Science: East Asia

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Science: East Asia

The most familiar characteristics of modern sciencerigorously demonstrated relationships based on a combination of experimentation and exact measurementdid not exist anywhere in the world before the seventeenth century. Any definition of science that holds for earlier times or for places other than Europe must be more inclusive. More useful criteria are the attempt to find rational explanations, rather than those based on gods and analogues to human will, and the use of abstraction to generalize from concrete data.

One can speak of East Asian science because the educated elite of China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam shared a classical written language. To a large extent, literacy in East Asia meant being educated in the same Chinese classics and writing in a language based on them, just as Europeans for centuries learned and communicated in Latin. China, because of its size, wealth, and bookish literati, tended to dominate its neighbors intellectually in science as in other fields, but East Asians elsewhere made notable contributions, some of which are noted below.

The Sciences

A peculiarity of Greek culture was that philosophy informed the basic educations of those who practiced mathematics and the natural sciences, and of many physicians whose writings became textbooks. In the Islamic world, and in the early European universities, curricula continued to put philosophy prior to science and medicine.

This was not the case in China. Information on natural phenomena first appeared in general writings devoted simultaneously to moral philosophy, political theory, and cosmology. Basic physical concepts and frameworks evolved in such works.

Beginning in the first century b.c.e., autonomous sciences separated from philosophy on the one hand and technical practice on the other. Their traditions, like those of earlier nontechnical scholarship, were canonical. Confucius claimed that philosophy began with books that had survived from a golden antiquity into the degraded present. Analogously, almost every field of endeavor traced its beginnings to one or more classics revealed by an ancient sage-ruler. Education was based on the ritual transmission of such texts from master to disciple within each tradition.

Early monographic technical writings (many of which used the form and rhetoric of the classics) elaborated on their philosophic predecessors to meet their own needs. Practitioners did not, however, see themselves as supplementing philosophy, or engaged in an overarching intellectual enterprise. Rather, they were engaged in a common exploration of the Way (dao ), an aim that encompassed aesthetic, literary, and visionary experience,

Zhang Heng78-139Polymath, astronomer, cosmologist, instrument designer
Zhang Jic. 160?after 219First formulary for febrile diseases
Sun Simo (or Simiao)alive 673Alchemist, physician
Yang Yunsong9th centuryExpert on siting, author of important manuals
Zan Ning9191002Author of important sources for resonance studies
Shen Gua (or Kuo)10311095Polymath, astronomer, critical commentator on science
Guo Shoujing12311316Designer of astronomical instruments, expert on water control
Li Shizhen15181593Author of Systematic Materia Medica
Seki Kowa (or Takakazu)d. 1708Japanese innovator in calculus and other mathematical fields
Mei Wending16331721Mathematician, restorer of classic computational and astronomical traditions

in which cognition could play only a part. Because there was no science as a single, distinct activity, it is more accurate to speak of the Chinese sciences.

Scholars in East Asia in the early twenty-first century commonly enumerate the traditional sciences using modern categories (or rather those common in the 1950s). This positivistic approach often leads to a misperception. For instance, because there was no such field as biology in ancient classifications of knowledge, one must gather traditional notions about life and organisms from treatises on materia medica, handbooks for connoisseurs of goldfish and other creatures that people collected, travel accounts, textbooks on veterinary medicine, and so on. The result is inevitably a grab bag of incompatible notions, likely to give rise to the misconception that Asians did biology poorly. Nor was physics a discrete field. The physical disciplines that did exist, such as siting and resonance studies, had no counterpart in the West. This article follows current practice by discussing scientific ideas in the categories that practitioners used. It divides them into quantitative (shushu ) and qualitative sciences.

Before addressing the individual sciences, it is necessary to discuss certain early concepts of the cosmos and its workings that affected every aspect of culture.

Qi, yin-yang, five phases.

In the late Zhou period (722256 b.c.e.), ritualists manipulated natural and social symbols in sets of costumes, implements, offerings, and so on, specifying the number in each set. As the notion evolved that the order of the good state reflected that of the cosmos, courtly discussions naturally adapted this idea of numbered sets to the social and natural worlds. Certain categoriesespecially those arising in twos, threes, fives, and sixesturned out to be especially useful. As philosophers used them to group phenomena and analyze their interrelations, dependence on them grew. After the third century b.c.e. these categories, especially those of yin-yang and the five phases, became the first resort for systematic thought.

At the same time, thinkers trying to account for continuity and change refined the concept of qi, the stuff from which everything was formed, to deal with questions analogous to those that Anaximenes' aer addressed. But unlike aer or Aristotle's hyle, qi was also the vitality of an organism' or thing,' responsible for its stability, growth, and change. Qi was predominantly a matter of cyclic processes, each a sequence of dynamic phases. It circulated through the body because it circulated through the universe and through the earth as part of the universe.

From the mid third century b.c.e., several philosophers explored the use of yin-yang and the five phases to discuss complementary aspects within temporal processes or spatial configurations. By the end of the first century b.c.e., the Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi nei jing ), a collection of writings on medical doctrine, and The Canon of Supreme Mystery (Tai xuan jing), a cosmological treatise, provided mature syntheses in which these twofold and fivefold concepts became ways of characterizing qi. In Chinese thought from then on, yin and yang were not activities or forces but phases of qi responsible for form, vitality, and change. This understanding became a foundation not only of philosophy but also of the autonomous sciences as they appeared. Each adapted this set of concepts to its own problems, and supplemented it with additional ones.

Quantitative sciences.

The quantitative sciences in traditional China consisted of mathematics, mathematical astronomy, and mathematical harmonics.

Mathematics (shu, suan). The pattern for mathematics was largely formed by the Mathematical Canon in Nine Chapters (Jiuzhang suan shu ) of the first century c.e. It brings together 246 problems, of which some reflect the practice of government accountants and surveyors and others the concerns of small private traders. For each it provides a step-by-step numerical solution. It is not concerned with proofs (these appeared at the end of the third century), but rather aims to show how one can solve a wide variety of problems using nine general computational methods. These methods, even for mensuration problems, remained algebraic, depending on computational devices (computing boards until around the fourteenth century, then the abacus).

Unlike earlier manuscripts, the book arranged its materials in standard and rather systematic form. The main mathematical tradition remained focused on numerically stated practical problems. Over the last millennium even authors who explored more abstract realmsalways tentatively until the introduction of European approachesstill stated their problems in concrete (and often impractical) form.

The texts gathered in the other early classic of mathematics, the Zhou Gnomon (Zhou bi, later called Zhou bi suan jing, between 50 b.c.e. and 100 c.e.), use the try square and compass to construct simple numerical models of the universe and its relation to a central earth. These texts apparently aim to demonstrate how one might go about building up a computational astronomy.

Mathematical astronomy (li).

Chinese believed that Heaven gave the mandate to rule to the family best able to keep the cosmos and the state in harmony. Unpredicted celestial events were warnings to the current emperor that he was failing to carry out his responsibilities as he should. He therefore needed court astrologers to observe, report, and interpret these portents, and to find out what acts or omissions Heaven was warning him about. He also needed court astronomers to improve methods of prediction, so that there would be fewer omens to worry him. Thus both astrology and astronomy were state enterprises.

The Chinese began the day at midnight, the month at the new moon, and the year at the winter solstice. A system of computational astronomy (li ) was a set of step-by-step procedures that officials could follow to generate a calendar for the coming year. It forecast actual new moons, solstices, eclipses, planetary phenomena, and much else.

Originators of systems generally claimed that they would yield highly accurate predictions forever. In practice, their slight errors accumulated and lead to failures sooner or later. Because unpredicted phenomena reflected on the emperor's virtue, there was endless pressure to design better systems. Some governments used them ritually to signal the cosmic aegis of a new dynasty or reign period, or even a renewal of virtue within a reign. Rulers over two millennia officially adopted roughly fifty systems. Other East Asian governments, generally relying on hereditary astronomy officials, tended to adopt or minimally adapt Chinese systems, and to use a very few of them for long periods of time.

The methods of computation were numerical, closer to modern computer algorithms than to the Greek geometric approach. Building a calendar was a matter of cycles, as a simple example illustrates.

Astronomers discovered early on that a year was on average 365/ days long, and a month, a little over 29fi days long. Since the units of a calendar must contain a whole number of days, the Chinese, roughly speaking, alternated months of 29 and 30 days. But 12 such months add up to only 354 or 355 days. It was therefore necessary to add an extra (that is, intercalary) month every so often to reach the correct long-term average. Specialists soon realized that adding 7 extra months at more or less equal intervals over 19 years, creating 7 years each 383 or 384 days long, would make the average year 365/ days, so the calendar would roughly predict what people saw in the sky. By the end of the first century b.c.e., they extended the scope of their systems to eclipses and planetary phenomena by incorporating many additional cycles.

This approach, based on average periods, could carry astronomers only so far. Later astronomy remained mainly cyclic in approach, but (from 223 c.e. on) gradually incorporated the varying, or apparent, motions of heavenly bodies, and (from the eleventh century on) evolved a trigonometric approach to spherical geometry. The high point of predictive power came with the Season-Granting System (Shoushi li ), in use from 1281 to 1644 in China, and even later in Japan and Korea.

Mathematical harmonics (lü, lülü).

Chinese thinkers were as fascinated by the quantitative relations between sounds and the physical arrangements that produced them as the Pythagoreans were. Harmonic intervals implied that a quantitative order underlay apparently qualitative and sensuous phenomena. In China such studies were concerned primarily with resonant pipes. These pitch pipes provided the standards for tuning ritual bells and stone chimes. Their lengths and volumes were also the basissymbolically, at leastfor metrological standards of length, volume, and (indirectly) weight. The ceremonial music of the court applied harmonics as an aspect of the imperial charisma.

Qualitative sciences.

Among the qualitative sciences were astrology, medicine, materia medica, alchemy, siting, and resonance studies.


Astrology (tianwen ) complemented astronomy by dealing with unpredictable, and therefore ominous, phenomena. Its portents were mainly celestial, but also included freaks of weather and of animal or human birth, palace fires, and so on. These concerns led to assiduous observation and recording, and to archives maintained over many centuries. The second task of the astrologer was to correlate newly observed prodigies with recorded instances, and thus to direct the attention of the ruler and his advisors to what aspect of government needed reform. Practically speaking, such ritual (like economic forecasting in the early 2000s), although flawed as a technique of prediction, enabled a wider range of policy discussion than those in power might otherwise consider.

The registers of phenomena have been boons to modern science. They have provided richer collections of precisely dated observations than those from any other civilizationmillennia not only of eclipses (used in studying, for instance, the gradual change in the moon's speed) and comets (used to establish changes in the orbital velocity of, for instance, Halley's comet), but also of earthquakes (which have given China a leading role in research on their prediction).


Traditions of medicine (yi ) based on abstract doctrines developed by elite practitioners and passed down in writing were only a small component of health care in East Asia, as elsewhere.

Those who treated the sick were mostly laymen, illiterate healers, and priests. In other East Asian societies, methods for healing the elite were very different from the culturally embedded practices available to the majority of those populations, and the practice of medicine was affected by different social circumstances.

Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji)Sima Qianc. 100 B.C.E.First history to contain astronomical and astrological treatises
Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi nei jing)Anonymous1st century B.C.E.?Canonical collection of medical doctrines
Mathematical Canon in Nine Chapters (Jiuzhang suan shu)Anonymous1st century c.e.Worked problems in practical form
Kinship of the Three (Zhouyi cantong qi)Anonymousc. 700Early theoretical text of alchemy
Formulas at the Heart of Medicine (Ishimpo)Tamba no Yasuyori982Compendious Japanese formulary from Chinese sources
Season-Granting System (Shoushi li)Wang Xun et al.1281Most sophisticated system of astronomical computation
Classified Collection of Medical Formulas (Uibang yuchwi)Kim Yemong1445Korean collection of over 50,000 formulas
Systematic Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu)Li Shizhen1596Wide range of data about nearly 2000 drug substances
There is no reliable, complete translation of any of these books into English.

For instance, classical Chinese medicine reached the Japanese court by the early ninth century, but was almost inaccessible outside aristocratic circles and a few Buddhist institutions. It became a mainstream tradition only between the mid sixteenth and mid seventeenth centuries, when its European counterpart was also first becoming known in Japan.

Materia medica.

Materia medica (bencao ) was the study of drugs of mineral, vegetable, and animal origin. But more than that, it was a trove of natural history. The earliest compilation (in the late first or second century c.e.) was as concerned with immortality as with the restoration of health. Later compilations described each medicinal substance in detail, with information ranging from habitat to adulterants to methods of processing. Charles Darwin drew on data from the Systematic Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu, 1596), the most authoritative treatise on pharmacognosy, in his Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868).


The somewhat more than a hundred surviving treatises on alchemy (liandan, lianjin, jindan ) vary greatly in their concepts, content, symbology, and rituals, and their interrelations remain far from clear. Research in the 1990s and 2000s places them tentatively on a spectrum ranging from external alchemy to internal alchemy. Adepts in external alchemy made elixirs much as mineral medicines were made, by treating chemical substances with fire and water. Elixirs, when ingested, could cure illness, restore youth, and bring about immortal life, for the alchemist or anyone who ingested them. Internal alchemists produced elixirs within the body by visualization, contemplation, and other meditative means. These were the same disciplines used in other modes of self-cultivation, but adepts of internal chemistry used the language of the external artchemical ingredients, crucibles, furnaces, timed application of heat, and so onto describe their own meditative experiences. On occasion, such experiences amounted to drug hallucinations. Between these two contrasting genres were theoretically inclined writings that explained alchemy (of the laboratory or of the body) as symbolic manipulation of time and space. Whether, in external practice, adepts were charging the furnace with timed sequences of carefully weighed fuel or, in internal alchemy, they were breathing in cycles regulated by depth and time, the aim was to reproduce on a compressed scale a great cycle of macrocosmic creation, growth, maturity, aging, death, and rebirth.

In this amalgam of theory and practice, witnessing in the laboratory the process that created the elixir of experiencing it within the body perfected the adept spiritually and, as a result, physically. It made him immortal. The chemical product was unimportant by comparison. Alchemy was as much concerned with religious transcendence as with chemical processes, but along the way alchemists accumulated a great deal of practical knowledge, including understanding of quantitative relations.


Siting (dili, kanyu, now called fengshui ) was concerned with the placement of houses and tombs in relation to their environments. It was based on the idea that qi circulated regularly through the earth, channeled by high and low places, wet and dry places, and other topographic features. The ideal site was one on which a dynamic balance of qi converged. Great effort went into finding the right abode for a family or an ancestoreffort that intellectuals justified cosmically and that the less educated justified as bringing good fortune. Siting is historically interesting because the compass first appears in the early eleventh century in the hands of practitioners, a century before its use for navigation. Siting fascinates landscape architects because its systematic analyses of landforms generate consistently beautiful placements in the landscape.

Resonance studies.

All the traditional sciences attempted to find the regularities underlying change. One widespread style of reasoning began with two assumptions. The first was that since things and events observably influence each other, such categories as yin-yang and the five phases can explain their interaction. The second was that things of the same category affect each other by resonance, the same resonance that causes interaction between certain musical strings or pitch pipes. The surviving literature consists of only a few books devoted to resonance studies (ganying, wuli ) and a number of assertions in the materia medica and other literatures, and these have been little studied. Some of the assertions about how one creature responds to or changes into another echo folklore. Still, the language of resonance made it possible to collect and set in order data on, for instance, a range of biological phenomena, such as grafting of trees.

Scholarship on East Asian Science

Historical studies of East Asian science grew out of two broader traditions: the rigorous philological scholarship (kaozheng ) that evolved in China, Japan, and Korea, and the chronicling of positive progress (focused mainly on concepts) prevalent in early-twentieth-century Europe and America. The best-known philological scholars are Xi Zezong (b. 1931) in Beijing and Yabuuchi Kiyoshi (19062000) in Kyoto. And the best-known Western chronicler is Joseph Needham (19001995) in Cambridge, England. From around 1970 on, social history (drawing on sociology and anthropology) filled some of the gaps in the prevalent history of scientific ideas. In the 1980s, as the antagonism between "internalist" intellectual history and "externalist" social history drew to an end in the West, mainstream history of science took up the challenge of exploring phenomena as a whole, using the widest range of disciplinary tools. Nathan Sivin, using "cultural manifolds" that integrate every dimension of the problems investigated, has applied this approach to East Asian science and to cross-cultural comparisons.

New primary sources have led to fundamental reevaluations. From the 1950s on, archeological excavations have disinterred many troves of manuscripts, some earlier than any extant book, others that cast a fresh light on later technical developments. Many of these documents were not published until 1980 or later. And the excavations continue. The result is a quickly changing base of empirical knowledge, especially about the beginnings of science, that makes many earlier generalizations obsolete.

See also Chinese Thought ; Medicine: China .


Cullen, Christopher. Astronomy and Mathematics in Ancient China: The Zhou bi suan jing. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Includes an excellent introduction.

Darwin, Charles. Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. 2 vols. London: Murray, 1868.

Furth, Charlotte. A Flourishing Yin: Gender in China's Medical History, 9601665. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. On medical care for women and childbirth, with a chapter on women as healers.

Hsu, Elisabeth, ed. Innovation in Chinese Medicine. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001. A good collection of conference papers.

Jeon Sang-woon. Science and Technology in Korea: Traditional Instruments and Techniques. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1974. Revised as A History of Science in Korea. Seoul: Jimoondang, 1998.

Libbrecht, Ulrich. Chinese Mathematics in the Thirteenth Century. The Shu-shu chiu-chang of Ch'in Chiu-shao. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1973.

Lloyd, G. E. R., and Nathan Sivin. The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. Comparisons that use an integrative methodology.

Martzloff, Jean-Claude. A History of Chinese Mathematics. Translated by Stephen L. Wilson. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1997. Translation of Histoire des mathématiques chinoises. Paris: Masson, 1988.

Nakayama, Shigeru. A History of Japanese Astronomy: Chinese Background and Western Impact. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969. Offers many important insights into Chinese astronomy as well.

Needham, Joseph, et al. Science and Civilisation in China. 22 vols. to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954. Magisterial survey, partly outdated.

Scheid, Volker. Chinese Medicine in Contemporary China: Plurality and Synthesis. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002. Important, well-informed study.

Sivin, Nathan. Science in Ancient China: Researches and Reflections. Brookfield, Vt.: Variorum, 1995. Selected essays.

Sugimoto, Masayoshi, and David Swain. Science and Culture in Traditional Japan: A.D. 6001854. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1978.

Nathan Sivin

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