Huyssteen, Confucianism and science

Traditional Confucianism valued science mainly for its practical applications. Astronomy and mathematics, for example, were valuable for divination and agricultural purposes. Both of them were also needed in making calendars, which were important for the agricultural economy. In addition, Chinese medicine was an early scientific tradition with many practical applications related to the surival of human beings.

Astronomers were active during the East Chou period (722–222 B.C.E.) in China. Almost all Chinese astronomers were also astrologers. They believed that the stars and celestial bodies affected the governmental bureaucracy, but seldom affected individuals or the population in general.

The Shiji (Records of the historian), written by Sima Qian in 90 B.C.E. during the Han dynasty, includes a systematic chapter on astronomy. The chapter reviews the stars and constellations of the five “Palaces” (circumpolar, east, south, west, and north) and includes an elaborate discussion about planetary movements, including retrogradations, followed by the astrological association of the lunar mansions with specific terrestrial regions, and the interpretation of unusual appearances of the sun and moon, comets and meteors, clouds and vapors, earthquakes, and various harvest signs. The author also warns the emperor to pay attention to astronomy because it can help him learn how to govern the empire.

The most important early writing on mathematics is Jiuzhang suanshu (Nine chapters on the mathematical arts), written in 260 C.E. by Liu Hui. This work provides the first Chinese geometrical proofs in connection with finding the areas of a trapezium (a quadrilateral formed by two isosceles triangles) and other figures. The first chapter of Jiuzhang suanshu is a “Land Survey” that gives the correct rules for finding the areas of rectangles, trapeziums, triangles, circles, and arcs of circles and annuli. The second chapter, “Millet and Rice,” deals with percentages and proportions, and reflects the management and production of various types of grains in Han China. The sixth chapter, “Impartial Taxation,” deals with problems of pursuit and alligation, especially in connection with the time required for people to carry their grain contributions from their native towns to the capital.

Nearly one thousand Chinese mathematical treatises from the second century C.E. onward survive. The great majority have to do with the kinds of practical matters that government officials, their clerks, and landowners would encounter, such as surveying land and calculating exchange rates and taxes payable in money and commodities. The predominantly practical orientation of Chinese mathematics makes it neither inferior nor superior to the Western tradition. Its lack of development at the abstract geometric level was balanced by its strength in numerical problem solving.

Another important function of mathematics in premodern China was divination (shu) and astrology (suan), both of which included numerology. Some divination techniques also identify regularities underlying the flux of natural phenomena.

In general, Confucianism is mainly concerned with ethics, morality, and political theory rather than science and technology. Although Confucianism essentially functioned as the state religion, it was conspicuously un-religious. Confucian scholars who lived during the long period (approx. two thousand years) of unity of Chinese society always set the social agenda concerning how to “cultivate their persons, regulate their families, govern well their states and finally exemplify illustrious virtue throughout the world” (c. fifth to first century, Great Learning). The purpose of science and technology in a Confucian society is to help a person to be a good politician and sage. Thus, moral teachings are more important than natural scientific findings, and scientific discourse in Chinese culture tends to be full of speculations and metaphors, rather than accurate factual information.

Confucian tradition has not been concerned with scientific theory, so traditional Chinese sciences have focused on practical applications in medicine, agriculture, arithmetic, and astronomy. Traditional Chinese sciences have also stressed the political and moral implications of science and technology. Nonetheless, Chinese scientists are credited with some important inventions, including paper, the compass, the art of printing, and the production of gunpowder. Although the compass was invented in China around 2700 B.C.E., there was no further scientific theory of the compass.

The Chinese people used compasses mostly for determining Feng Shui (wind and water), a folk superstition by which people set up a comfortable living environment. Although it can not be denied that technical investigations were fruitful in Chinese history and resulted in many inventions, scientific theorization remained on the level of factual description and empirical interpretation. For example, traditional Chinese medicine involves a great deal of speculation that is not supported by clinical experimentation; it remains on the level of abstract thinking and intuitive observation. Arithmetic was also mainly used for practical calculation that did not require abstract thinking, so no mathematical theory or formal logical system was developed.

Under the ideology of Confucianism, science and technology had to deal with daily issues of human society, and Confucian scholars made little effort to engage in scientific and technological research. Science and technology were generally regarded as merely a means for human beings, with no ultimate value in helping someone become a sage. This may be one of the main drawbacks of the Confucian value system and world-view: It has served as a drag on Chinese scientific and technological development.


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