Transmission of engineering knowledge

Transmission of engineering knowledge: a water-driven wood saw in the Qiqi tushuo from 1627 (left) and in Heinrich Zeising’s Theatri machinarvm from 1613 (right).]

Project (2017-)

The Encounter of Two Systems of Knowledge in Seventeenth-Century China

Despite the striking parallels between ancient Chinese and Greek theoretical knowledge, their subsequent history turned out very differently. The Later Mohist knowledge tradition appears to have vanished less than a century after it flourished, while the revival of Greek science in the Renaissance became one of the starting points for the Scientific Revolution. When comprehensive theoretical knowledge about subjects such as mechanics, optics, and astronomy was brought to China between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries, it did not cause a similar transformation of the Chinese knowledge system and society.



Drawing made by Zhang Baichun during a workshop in Beijing, 2016.

The transmission of European science to China in the seventeenth century came about through the partial alignment of the ambitions of Jesuit missionaries in China and Chinese scholar-officials. The texts that were produced in this context were therefore jointly shaped by the diverging agendas and intellectual traditions of these two groups. The Yuanxi qiqi tushuo luzui (A record of the best illustrations and explanations of remarkable machines from the Far West), the first Chinese book on Western mechanics in the Chinese language, compiled and written by the German Jesuit Johann Schreck and the Chinese scholar Wang Zheng and published in 1627, documents this combination of different influences in the field of mechanics and machine building. A scholarly translation of this text into English and a thorough analysis of its sources have been completed and will be published as a commented edition of this unique source. Interpretative essays on different contexts are included, such as the networks of Jesuit and Chinese scholarly actors, the role of deductive structures in the presentation of knowledge, and the double origins (Chinese and Western) of the engineering knowledge reflected in the illustrations and descriptions of machines.