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Chinese science: the traditional Chinese view

  • Ho Peng Yoke

In the study of Chinese science it is important to take into account the fact that there are many Chinese terms which do not convey exactly the same meanings to traditional and modern scholars. It is essential to try to put ourselves in theshoes of the former in order to have a better understanding of classical Chinese texts. Take for example the simple term shuxue, which we all take to mean ‘mathematics’. Indeed we are quite correct to call it ‘ mathematics’ when it appears in a modern text, or after the time of Li Shanlan (1811–1982) who first used itwhen he translated Western mathematical works into Chinese. However, when the term shuxue appears in any text written before the time of Li Shanlan it can often be dangerous to use the modern meaning of the term without circumspection. I quote a passage on the Biography of Zhang Zhong from the Ming waish. contained in the Imperial Compendium Gujin tushu jicheng which reads:

(Zhang) Zhong was studying at his youth and presented himself at the jinshi level of civil examinations. However, he failed, and whereupon he gave rein to roaming among the mountains and streams. On one occasion he came across an extraordinarily gifted person and learned shuxue from him. (Henceforth) he talked about future destiny, and was often uncanny in accuracy.

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1 As early as 1959 Joseph Needham pointed out (private communication) that theterm arithmetica in pre-modern Europe did not mean the simple calculations which go by the name of arithmetic today. See Needham, Science and civilization in China, Vol. 3 (Cambridge, 1959), 54. Nonetheless, as we all know, Needham’s approach is entirely that of a modern scholar.

2 In xuexingdian juan 44, tr. auct.

3 In Nanhua zhenjing (Sibu, congkan ed.) juan 5, p. 34b, tr. auct.

4 See Chourenzhuan juan I and Qian Baozong kexueshi lunwen xuanji (Beijing, 1983), 140.

5 See Yan, Li, ‘Sunzi suanjing buzhu’ in his Zhongguo gudai shuxue shiliao (Shanghai, 1954).

6 A comprehensive study of this book is made in Lay Yong, Lam, A critical study of the Yang Hui Suan Fa (Singapore, 1974). See also Needham, , Science and civilization in China, Vol. 3. 5562, and Cammann, Schuyler, ‘atOld Chinese magic squares’, Sinologica, 80, 1963, 1453.

7 In Yan, Li. Zhongsuanshi luncong, Vol. 3 (Shanghai, 1935).

8 In Huangdi neijing suwen underSanbu liuhou lun’.

9 In juan 21, tr. auct.

10 tr. auct.

11 Sivin, Nathan, ‘Why the scientific revolution did not take place in China-or didn’t it?’, in Explorations in the history of science and technology in China (Shanghai, 1982), has pointed out that what we now regard as scientific knowledge was placed under different headings by Shen Gua in his Menggi bitan.

12 cf. Science and civilization in China, Vol. 3, 119.

13 For the work of Qin Jiushao see Libbrecht, Ulrich, Chinese mathematics in the thirteenth century (Cambridge, Mass., 1973).

14 A good example is Nathan Sivin, op. cit., n. 12.

15 See for example Yoke, Ho PengThe astronomicalchapters of the Chin Shu(Paris. 1966), 55, 56.

16 Hongloumeng. hui 102.

17 inch. 17.

18 Sanguo yanyi, hui 49.

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Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies
  • ISSN: 0041-977X
  • EISSN: 1474-0699
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