Science, Society, and Empire in Late Imperial China

HISTORY 103F.005

Fall 2015
3104 Dwinelle
Day & Time: 
M 12-2P
How can astronomy and astrology both provide practical knowledge about the heavens? How do anatomy and pulse reading both provide useful bases for the diagnosis of bodily ills? In this course we consider these questions by examining the relationship in late imperial China between cosmologies, or the organization of knowledge about natural and social order, and technologies, or methods for managing society, economy, and the natural world. Our inquiry proceeds from Shapin and Schaffer’s influential observation that different solutions to the problem of knowledge are embedded in practical solutions to the problem of social order (Leviathan and the Air-Pump, 1985).

In particular we look at the regional and global flows of ideas, technologies, and practices within the Qing imperial formation (1644-1911) during the age when merchant capitalism, colonialism, and science spread around the world. Beginning with a survey of historical explanations for the divergence of knowledge, technologies and economies between “China” and “the West” during the early modern period, we will examine critical works that break down binary contrasts and emphasize common global processes and interconnections. Reading a wide mix of texts, we will ground discussion of the social and cultural history of China within methodological work from across the disciplines of History, Anthropology, Sociology, and Science and Technology Studies. We will think thematically about problems of knowledge from the viewpoint of late imperial China, including how education shapes legitimate knowledge and possible futures; the reciprocal influence between technologies and our understanding of the natural world; ignorance as absence of knowledge versus the product of cultural and political struggle; and how disputation of ‘pure’ empirical facts may hinge on methodology embedded in political contexts. The course will conclude with students writing an extended essay on a particular field of knowledge and its significance to Qing governance.