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Jesuit Scientia and Natural Studies in Late Imperial China, 1600-18001

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Arguably, by 1600 Europe was ahead of China in producing basic machines such as clocks, screws, levers, and pulleys that would be applied increasingly to the mechanization of agricultural and industrial production. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, Europeans still sought the technological secrets for silk production, textile weaving, porcelain making, and large scale tea production from the Chinese. Chinese literati in turn, before 1800, borrowed new algebraic notations (of Hindu-Arabic origins), Tychonic cosmology, Euclidean geometry, spherical trigonometry, and arithmetic and trigonometric logarithms from Europe. Until 1990, Chinese elites and their Manchu rulers interpreted the transition in early modern Europe—from new forms of scientific knowledge to new modes of industrial power—on their own terms. Each side made a virtue out of the mutually contested accommodation project, and each converted the other's forms of natural studies into acceptable local conventions of knowledge. The Ming and Qing imperial court induced Jesuit calendrical, military, and land mensuration experts to work as imperial minions in the government bureaucracy to augment each dynasty's own project of political and cultural control. Consequently, it would be a historiographical mistake to underestimate Chinese efforts to master on their own terms the Western learning of the Jesuits in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.

Affiliations: 1: Princeton University


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