A Science without Nature in China: Heaven (Tian), Morality, and Darwinian Competition from 1890 to 1923

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Abstract Summary
An intriguing, but little noticed, puzzle exists in the historiography of science in modern China: While Tianyanlun (On Heavenly Evolution), the Chinese translation of Thomas Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics, is widely celebrated as THE most influential book in modern Chinese intellectual history, it received little credit in the history of science. Taking this puzzle as a clue, this paper argues that the publication of Tianyanlun by Yan Fu in 1898 was a watershed event since it popularized a distinctively novel vision of Western science. As indicated by the Chinese title, Tianyanlun addressed the key concerns of Chinese literati, showing that the Chinese have failed to comprehend the “Way of Heaven (Tian),” namely, competition. In order to connect science with Tian, the “cosmic foundation of morality,” Yan Fu strategically downplayed the Western notion of “nature” throughout his book. When the May-4th intellectuals in the 1910s endeavored to replace Yan Fu’s “science without nature” with a more radical, modernist vision of science, they strove to “naturalize” the notion of Tian. Following their lead, historians thereafter have dismissed Tianyanlun as not truly a work of “natural” science but merely “social” Darwinism. By way of situating this foundational text/event in the context of science, this paper shows how the history of science can offer insightful and fresh perspectives on issues crucial to modern Chinese cultural and political history, such as the emergence of “the natural” and “the social” (as actors’ categories), the transformation of Tian, and the contentious relationship between science and morality.
Abstract ID :
Submission Type
Contributed Paper
Abstract Topic
Thematic Approaches to the Study of Science
Chronological Classification :
Cultural and cross-cultural contexts, including colonialism in general
Self-Designated Keywords :
Science in China, Tian (Heaven), Ethics, Yan Fu, Darwinism, Competition, Moral Authority of Nature