Last night I saw upon the stair a little man who was not there

Elvin’s The Retreat of the Elephants has a section on dragons. Specifically, why reliable, skeptical observers like Xie Zhaozhe, who published his Fivefold Miscallany in 1603 claimed to have seen them. That people should believe that dragons existed is of course not surprising. I believe in Australia despite the fact that I’ve never seen it and at lest half the stories about it are obvious fantasies. Xie was a good skeptical observer. His work on a local gazetteer convinced him that historical records were problematic, he was skeptical of dream visions and felt that heavenly portents were more likely “a literary artifice used by historians [to convey their disapproval of the emperor’s confidants]” then a sign of heavenly displeasure.

On the other hand he himself had seen a dragon

I journeyed in 1579 with my paternal grandfather,…when he was in charge of the official travel arrangements [for the commissioner to the Liuqiu Islands]. We were halfway there when a typhoon arose. Thunder, lightning rain and hailstones all fell on us at the same time. There were three dragons suspended upside down to the fore and aft of the ship. Their whiskers were interwound with the waters of the sea and penetrated the clouds. All the horns on their heads were visible, but below their waists nothing could be seen. Those in the ship were in a state of agitation and without any plan of action, but an old man said: “This is no more than the dragons coming to pay court to the commissioner’s document bearing the imperial seal.” He made those attending the envoy have the latter write a document in his own hand bringing the court audience to an end. The dragons complied with the time so indicated and withdrew. That the authority of the Son of Heaven is effective over the manifold spirits is a principle about which there can assuredly be no doubt. If I had not witnessed this event personally, it is unlikely that I would not have considered this principle to be false.

How to explain this? More broadly, how does one explain China’s non-transition from pseudo-science (defined as a systematic collection and organization of data that somehow does not rise to the level of science) to real science? Neither Elvin or I am particularly interested in the old “why is China not like the West” questions, but I found this section of his book very interesting in that it explains the concepts behind Chinese thinking about the natural world

Many Chinese observers tried to fit phenomenon into the Five Elements theory, which Xie has no use for. Although he was convinced that Heaven was conscious and had moral concerns, he was not convinced that these could be fully understood. Although he praised the calendrical experts Luoxia Hong and Yixing for thinking “deeply about the numbers that express what is of the essence” he also scoffed at the Song Neo-Confucian efforts to explain the entire universe in terms of pattern-principle (li). Some things were beyond comprehension.

According to Elvin

“Each phenomenon possessed a distinctive pattern-principle of its own, which was conceptually atomic. In other words, it was intuitively understandable only as a whole and not in terms of any constituent parts. It was also operationally monadic in the sense that it did not interlock structurally with other pattern-principles in any exact sense…..these two properties of pattern-principle, namely conceptual atomism and operational monadism, were obstacles that prevented the scrutiny of pattern-principle from giving rise to a process of analysis with enough momentum to lead in the direction of modern styles of scientific thinking.”

Elvin goes on to point out that what was lacking in China was not observers but ‘facts’ a cultural construct that was “a publicly recorded and accessible statement about an observable aspect of the world, set in the context of a systematic evaluation of the evidence that that yields an approximate probability of its being true, and subject to a continuing public scrutiny and re-evaluation, with the results and the evidence being publicly recorded and accessible. ”

As Elvin points out there was a context in which the creation and exchange of knowledge in China did lead to something like modern science facts, which is the case of textual studies, as discussed by Benjamin Elman. Why the difference? I would suggest that part of it is a different idea of Heaven. I once heard a paper by Chen Wei-chi where he talked about George McKay, a missionary/naturalist who did a lot of work on the flora and fauna of Taiwan. For McKay the naming and categorizing of things was part of uncovering God’s plan, and uncovering things in Taiwan was part of bringing the island into a Christian and scientific world.

Unlike Xie’s li and qi, which simultaneously explained “too much and too little”, the western conceit of a creator God who has a plan encourages systematic and collaborative attempts to figure out what that plan it. In the case of classical philology in China it was universally assumed that there had once been a true and authentic version of the classics which had been lost and could be recovered, and it was a Good Thing to contribute to this cause. Natural science was not the same, because the only possible final destinations were 5 Elements, which did not work, or a random hodge-podge of interesting but useless data. Initial assumptions seem to matter a lot.

Wei-chi Chen, “The Natural History of Formosa is as yet an Unwritten Book: George Mackay, a Missionary Naturalist in Taiwan, 1872-1901” Paper presented at MARAAS 2001, Slippery Rock PA


  1. I definitely need to think about this more. I have Elvin’s book on my shelf, too, and I really should try to read it before I do early China next semester.

    One of my frustrations with our current World History textbook is its incessant one-dimensional discussion of naturalistic studies, which it divides quite consistently and unhelpfully into “scientific” and “not really science.” There’s lots of good detail there, but the framing is a bit weird.

  2. It’s ironic that George Mackay’s “uncovering of God’s plan” (intelligent design?) should have been part of the rise of modern (global) science.

    At the same time, we might consider Darwin’s position, of not having the work of Mendel and Watson/Crick at his disposal. He grappled with unknowns in his theory of evolution (hence his initial reluctance to publish), but unlike Xie, he had the audacity to believe that unknowns were knowable.

    Major outcomes, it seems to me, span around fine, delicate differences. One of those was the influence of strong autocratic tradition of China, which to this day confines the intellect of the chinese. “State secrets”, for example, illustrate this tradition.

  3. I have not read Mark Elvin, but I would question some of his ideas (from what you have written). You have written that pseudo-science is “a systematic collection and organization of data that somehow does not rise to the level of science.” Somehow you say, is it a rather mysterious somehow, or is it a well defined and understood somehow? And it does not rise to the level os science, and what level is that?

    I think that many use the term science rather loosely, and that causes some bad observations, even from very intelligent scientists. I do not have a PhD, am not a scientist, am not an historian, just a lay type guy, but I would like to present some observations of my own.

    From what I have read (and observed), the ancient people did not do science. The classical greeks did not do science, neither did the Romans, the classical Arabs, or Hindus, or Chinese, or Japanese, or Incans, etc. It was only relatively late, historically speaking, that the Western Europeans finally developed science. So the norm was for all people to do something that would not be classified as science, but I would not call it pseudo-science.

    If I would not call it pseudo-science, what would I call it then? I was reading sn artical on String Theory not long ago, and one Physicist (I forget his name, and even the artical I was reading) said that String Theory is not science, it is Philosophy. Why not call it science, because at present there is no experiment that can be contrived and repeated to verify (or falseify) the premises.

    Philosophy, a good term, with historical antecedents. So all ancient people did philosophy, and what is that. It is a cconstruct to explain the universe or some subset from logical premises. Well, is that not what science is? Yes, I would say so, but science is a subset of philosophy, a subset that has not seperated itself from philosophy in general (something akin to Christianity divorcing itself from Judaism) and contending with Philosophy. An accurate construct explaining some facet of the universe is useful and highly regarded, no matter whether is has its origin in science or in philosophy. Science, though, has proven more efficient at deconstructing bad premises and false models than philosophy . But the key to understanding what science is, is that the repeatable experiment defines science more than anything else.

    This poses a problem, because many who call their craft science do not have or cannot develop repeatable experiments (economics, political science, social science, history, etc.) If one says that their trade is not science, then they all get their feathers up and want to struggle with you. It really is not science, but that doesn not mean that their theoretcial construct or observations or conclusions are any less valid. It just means that they do not have the means to conduct repeatable experiments.

    When we come back to classical Chinese theoretical constructs, it is just that sort of thing. They are derived from logical constructs. One can argue with the assumptions made (and quite often those assumptions are wrong, but that was the case in classical European theory also).

  4. Dear John,

    Thank you for the thoughtful comments

    I’m not sure Elvin is really interested in defining what is science and what is not. That is, he is not trying to say that anything that is not science by a certain standard is not worth thinking about. Most historians are not much interested in the debate about “Is history a science?”

    What I think he is trying to get at in this passage is trying to figure out what is so not-science about Xie Zhaozhe. He knows that there was eventually something in the west that became Science, and he knows that there is a large literature about how this relates to ways of understanding that came before it. Elvin has read this literature and I have not, but I can guess that the people who write it are not so much interested in drawing a sharp line between science and non-science but rather explaining why some things that look a lot like science are not best thought of a science, i.e. what is the difference and how did the change happen. I think Xie would have been considered a Natural Philosopher in Europe in 1603, and there is (I assume) a literature on Natural Philosophy and how it became science and why it was not science before.

    Xie is a good example of this problem in that he is clearly a skeptical observer, he rejects the old 5-elements system as insufficient for explaining anything, and he is clearly very interested in the natural world. But he is not a scientist (he sees dragons) so apparently being skeptical, rejecting old just-so story explanations and being a careful observer are not enough. Elvin suggests that the difference is in the social context.

    ‘facts’ a cultural construct that was “a publicly recorded and accessible statement about an observable aspect of the world, set in the context of a systematic evaluation of the evidence that that yields an approximate probability of its being true, and subject to a continuing public scrutiny and re-evaluation, with the results and the evidence being publicly recorded and accessible. ”

    I pushed this back a bit, suggesting that at least in the case of textual studies China did end up with something like science, so why not the study of natural phenomenon? The point of the whole exercise, at least for me, is not to prove that China did or did not have science, or that one place or another had it first, but rather to understand what methods of explaining the world were available and, potentially, to connect this to what comes after it.

  5. I quite agree with you, I believe that one can say that traditional Chinese textual analysis was sufficiently rigorous in its logical format that it would meet the criteria for being considered “scientific” (science in the broad definition of the term, meaning some type of logical format; not a restricted definition meaning the use of controlled repeatable experiments).

    Your question, “So why not the study of natural phenomenon?” is a valid question, and it can only be asked because of what happened in Europe and consequently by introduction into China.

    But the ability to answer the question will require some definition of what “science” is and is not and who does “science” and so forth. Acutally, the who I think is what is most important.

    In all traditional societies that I am aware of, no one practiced what we would call “science” in the area of natural philosophy. And yet technology was making rapid strides, espcially in China. We now a days link technological progress with science, but obviously there was no such connection in those days and in those societies. The Han State was at an equal if not slightly more advanced technological state (if one weighs all the technology together in some form or other) than with the Roman State. From the Tang to maybe mid Qian Long China was significantly more advanced than Europe, technologically speaking (my opinion, perhaps). The reason I bring this up is that we should disassociate technology from natural philosophy or science. When I was a young boy, I noticed that ancient intellectuals did not tinker with things, with experiments. There were exceptions, but the exceptions enforce my observation (in my opinion). We know the various stories of Archimedes, but he was considered a real odd ball type. The stories about Hero are more to the point. He quite often experimented with steam power, but he was accused of playing with toys and doing things that a real scholar does not do (that is, do experiments). There are similiar stories for China. So intellectuals formulated schema to represent the universe without the benefit of experimenting with the universe, and this was the case every where.

    But lo and behold, something happened in Europe, and that something is connected to the who did the natural philosophy in Europe. A significant demographic change took place at the end of the Western Roman state (no, not the arrival of the Germans, that is just one group of people; but rather their arrival is coincident with a significantly reduced population in the Western half of the Empire). Likewise, the latter part of the European middle ages saw a dramatic reduction in population. My own thinking is that the intellectuals that now did a lot of the natural philosophy in Europe was drawn from a class of people (artisans and technicians) that could not practice such things in traditional societies. Hence, expermentation became a central part of their practice.

    Now, as far as Xie believing in Dragons, I do not think that is some type of reflection on the intellectual attitude of the Chinese and somehow reflects on why they were not “scientific”. Newton, in my opinion the first real “scientist”, was a very religous person. Many biographers cannot help wonder how such a rational human being could be so entranced with what they consider superstitions. Just of point of reference.

    Let me present one scenario for Mr. Xie and his Dragon belief. Today we know that there is a lot of flotsam that runs amok in the oceans and can collect in such strange and random order that one on a ship would surely think they were something else, some type of strange being or beast, or even some type of beast they may be familiar with. As he mentions, this occurred just after a typhoon. So there could be a lot of stuff there that collected (or it could have been three Walrus’, for example-who knows). Some on on board the ship sees them and identifies them as Dragons (easy enough to do since there are no dragons to really compare with) and all quickly see the same thing. After much deliberation and fear, they form a hypothesis of their purpose, prepare a remedy and some time after their remedy the creatures disappear (so the time frame was near enough to the remedy so that all could quickly and easily conclude that there was a casual relationship). Xie is just a lad at this time, so he will be very impressed with the observation. There is no reason that one should think that this event somehow indicates a non-scientific attitude among Chinese intellectuals.

  6. This woke me up at 0300 this morning. If you have ever been under a funnel cloud (tornado) stretched across the sky before it touches down, you can certainly understand why even an educated ancient might believe he’d seen a dragon. It happened to me while driving along Interstate 90 up near the Wyoming-Nebraska line in 1980, and it was an impressive sight. The only simile I could think of was that of a large and fierce dragon undulating across the sky. Maritime tornados, weighted down with water, are weaker than their land counterparts. Xie Zhaozhie’s description of the weather conditions certainly makes me wonder.

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