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Negotiating natural history in transitional China and British India

  • FA-TI FAN (a1) and JOHN MATHEW (a2)


This article examines scientific developments in China and India by comparing and contrasting the enterprises of natural history during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From this perspective, the cases of China and India shared some similarities, but also exhibited important differences with respect to the conditions, ideologies, personnel, processes and strategies in scientific development. Two very large countries, with much left unexplored, attracted broad scientific interest in their flora and fauna from the early modern period; the interest intensified in the nineteenth century because of increasing accessibility to their interiors. However, the different historical situations that involved empire, nation, professionalization, geography and domestic and international politics helped shape the respective trajectories of scientific development in the two countries. Yet, despite their differences, China and India shared important similarities in the co-production of science and state, the global hierarchy of knowledge production, and the coloniality of power relations. This historical complexity also represented an important aspect of the global history of science, one that still bears poignancy and resonance in the contemporary world.

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1 See, for instance, Basalla, George, ‘The spread of Western science’, Science (1967) 156, pp. 611622. Macleod, Roy, ‘On visiting the “moving metropolis”: reflections on the architecture of imperial science’, Historical Records of Australian Science (1982) 5, pp. 116. Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture, London: Routledge, 1994. Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, London: Routledge, 1992. Kapil Raj, Relocating Modern Science, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007; and Simon Schaffer, Lissa Roberts, Kapil Raj and James Delbourgo, The Brokered World: Go-betweens and Global Intelligence, 1770–1820, Sagamore Beach: Science History Publications, 2009. Fan, Fa-ti, ‘The global turn in the history of science’, East Asian Science, Technology, and Society: An International Journal (2012) 6, pp. 249258.

2 Fa-ti Fan, British Naturalists in China: Science, Empire, and Cultural Encounter, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. Fan, ‘Science in cultural borderlands: methodological reflections on the study of science, European imperialism, and cultural encounter’, East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal (2007) 1, pp. 213231. Erik Mueggler, The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

3 Ruth Rogaski, Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. William Summers, The Great Manchuria Plague of 1910–1911: The Geopolitics of an Epidemic Disease, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.

4 Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History of the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995. Peter Zarrow, After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885–1924, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012.

5 With the recruitment of the botanist Qian Chongshu and the geneticist Chen Zhen (a student of T.H. Morgan's), along with other very talented scholars to join Bin Zhi and Hu Xiansu, and in short order the establishment of the Biological Laboratory of the Science Society of China, Southeast University swiftly established itself as the hothouse of modern Chinese biology. See, for example, Laurence Schneider, Biology and Revolution in Twentieth-Century China, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005, pp. 33–63.

6 Fan, Fa-ti, ‘Redrawing the map: science in twentieth-century China’, Isis (2007) 98, pp. 524538. Hu Zonggang, Jingshen shengwu diaochasuo shigao, Jinan: Shangdong jiaoyu chubanshe, 2005.

7 Grace Yen Shen, Unearthing the Nation: Modern Geology and Nationalism in Republican China, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013, pp. 73–108. Shellen Wu, Empires of Coal: Fueling China's Entry into the Modern World Order, 1860–1920, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015.

8 Hu Zonggang, Bugai yiwang de Hu Xiansu, Wuhan: Changsha wenyi chubanshe, 2005, pp. 74–76.

9 Hu, op. cit. (6); Wang, Zuoyue, ‘Saving China through science: the Science Society of China, scientific nationalism, and civil society in Republican China’, Isis (2002) 93, pp. 291322.

10 Tong Lam, A Passion for Facts: Social Surveys and the Construction of the China Nation-State, 1900–1949, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

11 Hu, op. cit. (6).

12 See Macleod, op. cit. (1), p. 13: ‘Arguably British recognition of Indian Independence began not with 1947 but with the first meeting in Calcutta of the Indian Science Congress in 1914’.

13 Ironically, the shift of capital and the symbolic visit of the king–emperor to India would antedate the fall of the last ruling dynasty in China by a single year.

14 John Sinclair, The Statistical Account of Scotland drawn up from the Communications of the Ministers of the Different Parishes, 21 vols., Edinburgh: William Creech, 1814.

15 David Arnold, The New Cambridge History of India: Science, Technology and Medicine in Colonial India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 131.

16 Arnold, op. cit. (15), p. 132.

17 Gyan Prakash, Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999, p. 28.

18 Prakash, op. cit. (17), p. 31.

19 Pratik Chakrabarti, Western Science in Modern India: Metropolitan Methods, Colonial Practices, New Delhi: Permanent Black, p. 150.

20 Dhruv Raina, ‘Ray's Life and Experiences as a text on the history of science’, in Santimay Chatterjee, M.K. Dasgupta and Amitabha Ghosh (eds.), Studies in History of Science, Calcutta: The Asiatic Society, 1997, pp. 25–42, 28.

21 Jon Agar, Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012, p. 17.

22 Arnold, op. cit. (15), p. 161.

23 Colleges and universities began early – a case in point being Hindu College (later Presidency College) in 1818. With the mid-nineteenth-century origination of the Universities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, there was an effort to include a number of subjects across the board roughly equivalent to those found in Britain. Nonetheless disciplines like zoology still found short shrift until the dawn of the twentieth century.

24 Arnold, op. cit. (15), p. 132.

25 Marie-Noelle Bourguet, ‘La collecte du monde: voyage et histoire naturelle (fin XVIIème siècle–début XIXème siècle)’, in C. Blanckaert, C. Cohen, P. Corsi and J.-L. Fischer (eds.), Le muséum au premier siècle de son histoire, Paris, Editions du Muséum national d'histoire naturelle, 1997, pp. 163–196.

26 An intriguing paper, written by a native Indian, drew attention to the genesis of the Fauna in glowing terms: ‘Indian zoologists, of all shades and capacities whatsoever, cannot be sufficiently grateful to the learned and disinterested British Memorialists for the mightily encouraging stimulus they have … given to the further progress of Indian zoology. May the bright beaming torches they have lighted … show us the bright-beaming light we have hitherto wanted! This light comes from West to East.’ See Kirtikar, K.R., ‘Progress in natural history during the last century’, Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, extra number, the Centenary Memorial Volume, Bombay: Asiatic Society's Library, pp. 353381, 353.

27 Prakash, op. cit. (17), p. 123.

28 Gupta, P.C. Sen, ‘Soorjo Coomar Goodeve Chuckerbutty: the first Indian contributor to modern medical science’, Medical History (1970) 14, pp. 183191.

29 NAI/Home/Revenue, Agriculture, Surveys, Nos 44–47, May 1880 (Series B). Quoted in Deepak Kumar, Science and the Raj, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 215.

30 A.E. Leviton and M.L. Aldrich, ‘India: a case study of natural history in a colonial setting’, in M.T. Ghiselin and A.E. Leviton (eds.), Cultures and Institutions of Natural History: Essays in the History and Philosophy of Science, San Francisco: California Academy of Sciences, 2000, pp. 51–80, 69.

31 See Kumar, Deepak, ‘Racial discrimination and science in nineteenth-century India’, Indian Economic and Social History Review (1982) 19, pp. 6382. Kumar systematically shows how, with rare exceptions, across fields, deserving Indian candidates are denied positions and salaries on equal terms with European counterparts, despite attaining comparable scholastic degrees.

32 P.C. Ray, ‘Dawn of science in India’ (1920), in The Shaping of India Science: Indian Science Congress Association Presidential Addresses, vol. 1: 1914–1947, Hyderabad, Universities Press (India) Private Limited, 2003, pp. 82–93.

33 Mathew adopts the term ‘translocate’, if in somewhat modified form, from classical cytogenetics, where during crossover in the first meiotic phase of reproductive cell division there is exchange of chromosomal material in a process known as translocation. The result is an altered chromosome, possessed of a significantly different character from its original form. See John Mathew, ‘To fashion a fauna for British India’, PhD thesis, Harvard University, 2011. The translocate is a subset of the expatriate, but assumes an inflection of specialization, where his or her action is actively directed towards the accrual of information and where he/she mediates the flow of knowledge between systems that at first glance may appear to be incommensurable.

34 See, for instance, anonymous, Review of G. Boulenger, Reptiles and Batrachia, The Fauna of British India, including Ceylon and Burma’ (London: Taylor and Francis, 1890), Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (1891) 6, pp. 100104.

35 Macleod, Roy, ‘Scientific advice for British India: imperial perceptions and administrative goals, 1898–1923’, Modern Asian Studies (1975) 9, pp. 343384, 346.

36 Ironically, Holland himself had leapfrogged an Indian, P.N. Bose, to the directorship of the GSI in 1903, leading to the latter's precipitate retirement. See Kumar, op. cit. (29), p. 75.

37 Nature (21 February 1907) 75, p. 403, quoted in MacLeod, op. cit. (35), p. 370.

38 MacLeod, op. cit. (35), p. 372.

39 Zhang Jian, Kexue shetuan zai Zhongguo de mingyun, Jinan: Shandong jiaoyu chubanshe, 2006; Liang Bo, Jishu yu diguo zhuyi yanjiu, Jinan: Shandong jiaoyu chubanshe, 2006; Han Jianping, Riwei shiqi de zhimindi keyan jigou: lishi yu wenxian, Jinan: Shandong jiaoyu chubanshe, 2006.

40 Grace Yen Shen, ‘Periodical space: language and the creation of the scientific community in Republican China’, in Jing Tsu and Benjamin Elman (eds.), Science and Technology in Modern China, 1880s–1940s, Leiden: Brill, 2013, pp. 269–296.

41 Luo Guihuan, Zhonguo xibei kexue kaochatuan zonglun, Beijing: Zhongguo kexue jishu chubanshe, 2009; Sigrid Schmalzer, The People's Peking Man: Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth-Century China, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008, pp. 17–53.

42 Fa-ti Fan, ‘Circulating material objects: the international controversy over antiquities and fossils in twentieth-century China’, in Bernard Lightman, Gordon McOuat and Larry Stewart (eds.), The Circulation of Knowledge between Britain, India and China, Leiden: Brill, 2013, pp. 209–244.

43 Fan, op. cit. (42).

44 Tongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-body of a Nation, Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1997; Fa-ti Fan, ‘Nature and nation in Chinese political thought: the national essence circle in early twentieth-century China’, in Lorraine Daston and Fernando Vidal (eds.), The Moral Authority of Nature, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004, pp. 409–437. Shen, op. cit. (7). See also Sean Hsiang-lin Lei, Neither Donkey nor Horse: Medicine in the Struggle over China's Modernity, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014.


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