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Mapping ancient knowledge to understand the present

By Pan Sheng | 2014-03-21 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today
In traditional Chinese private schools, pupils often studied under the tutelage of a widely learned teacher.
Discussion of how we have accumulated and formed what we might call the collective knowledge of human beings today typically touches on the history of science, scholarship, and of course, the history of human knowledge itself. As for the first of these, historical accounts of the evolution of science are often almost as much works of the philosophy of science and sociology. Prime examples include Thomas Samuel Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which proposes that “paradigm shifts” are at the center of revolutions in scientific thought, and Robert K. Merton’s early work Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England, an important work of methodology in the sociology of science.
Comparative viewpoints: the anatomy of Eastern and Western history
Developments in phenomenology and hermeneutics since the beginning of the 20th century have deeply shaped Western intellectual history. Although figures like Husserl, Heidegger and Gadamer vary in the focus of their inquiries, all searches for truth via understanding language and knowledge. Building on these early 20th century discussion in continental philosophy, Michel Foucault’s The Archeology of Knowledge sought to explain systematically the social origins of scientific knowledge, the basis of power and knowledge in governance, and how it was possible for modern society and modern knowledge as a whole to come into being through the concept of power and discourse.
It was Edward Said’s departure from Western-centrism that opened the door for scholars to treat a variety of forms of knowledge as rational. Clifford Geertz’s publication of Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology in 1983 extended this inclusive and pluralistic perspective of knowledge even further. Its impact was even felt among historians of Chinese science, for whom it to some extent reinvigorated the famous “Needham PuzPuzzle”—the question of why modern science did not first arise in China given the significant advances in engineering and knowledge of the natural world in classical Chinese society.
This tide led scholars to look at knowledge and dissect its overall architecture from new perspectives. Intellectual history became less preoccupied with the structure and significance of modern disciplines, and began employing a more holistic vision in tracing how knowledge is formed through the establishment of a single discipline is established and discussing how diverse forms of knowledge can co-exist. One difficulty in this research is China’s robust tradition of intellectual and literary research connected with Confucianism. This tradition revolves mostly around ancient and classical intellectuals and their political and social lives, but provides little textual resources to address issues related to Chinese science, like the “Needham Puzzle” or the scientific and philosophical underpinnings of traditional Chinese medicine and qigong (a breathing technique). In particular, the latter two topics tend to illicit polarized, knee-jerk reactions—vulgarly deifying them or stigmatizing them as complete rubbish—rather than carefully researched studies. These attitudes have resulted in a loss of respect for and outright skepticism over the legitimacy of a rich traditional system of knowledge built out of thousands of years of cumulative experience.
Multi-disciplinary perspectives: exploring systems of knowledge in ancient China
In recent years, the Chinese academic community has gradually started to reflect on the research methods and approaches within its own tradition. Falling into the field of scientific or intellectual history, this type of reflection involves re-delving into ancient Chinese knowledge holistically and comprehensively.
How do we discuss ancient Chinese knowledge? An approach that has been applied successfully is to reexamine scientific knowledge through a humanistic lens, giving an emphasis to how this knowledge varies across fields and takes on local characteristics. The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s publishing project The History of Cartography, which brings together scholars in the arts, sciences and humanities to consider previously ignored elements in the history of map-making, is an example of this sort of scholarship. Other scholars have used the discussion of a particular field of knowledge or activities supported by a field of knowledge as an entry point to explore broader trends in social and historical development, like Chen Jinguo’s study of geomancy during the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
Still, the above-mentioned research seems to sidestep the real issue of knowledge. For example, who drew the different types of maps in different time periods? What techniques did cartographers in different time periods use? Were there specific professional guilds specializing in mapmaking? Can we define these skills as knowledge?
Providing better answers to these questions will require firstly clarifying the basic structure and system of ancient Chinese knowledge. Simply put, scholars have to restore its original look. How do they achieve this sort of restoration? Tang Xiaofeng offers a multi-faceted explanation with regard to ancient Chinese geography. Proposing that scholars “emphasize the original system of ancient geography,” his exposition provides a completely new vision.
Toward clarity: reconstructing the ancient to support the present
The present state of this line of inquiry, as outlined above, leaves four important angles from which further discussion of knowledge should embark. Firstly, it should be a restorative exercise. Scholars need to reconstruct how various kinds of knowledge (including skills, rites and faith) were understood, described, explored and distinguished in different periods. Secondly, it ought to be an exploration of genealogy. Seeking to understand how various branches of knowledge became differentiated, scholars trace the very origins of knowledge, how concepts became established, and how bodies of knowledge were divided, systemized and refined. Thirdly, it should be an investigation of how people created and accumulated knowledge, the theory and practice of different techniques, the changes in how knowledge was reflexively employed as a tool to interpret itself, and the diffusion of knowledge over time and across different geographies. Fourthly, it should be a process of mapping knowledge’s interconnectivity, as well as the competition between different schools.
At the same time, we need to expand the scope of what we classify as “knowledge”, transcending the orthodox meaning. Knowledge, in broad sense, includes information and skills deeply connected with daily life; it includes systems of practices and ideas spread mostly by word of mouth, like crafts, or mysticism, and even forms of knowledge that are considered illegitimate, such as divination, witchcraft, alchemy, astrology and geomancy.
Overall, this approach of combing through the rudiments of ancient knowledge by studying the history of science and intellectual history will provide a reliable basis for comparative study (between the East and West and between the ancient and modern). Meanwhile, fully grasping ancient systems of knowledge can provide scholars with tremendous pillars of theoretical support. It can also reverse the current situation in global academe, where the importance and perceived relevance of traditional knowledge is fading in the context of contemporary discourse.
Pan Sheng is from the School of Social Development at Nanjing Normal University. 

The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Today, No. 555, January 29, 2014

Translated by Bai Le

Revised by Charles Horne