Chinese Perspectives: Overview

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Chinese Perspectives: Overview

China is the oldest continuous civilization in the world and has produced a culture stretching back for millennia. For extended periods of time China led the world in science and technology. Yet traditional Chinese culture focused not on science and technology but on political-ethical issues. Traditional thinkers were more concerned with political morality and developing a centralized bureaucracy to run the country. Ethics was closely associated with politics, and the technical arts were subordinate to political considerations.

The Tradition

Confucianism formed the orthodoxy of premodern Chinese. Confucius (551–479 b.c.e.) himself stressed moral over material goods. He thus considered the technical arts as secondary to the ethical enterprise of living in harmony with the Way of Heaven. According to the Way, people have roles to play in society: the ruler to rule, ministers to administer, fathers to head families, and sons to serve as sons (Analects, 12:11). In the Confucian tradition, even acquiring material benefits was subordinate to living in accord with the Way, and technical fields such as agriculture, astronomy, mathematics, and medicine should serve the political needs of the country (Xi Zezong 2001). Though Confucians regarded the technical arts as the lesser way, specialists' use of technology in the service of the people was often held up as an example of moral rectitude.

Daoism was also an important tradition of ancient China. The Daoist view of how the technical arts relate to ethics differed from the Confucian view. While Confucianism subordinated the technical arts to ethics, it did not oppose the special sciences and their results. In contrast, Daoism attributed social disturbances and moral decay in society to science and technology and rejected them outright. For example, Laozi (or Lao-tzu; sixth century b.c.e.), the founder of Daoism, thought that society was already technically too advanced, and that technical invention served only to alienate people from the natural order and destabilize society. He advocated rejecting technical knowledge and skills. According to Laozi, people should not use writing, machines, carriages, or ships. Zhuangzi (or Chuang-tzu; c. 369–c. 286 b.c.e.), another representative of Daoism, presented fables to suggest that the use of machines led individuals to act contrary to their nature.

Among the ancient schools of Chinese thought, only Mohism valued material goods for the benefit of society. This school held that moral value lies in benefiting the people. Mo Di (or Mo-tzu; fl. 476–390 b.c.e.), the founder of Mohism, regarded the technical arts as benefiting human society and proposed to develop them. Mohists even conducted scientific research and made contributions in the fields of geometry, mechanics, and optics. At the same time, Mo Di opposed the use of technology to wage unjust wars and to produce curios for the court (Zhu Yiting 2002).

These ancient philosophies provided the frameworks for traditional ethical thinking in China. A common feature of such philosophies is concern for people, but in a way different from modern ethical thinking: People are conceived in relation to the larger Way. Thus human good is not something that can be pursued scientifically or technologically for individuals in isolation from the cosmos.

For more than 2,000 years such philosophical attitudes predominated in China and influenced science and technology both directly and indirectly, as has been extensively examined not only in China but in the West as well (see Needham 1954–; Sivin 1995). Geoffrey Lloyd and Nathan Sivin (2002) agree that when the Chinese "thought about the universe, what intrigued them was its connection to sociopolitical order" (p. 235). They go on to contrast the emphasis on logical distinction and deductive rigor that separates Greek science from ethics and politics with Chinese efforts "to find and explore correspondences, resonances, interconnections" in ways that "favored the formation of syntheses unifying widely divergent fields of inquiry"
(p. 250). Thus from the beginning, and even into the modern period, Chinese scholars pursued what in the West might now be termed synthetic, aesthetic, or interdisciplinary knowledge, which left them vulnerable to more empirical, confrontational ways of knowing and manipulating the world that developed in Europe after the Renaissance.

The Modern Era

The modern period in Chinese history began in the 1500s when European powers established colonies (the first being Macao, founded by Portugal in 1557) for purposes of developing trade. Over the course of the next 300 years, Chinese resources were progressively exploited by Western imperialist forces, culminating in the First Opium War (1839–1842), in which Great Britain fought to deny China the right even to prohibit the importation of an addictive drug that was undermining its social order.

In response to this humiliation and other calamities, there emerged a series of efforts at modernization such as the "self-strengthening movement," which sought to appropriate and adapt "Western learning," especially science and technology, for Chinese benefit. Western models were used to create special schools and factories. Leaders such as Yang Xingfo (1893–1933), who studied engineering and business in the United States and then promoted scientific management in China, and Ren Hongjuan (1886–1961), the founder of the Chinese Society of Science, put forward the idea of "saving the nation by science." Along with such efforts came the eventual overthrow of the Qing dynasty and the creation of the Republic of China in 1911—followed by war with Japan, civil war, and finally the establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.

In the nearly thirty years from the founding of the PRC to 1978, when China began a policy of reform and opening up to the West, there was little academic research into ethics as related to science and technology. Ethics, as well as science and technology, were viewed through the prism of socialism. On the one hand, scientific socialism held that science and technology were revolutionary forces that drove historical advancement, which was the basis of their social value. On the other, more fundamental was class struggle, to which ethics, along with science and technology, should be subordinated. Intellectuals had to adhere to the party line and to be "both red and expert." During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), some aspects of natural science, such as the theory of relativity and modern cosmology, were even viewed as reactionary bourgeois ideas because of supposed antisocialist implications, and scientists in these fields were themselves criticized as reactionaries.

Since 1978, however, China has implemented policies of reform and opening up, and the government and people have come to view science and technology as a primary productive force. The government has implemented strategies for sustainably developing science, education, and the economy to modernize China. In this new intellectual climate, Chinese academics have begun to pay more attention to ethical questions related to science and technology. Their contributions can be broken down into four main categories.

Do Science and Technology Involve Ethical Problems?

One opinion holds that science seeks knowledge or truth and that as such it is a value-neutral cognitive activity devoid of ethical implications (Jin Wulun 2000). The opposite view is that knowledge creation in science and production through technology can involve ethics in any of three ways. First, insofar as scientists and engineers produce objective knowledge and skills, they must follow methodological guidelines, which include professional codes of ethics.

Second, the application of scientific knowledge and the technological manufacture of products may have both positive and negative impacts on the economy, society, and nature in a way that poses ethical problems. But because scientists cannot control how their research results are applied, and engineers cannot determine how their products are used, they are not professionally responsible for the consequences of their work. Only as consumers and citizens are they responsible.

Third, Gan Shaoping (2000) has argued that ethical issues are sometimes inherent in science and technology themselves. Modern science is no longer purely theoretical knowledge, and engineering is not simply design; both are practical activities with built-in purposes oriented toward special applications. Thus researchers cannot pursue science or engineering and ignore the ethical issues implicit in the application of their work.

Justice and Responsibility

The pursuit of science and technology poses ethical issues of justice and responsibility. The problem of justice appears in two forms. The first asks whether the distribution of scientific research resources among scientists, disciplines, and various social needs is just. The second asks whether the application of research results might unfairly favor some and create burdens or harm for others.

The problem of responsibility manifests itself in the human arrangements that science and technology require and make possible. With the ever-increasing power and impact of science and technology in human societies, human arrangements have increasingly replaced natural arrangements. Properly engineering these human arrangements is an ethical concern.

Moreover, with regard to both justice and responsibility, the activities of science and technology have become a global enterprise. The abuse and misuse of science and technology can threaten the entire human species and the habitability of the earth. Scientists and engineers—along with managers, politicians, and the rest of society—are now collectively responsible for how the development of science and technology affects the future of humankind (Zhu Baowei 2000).


Some scholars maintain that there exists what others have called a "cultural lag" between human ethical standards and scientific-technological progress. On this basis they argue for some limitations in the current uncontrolled growth of science and technology (Lu Feng 2002). Other scholars think that science is superior to ethics, and that ethics should thus conform to developments in science. Most scholars, however, think that there should be an interactive relationship among developments in science, technology, and ethics, and that this constitutes true progress. That is, the correctness of scientific and technological activity should not be judged just from some preconceived ethical standpoint; instead, ethical systems should themselves be rethought, corrected, and developed in light of and in association with science and technology (Li Deshun 2000).

Some scholars have also highlighted dilemmas that arise from interactions between new developments in science and technology and systems of ethical values. On the one hand, new developments in science and technology often bring about new worries in ethics; on the other, if these developments were forbidden, humanity might be deprived of major benefits. In response, it is suggested that a buffer (or soft-landing) mechanism should be introduced between new developments of science and technology and human systems of social values (Liu Dachun et al. 2000).

Ethical Disputes in Particular Hi-Tech Fields

Ethical concerns have come to the fore especially in relation to biotechnology, the environment, and the Internet.

BIOETHICS. In relation to biotechnology, He Zuoxiu, a famous theoretical physicist, argues that no work should be forbidden, not even human cloning (Piao Baoyi 2002) He criticizes bioscientists for caving in to the media and restricting such developments. Zhao Nanyuan, a scholar in the field of automation, further argues that Chinese moralists who simply repeat what foreigners say have become the mouthpiece in China for the antiscientific and antitechnological views of foreign religious zealots. At the same time, most scholars maintain that biotechnology should be pursued prudently because of the risks involved, and that humans should not be cloned because of the ethical and social problems that would arise from human reproductive cloning. The Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Public Health have firmly opposed human reproductive cloning.

ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS. Some scholars accept arguments that animals, living things, and indeed the whole ecosystem have inherent value and some rights independent of their instrumental value for humans. Humans should preserve the environment, not only to enhance the well-being of humans and human posterity, but also to preserve the stability, prosperity, and beauty of ecosystems. Most Chinese philosophers, however, still adhere to an anthropocentric view that only humans have moral consciousness and can be morally responsible for their own behavior. Animals do not have rights. Whether holding anthropocentric or nonanthropocentric views, all agree that preserving the environment, reducing pollution, and maintaining biodiversity have long-term benefits.

NETWORK ETHICS. Information transmitted through the Internet may be true or false, healthy or pernicious. These issues have raised the most concern in the field of what is called "network ethics" (also called "computer ethics" or "information ethics" outside China). In addition, some research also focuses on the protection of intellectual property rights and individual privacy. Some scholars suggest that the anonymity of the Internet is the main cause for the ethical problems arising there, and that for this reason maintaining ethical behavior on the Internet ultimately depends on individual moral self-discipline (Wang Lujun 2000). The central government in the PRC also exercises some restrictions over Internet communication in accord with its concerns for social order.

Developments in the Early Twenty-First Century

Generally speaking, traditional Chinese culture, although emphasizing moral issues, has been relatively tolerant of science and technology. There is nothing like the trial of Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) or the rejection of evolution in Chinese history, except during the aberration of the Cultural Revolution.

In the early twenty-first century, China nevertheless lags behind Europe, the United States, Japan, and some other countries in its level of economic and technological development. There thus exists an urgent need to promote science and technology in China. Current studies of ethics in science and technology should thus include promoting the development of science and technology, especially with the aim of benefiting the most people (Chen Ying 2002).

China seeks to promote rapid yet safe and sustainable development of science and technology. This is reflected in an increasing commitment in the PRC to research and development: In 2003 China spent $15.56 billion in this area, an increase of 23.5 percent over that of the previous year. It actually supported more than half again as many researchers. Along with such increases in research support, the Ministry of Science and Technology has promoted efforts to establish ethical systems and adopt ethical codes, and has dealt seriously with issues of scientific misconduct. The China Association for Science and Technology has established a standing committee on morals in science. The Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering have likewise adopted codes of behavior for academicians and have established related ethical systems.

In addition, education in the science, technology, and society (STS) studies field has actively cultivated research and teaching on ethics in science and technology. From 1984 to 2004 more than twenty centers or institutes for STS studies, including the Research Center for Science, Technology, and Society, and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, have been established. In 2004 Chinese universities have offered more than fifty courses of STS study. Moreover, there have been frequent international and national symposia, and many books and papers in the field have appeared (Yin Dengxiang 1997). STS studies in China seek to promote science and technology in a way that appreciates the ethical dimensions of these activities.


SEE ALSO Buddhist Perspectives;Confucian Perspectives.


Chen Ying. (2002). "Keji lunli de genben yuanze: Wei zui da duoshu ren fuwu" [The basic principle for science and technology ethics: Serve the most people]. Paper presented at the Quanguo di si jie yingyong lunli yantaohui [Fourth National Symposium on Applied Ethics].

Gan Shaoping. (2000). "Keji lunli: Yige you zhengyi de keti" [Science and technology ethics: A hotly disputed topic]. Zhexue dongtai 10 5–8.

Jin Wulun. (2000). "Kexue yanjiu yu keji lunli" [Scientific research and science and technology ethics]. Zhexue dongtai 10 4–5.

Li Deshun. (2000). "Chen si keji lunli de tiaozhan" [Reflections on the challenge of science and technology ethics]. Zhexue dongtai, 10, 2–3.

Liu Dachun et al., ed. (2000). Zai zhen yu shan zhi jian [Between truth and good]. Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe.

Lloyd, Geoffrey, and Nathan Sivin. (2002). The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. A comparison of the cosmology, science, and medicine of ancient China and Greece that relates conceptual differences to how intellectuals in the two civilizations earned their living, interacted with fellow inquirers, and were involved with structures of authority.

Lu Feng. (2002). "Keji jinbu yu daode jinbu" [Progress in science and technology and progress in morality]. Paper presented at the Quanguo di si jie yingyong lunli yantaohui [Fourth National Symposium on Applied Ethics].

Miller, H. Lyman. (1996). Science and Dissent in Post-Mao China: The Politics of Knowledge. Seattle: University of Washington Press. An examination of how scientific dissent led to a renewed liberal voice in China.

Needham, Joseph. (1954–). Science and Civilisation in China. 22 vols. to date (2004). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. A monumental work covering many fields of science in China.

Pourciau, Lester J. (2003). "The Ethics of Electronic Information in China and in Eastern Europe." In Ethics and Electronic Information, eds. Barbara Rockenbach and Tom Mendina. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Qiu Ren-Zong, ed. (2004). Bioethics: Asian Perspectives. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic. Covers such topics as the intellectual foundation of Asian bioethics, bioethics and Asian culture, life and death, and euthanasia and end-of-life care in Asia.

Sivin, Nathan. (1995). Science in Ancient China: Researches and Reflections. Brookfield, VT: Variorum. Examines selected topics in astronomy, medicine, and the scientific revolution in China.

Suttmeier, Richard P. (1974). Research and Revolution: Science Policy and Societal Change in China. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Unschuld, Paul U. (1979). Medical Ethics in Imperial China: A Study in Historical Anthropology. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Wang Lujun. (2000). "Wangluo lunli wenti yanjiu zongshu" [Summary of studies on Internet ethical problems]. Zhexue dongtai 9.

Xi Zezong, ed. (2001). Zhongguo kexue jishu sixiang shi: Kexue sixiang juan [History of Chinese scientific and technical thought: Scientific thought]. Beijing: Kexue chubanshe.

Yin Dengxiang. (1997). Shidai de huhuan: Kexue jishu yu shehui daolun [The call of the times: An introduction to science, technology, and society]. Xi'an, China: Shan'xi renmin jiaoyu chubanshe.

Zhu Baowei. (2000). "Kexue jishu lunli: Gongzheng he zeren" [Science and technology ethics: Justice and obligation]. Zhexue dongtai 10, 9–11.

Zhu Yiting, ed. (2002). Lunlixue da cidian [Dictionary of ethics]. Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe.


Piao Baoyi. (2002). "Fandui 'fan kelong ren yundong"' [Against 'the movement of against cloning of people']. Available from

Zhao Nanyuan. "Minzhu, fazhi, lunli, and kexue: Zai kelong ren xianxiang de beihou" [Democracy, rule of law, ethics, and science: Behind the phenomenon of cloned people]. Available from

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Chinese Perspectives: Overview

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Chinese Perspectives: Overview