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Notes from the Harmonious Society: Dissident Science in China, Part II


Austin Dacey

October 26, 2009

Two classical Confucian philosophers once had a famous disagreement over the morality of music. Mozi mounted a utilitarian case in his “Codemnation of Music”: “What benefits men, the man of humane principles will carry out; what does not benefit them, he will leave alone. . . . Sounding bells, striking drums, strumming zithers, blowing pipes, and waving shields and axes in the war dance do nothing to feed the people when they are hungry, clothe them when they are cold, or give them rest when they are weary.”

The great Xunzi responded that if Mozi’s policy were to be implemented, society “would be pressed to such extremity by his measures that all clothing would be coarse and gross and all food would be bad and detestable, with only hardship and grief when music and joy have been condemned.”1 But Xunzi did not defend music by asserting its intrinsic value or extolling its aesthetic properties. Instead, he accepted Mozi’s utilitarian premises, insisting that music is valuable just because it is necessary to preserve civic order.

When music is centered and balanced, the people are harmonious and not [consumed by] dissipation. When music is sober and dignified, the people are uniform and not chaotic. When people are harmonious and unified, the army is stiff and the cities secure. . . . When music is ornate and seduces [people] to malice, then the people are dissipated, indolent, crude, and base. Dissipation and indolence lead to chaos, crudity and baseness to contention. When there is chaos and contention, the army is soft and the cities are pillaged.

Referring to the sage-rulers of antiquity, Xunzi concluded:

Thus the Former Kings were cautious about what they stirred [the people] with. They used ritual to make their wills [conform] to the Way, music to harmonize their sounds, government to unify their actions, and punishments to prevent licentiousness. Rituals, music, punishments, and government are ultimately, a means to make the people’s minds similar and bring about the ordered Way. 2

Music is a means for moral instruction, ritualized rehearsal of social roles, and ultimately discipline and control—hegemony in harmony. No less than sound, it seems that science in China has been political from its beginning.

China’s Scientific Revolution

The story of modern science in China begins with the introduction of mathematical astronomy by Jesuit missionaries during the late Ming period in the 1580s. In 1592, the Ministry of Rites discovered that the Astrocalendrical Bureau had miscalculated the date of the lunar eclipse by a full day. This was going to foul up the timing of all the auspicious and inauspicious events. Fortunately for them, the Jesuits were adept at dealing with calendar crises, having not long before resolved a European controversy over the date of Easter.

In the 1630s the government was persuaded to undertake a major calendar reform, and as Benjamin Elman explains in A Cultural History of Modern Science in China, this “opened the door for leaders of the mind and Qing dynasties to accept Jesuits as calendrical experts, just as earlier rulers had accepted Indian, Persian, and Muslim specialists.”3 So long as they continued to supply expert assistance in astronomical and geographical matters, the missionaries were tolerated by the emperor and eventually incorporated into the bureaucracy. Throughout the eighteenth century, the Jesuits introduced a variety of European technologies. But they failed to keep apace with the latest scientific advances back home. Consequently, the Earth-centered cosmological system of Tycho Brahe was still being taught in China in the nineteenth century.4

With the help of the Protestant missions, modern science was born in China: “From 1850 to 1870, a core group of missionaries and Chinese co-workers in Guangzhou, Ningbo, Beijing, and Shanghai translated many works on astronomy, mathematics, medicine, as well as botany, geography, geology, mechanics, and navigation.” Scientific training was centered on the military arsenals, shipyards, and factories of the coastal cities where armaments and ships were being constructed. After 1895 and China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War, elites increasingly agitated for political reform and modernization. As Elman observes,

Chinese radicals linked political, social, and economic revolution to their perception that a scientific revolution was also required. Those who were educated abroad at Western universities such as Cornell or sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation for medical study in the United States after 1914, as well as those trained locally at higher-level missionary schools in China, often regarded modern science as a revolutionary application of scientific methods and objective learning to solve all modern problems.5

Here began a political rhetoric fusing scientific advance, technological application, and Chinese national aspiration, the same rhetoric that later resounded in the May Fourth Movement after 1919, up through Maoist “mass science” to Hu Jintao’s Scientific Development Concept.

Humming Along

Today the country’s enormous investment in science is overwhelmingly pragmatic, driven by short-term technological applications. In 2008, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told Science magazine that only 5 percent of the nation’s total spending on science goes toward basic research (by comparison, basic research accounts for 17.5 percent of the U.S. government’s science funding).6 The ubiquity of the Chinese term keji—literally, science and technology—illustrates the importance of applied knowledge.

It would be mistake to think of China’s scientific revolution as a fast-motion replay of Europe’s. Science did not come to China as it had come to Europe, and most Chinese elites did not come to science for the reasons that their European counterparts had. Early modern European science depended heavily on private commercial interests and autonomous professional associations (like the Royal Society). Its propagandists pressed for knowledge to improve the human condition but also to read the mind of God or the book of Nature as an end in itself. An anti-authoritarian ideology arose in response to confrontations with the Church. Chinese science, by contrast, evolved in symbiosis with state power, and its propagandists championed it as a means to national development.

In this way, from its origins the Chinese scientific establishment was organized and mobilized to achieve the practical ends of those in power. But perhaps the best explanation for the dearth of political dissent among professional scientists is more pedestrian than philosophical. Since Tiananmen, the shocking brutality of the crack- down and the constriction of civil society have surely taught many would-be disharmonious scientists that silence is the only sensible option. More importantly, they have so much to lose. Today’s technoscience professionals are members of a comfortable middle class with enviable positions to look out for and reliable research funding to look forward to.

China’s vast economic engines churn ahead, and its scientists hum along.


  1. John Knoblock, ed., Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1990), 128.
  2. Paul Rakita Goldin, Rituals of the Way: The Philosophy of Xunzi (Chicago: Open Court, 1999), 79–80.
  3. Benjamin A. Elman, A Cultural History of Modern Science in China (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006), 18.
  4. —. A Cultural History of Modern Science in China (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006), 18.
  5. —. “New Directions in the History of Modern Science in China Global Science and Comparative History,” Isis, 98(3): 522.
  6. See “Science: Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao Sees Science as a Key to Development,” (accessed 17 October 2009).

Austin Dacey

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Austin Dacey, Ph.D., is former director of Science and the Public, a program of the Center for Inquiry and State University of New York at Buffalo, and author of several articles and books, including The Secular Conscience. He holds a doctorate in applied ethics and social philosophy and has taught most recently at Polytechnic Institute of New York University.