telescope. Another man thought of the same expedient, but considered that the curvature of the earth would render it impossible, and suggested that ascending in a balloon might afford the opportunity to use the telescope to see the pole. Still another man thought it would be simpler first to moderate the climate of the polar regions by planting trees along the way there, and by diverting the gulf stream in that direction to render possible a closer approach to the Pole.

Another graduate of the ancient system in Canton offered the following as an explanation of why he thought it was hotter in Peking than in Canton:


"At Peking the earth is thicker than at Canton, and so a person living on top of the earth is nearer the sun at Peking than at Canton and hence gets more heat, and we know that the earth is thicker at Peking than at Canton because in Peking you have to dig many tens of feet to get water, whereas in Canton you can readily strike water at ten to twenty feet."

4. Astronomy—Astrology.—The precise attainments of the ancient Chinese in astronomy are not easily understood from the scanty records. To the burning of all native scientific books, except those on agriculture, medicine and astrology, by imperial order in 221 b.c., the Chinese attribute the loss of a mass of astronomical learning. Wylie furnishes a list of 925 solar and 574 lunar eclipses, extracted from Chinese works, observed between 2150 b.c., and A.D. 1785. The earliest known record of an eclipse occurs, though imperfectly, in the ancient "Shu-King," or "Book of History." Retrospective calculation shows that it may have occurred as early as the autumn of 2158 B.C. Simple methods for predicting solar eclipses seem to have been in use in China before 2000 b.c., but this eclipse of 2158 b.c., is said to have appeared unexpectedly and to have so disturbed the emperor that he at once executed the two court astronomers for failing to predict it!

In the Chinese canonical books thirty-eight solar eclipses are mentioned, eighteen of which agree with modern lists, but the others seem in error in either month or year, though the day is-always correct. This suggests that the records are reliable and that the non-agreement is probably due to an imperfect knowledge of the ancient calendar, particularly with reference to intercalation and the beginning of the year, which are probably irregular. Intercalations were probably introduced by Yao about 2637 B.C., but it is hardly likely that they have continued without variation to this day. Romish missionaries rectified the calendar about 1700 and have aided in its preparation until recently. A cycle of sixty years was adopted in very early times, but there is no record of when or why this number was selected. The Chinese year is lunar, but its commencement is regulated by the sun. New Year falls on the first new moon after the sun enters Aquarius, which makes it come not before January 21 nor after February 19.

Comets, whose brilliancy enabled them to be seen, have been carefully noted by the Chinese, because their course among the stars is thought to determine their influence as portents. A list of 373 comets mentioned in Chinese records has been published, extending from 611 B.C. to a.d 1621. The general value of these records is thought to entitle them to credence.

While these observations of eclipses and comets were made for astrological and state purposes, they are not without value to European astronomers and chronologists. It would not be entirely safe to judge of the astronomical attainments of the Chinese from what has come down to our day, or by present popular notions. The knowledge contained in their own scientific books has not been taught, and in general the astronomical ideas of the Chinese are vague and inaccurate and serve as the basis of superstitious astrology rather than as an agency of enlightenment among the people. The writer vividly recalls his experience during a recent lunar eclipse, when almost the entire population of one of the largest cities on the Yangtsze turned out, each one carrying something with which to make a noise, kettles, pans, sticks, drums, gongs, fire-crackers, etc., to aid in frightening away the dragon of the sky from his hideous feast. And even the crew of a Chinese man-of-war, foreign built and armed with Krupp guns, will by orders published in The Peking Gazette turn out with drums, iron pans, etc., to make a din to "save the moon.'

Chinese astronomers distinguished five planets, or "moving stars," and named them according to their ideas of elementary substances: Venus, Golden; Jupiter, Wooden; Mercury, Water; Mars, Fire; Saturn, Soil. To them the galaxy was The Heavenly River, a close analogy to our term, The Milky Way. It is interesting to note how descriptive the Chinese terms are as applied in translations of modern astronomical ideas—a nebula is a "star-mist"; asteroids are "small moving stars "; the spectroscope is the "shooting shadow-lamp"; and spectrum analysis is "the shooting-shadow-difference-telling-light-method."

5. Mathematics.—The arithmetical notation of the Chinese is based on the decimal principle, but as their figures are not changed in value by position, it is difficult to write out clearly the several steps in solving a problem. Arithmetical calculations are performed with a "counting board," an arrangement of balls on wires, which can, however, only serve as an index for the progress and result of a calculation done in the head, so that if an error is made, the whole operation must be done, again.

The study of arithmetic has attracted attention among the Chinese from early times, and notices found in historical works indicate some treaties extant even in the Han dynasty (206 b.c-a.d. 214), followed by a great number of general and particular works down to the Sung Dynasty (1020-1120 A.D.). The Hindu processes in algebra were known to Chinese mathematicians, but though studied even after intercourse between the countries had ceased, these branches made slow progress down to the end of the Ming Dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644).

The mathematical writings of the early Romist missionaries greatly improved the mathematical texts available in Chinese, and since foreigners have begun to introduce western science, the development has been rapid. But aside from the graduates from modern schools, the knowledge of mathematics even among the learned men of China is very small, and the common people study it only as far as their business requires, and that is exceedingly little. The cumbersome notation and the little aid which such studies gave in the ancient system of literary examinations (only abolished in 1905) doubtless discouraged the pursuit of what they seem to have no taste for as a people. Chinese authors acknowledge the superiority of western mathematicians, and generally ascribe their advance in the exact sciences to this power.

6. Action and Reaction of Elements.—Williams in his "Middle Kingdom" gives a table showing the leading "elementary" correspondencies in the curious speculations used by Chinese philosophers to account for any possible contingency in the changes of the visible universe, which in the hands of geomancers and fortune-tellers are the bases of considerable imposition on the people. The five elementary powers or hing are: water, fire, wood, metal and earth, and the table gives the qualities, tastes, and activities of the five hing as correlated with five points of the compass (the fifth being "center"), the five corresponding planets, five colors, five viscera, five musical notes, five early emperors, four seasons, and four quarters of the zodiac. But to consider these ideas in detail would lead too far afield into unprofitable vagaries.

7. Chemistry—Alchemy.—Chemistry and metallurgy have been unknown as sciences, but many operations in them are performed with a considerable degree of success, and bear testimony to Chinese shrewdness and ingenuity in the existing state of their knowledge. The skill which they exhibit in metallurgy, their brilliant dye-stuffs and numerous pigments; their early knowledge of gunpowder, alcohol, arsenic, Glauber's salt, calomel and corrosive sublimate; their pyrotechny; their asphyxiating and anesthetic compounds—all give evidence of no contemptible proficiency in practical chemistry. In their books of curious recipes (see section 2) are instructions for the manufacture of sympathetic inks, for removing stains, alloying metals, counterfeiting gold, whitening copper, overlaying the baser with the precious metals, etc., many of the rules in which are still in common use, and bear in their very terms the stamp of an alchemic origin. Dr. Martin in his "Lore of Cathay" presents striking evidence to show that in all probability western alchemy, from which our modern chemistry has come, had its root in the art as practised in China, where it appeared as an indigenous product, coeval with the dawn of letters.

One doctrine of Taoism which was developed six centuries before Christ regards the soul and body as identical in substance, and maintains the possibility of preventing their dissolution by a course of physical discipline—a seed-thought which led the disciples of Laotze to investigate the specific properties of matter in the two-fold search for long life and riches. In studying both the vegetable and mineral kingdoms Chinese alchemists were guided by the supposed analogy of man to material nature, which led them to ascribe an essence or spirit not only to animals and plants, but to minerals as well, so that in their view matter itself was constantly passing the limits of sense and assuming the character of conscious spirit. Thus was the world filled with fairies and genii.

We need not discuss in detail the characteristic ideas of Chinese alchemy, but merely note that it had full vigor six centuries prior to western alchemy, which did not appear till A.D. 400 when intercourse was quite frequent between China and Byzantium, Alexandria and Bagdad. The two schools had much in common: same aims, closely corresponding properties ascribed to the two elixirs in each; principles, means, mystical character of nomenclature, and extravagant style of alchemic writings, all practically identical. So that, although it may be granted that the leading objects of alchemical pursuit might have occurred to men in any country as they felt their way towards a knowledge of nature, yet an independent origin seems unlikely, and it is almost certain that alchemy had its birth in the far east, yea in China, since the claims of India seem excluded by the abundant proof that the alchemy of China is not an exotic, but an indigenous product, the earliest forms of which are found in the "Book of Changes," a significant title, whose diagrams date back to 2800 B.C., the text to 1150 b.c., and the Confucian commentary thereon to 500 B.C. It is a striking fact that this book, chief in the canon of Taoism, was spared from the flames of the Tyrant of Ch'in to which all other writings of Confucius and his disciples were consigned.

8. General Cosmological Ideas.—Contrast the modern ideas of the age and origin of the earth and of the extent of the universe in time with the following conceptions of Chu Hi (Chu Fu Tsz), the most famous of the eleventh-century philosophers:

In the beginning heaven and earth were just the light and a dark air. This one air revolved, grinding around and around. When it ground quickly much sediment was compressed, which, having no means of exit, coagulated and formed the earth in the center. The subtle portion of the air then became heaven and the sun, moon and stars, which unceasingly revolve on the outside. The earth is in the center; it is not below the center.

Heaven revolving without ceasing, day and night also revolve, and hence the earth is exactly in the center. If heaven should stand still for one moment, then the earth must fall down; but heaven revolves quickly, and hence much sediment is coagulated in the center. The earth is in the sediment of the air; and hence it is said, the light, pure air became heaven, the heavy, muddy air became earth.

At the beginning of heaven and earth, before chaos was divided, I think there were only two things—fire and water—and the sediment of the water formed the earth. When one ascends a height and looks down, the crowd of hills resemble the waves of the sea in appearance; the water just flowed like this. I know not at what period it coagulated. At first it was very soft, but afterward coagulated and became hard. One asked whether it resembled sand thrown up by the tide? He replied, just so; the coarsest sediment of the water became earth and the purest portion of the fire became wind, thunder, lightning, sun and stars. . . . Before chaos was divided the Yin-yang, or light-dark, air was mixed up and dark, and when it divided the center formed an enormous and most brilliant opening, and the two principles were established. Shao Kang-tsieh considers one hundred and twenty-nine thousand six hundred years to be a yuen, or Tcalpa; then, before this period of one hundred and twenty-nine thousand six hundred years there was another opening and spreading out of the world; and before that again there was another like the present; so that motion and rest, light and darkness, have no beginning. . . .

There is nothing outside heaven and earth, and hence their form has limits, while their air has no limit. Because the air is extremely condensed, therefore it can support the earth; if it were not so, the earth would fall down.

Chu Hi's theory considers the world to be a plane surface—straight, square and large—measuring each way about 1,500 miles and bounded on the four sides by the four seas. The sun, moon and stars revolve around it at the uniform distance of 4,000 miles. Estimates of the long mythological periods antecedent to the appearance of Fuh-hi (the monarch of "highest antiquity," 2852 b.c., according to Chinese annals) vary from 45,000 to 500,000 years.

These ancient Chinese writings are a curious mixture of sense and nonsense, partially laying the foundation of a just argument and ending with a tremendous non-sequitur, apparently satisfactory to themselves, but showing pretty conclusively how little pains they took to gather facts and discuss their bearings. One thing is to be observed concerning them, which is characteristic to-day, viz., there is no hierarchy of gods brought in to rule and inhabit the world they made; no transfer of human love and hate, passions and hopes, to the powers above, as in the Greek or Egyptian mythology; all here is represented as moving on in quiet order, the work of disembodied agencies or principles. "There is no religion, no imagination; all is impassible, passionless, uninteresting."

Perhaps the most sensible and orderly account of the creation to be found in these writings is the following:

Heaven was formless, an utter chaos; the whole mass was nothing but confusion. Order was first produced 'in the pure ether, and out of it the universe came forth; the universe produced air and the air the milky way. When the pure male principle yang had been diluted, it formed the heavens; the heavy and thick parts coagulated and formed the earth. The refined particles united very soon, but the union of the thick and heavy went on slowly; therefore the heavens came into existence first and the earth afterward. From the subtle essence of heaven and earth the dual principles yin and yang were formed; from their joint operation came the four seasons, and these putting forth their energies gave birth to all; they produced fire; and the finest parts of the fire formed the sun. The cold exhalations of the yin being likewise condensed, produced water; and the finest parts of the watery substance formed the moon. By the seminal influence of the sun and moon came the stars. Thus heaven was adorned with sun, moon and stars; the earth also received rain, rivers and dust.

But such explanations were too subtle for the common people, and they personified and deified the powers and operations, though with far less imaginative genius and fine taste than the Greeks displayed in the same line. The most striking legend is that of Pwanku, the first creature, who was "hatched" from chaos by the dual powers and who then chiseled the universe into form and order by the might of his hands. His efforts continued 18,000 years, and by degrees he and his handiwork increased:

The heavens rose, the earth spread out and thickened, and Pwanku grew in stature, six feet every day, till, his labors done, he died for the benefit of his handiwork. His head became mountains, his breath wind and clouds, and his voice thunder; his limbs were changed into the four poles, his veins into rivers, his sinews into the undulations of the earth 's surface, and his flesh into fields; his beard, like Bernice's hair, was turned into stars, his skin and hair into herbs and trees, and his teeth, bones, and marrow into metals, rocks, and precious stones; his dropping sweat increased to rain, and lastly, the insects which stuck to his body were transformed into people!

It must be confessed that most of us will find this quite as clear and a far more interesting account of the universe than the learned disquisition of the famous Chu Fu Tsz.

(To be concluded)

  1. See "A Visit to the Hangchow Bore," The Popular Science Monthly, February and March, 1908.