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"Universal Science" Versus "Chinese Science": The Changing Identity of Natural Studies in China, 1850-1930

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image of Historiography East and West

This article is about the contested nature of "science" in "modern" China. The struggle over the meaning and significance of the specific types of natural studies brought by Protestants (1842-1895) occurred in a historical context in which natural studies in late imperial China were until 1900 part of a nativist imperial and literati project to master and control Western views on what constituted legitimate natural knowledge. After the industrial revolution in Europe, a weakened Qing government and its increasingly concerned Han Chinese and Manchu elites turned to "Western" models of science, medicine, and technology, which were disguised under the traditional terminology for natural studies. In the aftermath of the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, Chinese reformers, radicals, and revolutionaries turned to Japanese and Western science as an intellectual weapon to destroy the perceived backwardness of China. Until 1900, the Chinese had interpreted the transition from "Chinese science" to modern, universal scientific knowledge - and its new modes of industrial power - on their own terms. After 1900, the teleology of a universal and progressive "science" first invented in Europe replaced the Chinese notion that Western natural studies had their origins in ancient China, but this development was also challenged in the aftermath of World War One during the 1923 debate over "Science and the Philosophy of Life."


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