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Shen Kuo

Shen Kuo




Reputation. Shen Kuo’s reputation has been mostly in the field of scientific writing: he was the first to illustrate and build orographic maps; the first to illustrate accurately the source of fossils and the marine origin of some rocks; and the first to hint at atmospheric refraction. Furthermore, his inquisitiveness aroused his interest in such subjects as music, painting, calligraphy, and philosophy, in addition to the technical applications of science, such as the workings of armillary spheres, dams, sluices, and calendars.

Early Life. In 1040, when Shen Kuo was only nine years old, he was fond of reading. His mother, a learned person, had a great impact on the boy. When he was eleven he started receiving a formal education, and in 1043 he followed his father to a new city, observing many towns on the way. Shen Kuo then began to study calligraphy. As a child his health was poor, and he suffered eyestrain when he was eighteen years old because of reading too often at night. In 1054 as a registrar Shen Kuo channeled and drained several rivers to gain 100,000 acres of land for farms. During this period his interest in geography increased while he corrected some mistakes in a book and studied the East Sea and surrounding areas. In 1061 he became subprefect of Ningkuo where at Wu Lake he built a barrage that withstood the great Yangzi floods of 1065. In the same year Shen Kuo finished writing a treatise on music, and the following year he became subprefect of Wanqiu. In the autumn of the same year he passed the law examination and was awarded the honor of an interview with the emperor in the capital. In 1064 he became inspector of police in Yangzhou.

Scholar and Official. Shen Kuo first held office in the central government in 1066 when he became collator in the Imperial Library, he studied astronomy and wrote a manual on the subject. At the same time he studied the details of a treaty of 1044 between the Song empire (960-1279) and the Liao empire (916-1115), thus obtaining detailed knowledge of diplomacy and military strategy that soon proved to be significant in his official work. In 1071 he filled a newly created post, Controller of Public Affairs of the legal department in the General Secretariat, which allowed him to enter the inner circle of government. Shocked by the lack of skill among officials in the Directorate of Astronomy, Shen Kuo carried out reforms in 1072. He created an armillary sphere (an astronomical instrument), clepsydras (water clocks), and gnomons (sundial pins).He hired a talented official to prepare a new calendar for 1075-1092 and recommended another official for the task of inspecting the canal. At the same time he composed more than two hundred astronomical charts. Two years later, in 1074, he was promoted to executive assistant of the Court of Imperial Sacrifices and Imperial Recorder, which provided some chances to see the emperor.

Later Work. His other intellectual work included the amplification of several maps. In 1075 he presented his “Regulations of the Method of Repairing Strongholds”; investigated the records of past intercourse between Song and Liao states; took notes on geography, animal and plant life, and climate;and produced a map of the Song frontiers. In addition, he was sent by the Song court as imperial ambassador to negotiate with the Liao government, who demanded more territory. From 1076 to 1078 he held a variety of offices in the central government, mostly concerned with financial and military matters. In 1087 he completed the Atlas of China. In 1091 Shen Kuo became ill and died four years later.


Etienne Balazs and Yves Hervouet, eds., A Sung Bibliography (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1978).

Herbert Franke, ed., Sung Biographies, four volumes (Wiesbaden: Steiner,1976).

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