Western learning in late Qing China

The pursuit of scientific and technical knowledge has been a major preoccupation of Chinese intellectuals and governments since early in the twentieth century. One need only think of the deployment of ‘Mr. Science’ and his twin ‘Mr. Democracy’ in the cause of political protest and cultural critique in 1919; or of the importance placed by the Chinese Communist Party on scientific achievements like the development of atomic weapons, the satellite launch programme, or the Three Gorges Dam project.

In the nineteenth century, by contrast, mastery of scientific knowledge was not a high priority within the system of learning sanctioned by the Qing government and enshrined in China’s system of examinations for public office. China had, to be sure, a well-established tradition of the empirical study of material phenomena, one that was particularly strong in the areas of medicine and pharmacology, mathematics, and, crucially, astronomy. Nevertheless, it is true to say that the state-sanctioned curriculum of learning placed its emphasis on the mastery of classical texts and what we might call humanistic subjects—philosophy, political and social ethics, history—rather than scientific subjects. With the arguable exception of applied military technologies, interest in Western scientific knowledge did not become a mainstream concern for Chinese intellectuals and administrators until after China’s defeat by Japan in 1895. At that time, when young would-be reformers worried about China’s weakness began compiling resources for their countrymen on scientific subjects, scientific books translated and published by Protestant missionaries over the previous 50 years were one of the principal resources available to them in the Chinese language.

A measure of their importance can be taken from a bibliography of Western learning compiled in 1896 by the young reformist Liang Qichao, a man who would go on to become the leading intellectual figure of his generation. Liang listed a total of 385 titles on all branches of Western learning, arranged by subject matter into three major divisions and 29 categories, ranging from pure sciences like mechanics to applied military technology, travel accounts, and even cookbooks for Western cuisine, but excluding religious works. Of these titles, 127 or 34 per cent were missionary publications. In the first section of the bibliography, where Liang listed works on the pure sciences under 13 different subject headings, missionary publications made up 73 out of 127 titles, or nearly 60 per cent. The proportion of missionary works in the total corpus of literature on Western sciences available to Chinese readers in the 1890s was, therefore, very significant, and in fact would be even greater if we included the works by missionary translators published by other agencies that were mainly associated with the Chinese Government.

The oldest titles listed by Liang were first published by the London Missionary Society Press in Shanghai in the 1850s; these works will be the focus of my talk.

Despite being around 40 years old when he wrote, several of these LMS texts were noted by Liang as still being of value in 1896, and one as zui jingshan—most excellent. When they were published in the 1850s, these works—23 titles totalling over 4000 pages, all but three first published by the LMS—were the first accounts in Chinese of post-Newtonian astronomy, European algebra and differential calculus, botany, electricity, the telegraph, and steam combustion; global physical geography and climatology; and Western understandings of human anatomy, surgery, and pharmacology.

Generally these works appear to have had initial print runs of between 500 and 1200 copies, and most of them were reprinted again later. Indeed, some of them aroused so much interest that they were immediately brought out in pirate editions by Chinese publishers; the protection of intellectual property in China not then having reached its current state of refinement! Most of them were in turn republished in Japan between 1857 and 1872, and some were being reissued periodically by the original publishers or in collectanea (congshu) within China right up until 1900. The National Library of Australia holds copies of different editions or print runs of some of these works, from both China and Japan, which is part of what makes the collection so valuable.

Missionary Motives

Rather than focusing on different editions and their variations, however, I want us to think today about the motivations of the missionary translators and authors of works on science in this time period. Clearly the production of such books, particularly the more substantial of them, was not a task that would be undertaken lightly. We are talking about devoting years, in some cases, to translating lengthy and sometimes highly technical works of several hundred pages into one of the world’s most difficult languages, complete with plates, diagrams and/or formulae, often employing terminology for which no equivalents existed in Chinese. The technical demands placed on the available printing technology by the algebraic formulae in one of these works necessitated devising and casting a new Chinese font to handle them, which illustrates the complexity of the undertaking. Indeed, the impetus given by missionary publishing in general (scientific and other) to Chinese printing technology is another significant dimension of the history of missionary publishing in Chinese, though not one for discussion here.

Later on, the composition of suitable textbooks for use in missionary schools would become a major motivation for missionary science publications, but that was not a factor in the 1850s. Certainly, in general terms, the missionaries saw the publication of works on science as raising their intellectual credibility in the eyes of the Chinese, and anticipated that Chinese interest in such works might also generate a readiness to pay heed to the missionaries’ religious message. One of the missionary translators and authors, Daniel Jerome Macgowan, justified the work and expense involved in science publications on the grounds of ‘the attention they would meet with from scholars, few of whom care to peruse, much less study, our Tracts and Scriptures’. Still, it was a time-consuming and costly means to such an end, and the fact that the publication of these works was usually financed by private donors, Western or Chinese, rather than from mission funds shows clearly that the missionary translators and authors understood their science efforts to be extra to their primary vocation as Christian missionaries. It is significant in this regard to note that 15 of the 23 titles were produced by non-ordained men—the missionary doctors Hobson and Macgowan, and Alexander Wylie, sent out to China to superintend the LMS Press—who presumably could more easily justify devoting time to scientific subjects than the ordained clerical missionaries, whose principal efforts were expected to be directly evangelistic.

Fortunately, we can learn a good deal about their motivations from what the translators and authors tell us about their science works, in the English prefaces to those works and in other sources. Those sources point us to three factors, two to do with the social and intellectual climate in Europe, particularly Britain and America, and the other to do with their social settings within China.

Useful Knowledge

Firstly, from the works that the missionaries selected for translation and what they say about them, it is clear that their efforts reflect the trend in English-language publishing in the early nineteenth century toward works synthesizing particular branches of learning for an educated general readership. This was the age of the ‘diffusion of useful knowledge’, in which almanacs and cyclopedias of useful knowledge for middle-class households proliferated in Britain and its colonies, including Australia and Canada. Many such works can be found in the National Library’s collections, among them one from which the missionary translator and author William Muirhead drew part of his Chinese history of Britain. Its title sums up the trend: Chambers’ Information for the People, Being a Series of Treatises on the Branches of Human Knowledge in Which the Greater Part of the Community Are Most Interested, and Designed to Serve the Chief Uses of an Encyclopedia at a Price Beyond Example Moderate.

In Britain the trend was exemplified by the foundation of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in the 1820s, aiming to provide publications on learned subjects that would be at once affordable, authoritative, and accessible to a general adult readership. The name of this society was borrowed several times by Protestant missionaries in China over the nineteenth century. More importantly, the aim it served was echoed in the way missionaries conceived of their publications on scientific and general subjects in Chinese. Broadly, in the British context, that aim was nothing less than the progress of civilisation through the dissemination of general knowledge among the ‘lower ranks’ of society, which would lead to their moral as well as their intellectual improvement. The faith placed by that age in the improving power of education may strike us today as somewhat Utopian, quite aside from its taken-for-granted link to Christian moral and doctrinal teachings, but then it seemed self-evident. It is well expressed in the conclusion of one best-selling work used in missionary translation in the 1850s, Mary Somerville’s Physical Geography (1848), which, having discussed the increasing links between the races through contact and colonisation, asserted that ‘no retrograde movement can now take place in civilization; the diffusion of Christian virtues and of knowledge ensures the progressive advancement of man’.

In China the same linkage between useful knowledge, Christian teaching, moral improvement and the progress of civilisation underpinned the missionary publications on scientific subjects. Most of the works chosen for translation were scientifically detailed overviews for the non-specialist educated reader, in some cases the first such syntheses attempted in English. D.J. Macgowan prefaced his work on cyclones with the words:

[The Chinese] need instruction in those sciences which are the source of so much of the wealth and power of our native lands, and without which the resources of the empire [ China] can never be fully developed. In supplying them with works of a scientific character, we shall not only promote their material interests, but by employing these as media for conveying religious truth, we shall contribute largely to their intellectual and moral regeneration.

On the one hand, therefore, Macgowan believed that the scientific knowledge in the book really would be useful to the ‘material interests’ of the Chinese, but that goal was in turn inseparable from their ‘intellectual and moral regeneration’. In a similar vein, Alexander Wylie anticipated that his science translations would ‘exercise a healthful influence on the intellectual character’, and thus ‘aid in hastening the onward progress of civilization, and help the native mind to rise up from nature to nature’s God’.

Moreover, the missionary books, and particularly Wylie’s mathematical ones, were written to introduce a scientific subject progressively and at an affordable price, to educated general readers, moving from basic theorems to increasingly complex material, with full narrative explanations and accompanying exercises. This was an important innovation in an intellectual culture where scientific knowledge was largely confined to small communities of specialists willing to plough through expensive and arcane books (sounds very like academic publishing today!). Wylie’s first book was intended, he tells us, to put the subject within the reach of general learners, occupying the ground between the expensive specialist works and ‘the small manuals on the use of the abacus … found in any book-store’, which were ‘the only arithmetical books of a really popular character’ in the language. The Chinese mathematician Li Shanlan, who was co-translator of many of these works, noted with approval that the work on calculus (Dai wei ji sheji) progressed like a staircase, from easy to more difficult content.

Chinese demand

Secondly, it is important to recognize that missionary science translations were not part of a master plan, whether of individuals, of mission boards, or of abstractions like modernity, capitalism, or the imperialist project. They flowed instead out of conjunctions between tangible and contingent historical factors: chiefly the inclinations and abilities of individual missionaries, and the interests of those Chinese with whom they formed relationships, interests which could in fact be the driving force, as we see in the cases of the missionary doctors Hobson and Macgowan, and even more so in that of Alexander Wylie.

The nature of medical practice required doctors to employ the services of Chinese and give them some training in Western medical techniques, and missionary doctors routinely did so. In the process they entered inevitably into dialogue with Chinese medical traditions and their practitioners. Hobson tells us that he wrote his first science book, Quanti xinlun (A New Treatise on Anatomy) 1851, in the hope that it would prove useful to ‘Chinese Physicians and Scholars who have often expressed an interest on this subject’. Around the same time, Daniel Macgowan in Ningbo was using anatomical ‘models from Paris, a skeleton and plates, to lecture on anatomy before the [medical] practicioners [sic ] and students of the city’ on a regular basis, exciting ‘much interest … among this important class’. He also performed ‘experiments … illustrative of various electric and magnetic phenomena’ before Chinese audiences, and based his newly coined Chinese scientific terms on discussions with the scholars before whom the experiments were performed. The apparatus he used for his experiments is pictured in his 1851 book Bowu tongshu.

There are indications, therefore, that Hobson and Macgowan wrote their science books in response to an interest expressed by Chinese physicians and other intellectuals with whom they were acquainted. This is quite unmistakably true in the remarkable collaboration between Alexander Wylie and Li Shanlan, who came to be regarded as the most gifted mathematician of his generation. That collaboration resulted in no less than seven major publications within a few fruitful years, five between Wylie and Li plus two more that Li co-wrote with two other missionaries, Edkins and Williamson.

Wylie and Li are each fascinating figures. Wylie was born in 1815, the son of an émigré Scots shopkeeper living in London. The family was apparently of modest means, for after a few years schooling young Alexander was apprenticed to a cabinet maker, and pursued the trade until around the age of 30. At the same time, he developed a keen interest in China, and undertook to teach himself to read the Chinese language, using the only materials available to him: a copy of the New Testament in Chinese and a grammar of Chinese compiled by a Jesuit missionary in the early eighteenth century, to read which he taught himself Latin. When the missionary James Legge, later to distinguish himself as the pioneer translator of the Chinese classics into English, came back to London in quest of a printer to take charge of the publishing work of the LMS in China, he was introduced to Wylie and was astonished to find him possessing a tolerably good command of Chinese, entirely self-taught in London. He was recruited by the LMS, and after learning the printing trade was sent out to China, arriving in Shanghai in 1847. He married in 1848, but his wife died the following year leaving him with an infant daughter. Wylie never remarried, instead devoting most of his leisure time to scholarship. The Scots cabinet-maker turned out to be not only a gifted linguist—adding Mongol, Manchu, Russian, French and German, along with some Greek, Uigur, and Sanskrit, to his repertoire during his decades in China—but also an able mathematician and a remarkable pioneer in the bibliographic study of Chinese culture; his works in English still repay reading today. In addition, he appears to have been a good-humoured and likeable man.

The London Missionary Society Press employed a number of Chinese scholars to work with missionaries to produce Chinese translations of Christian texts, and Li Shanlan joined this group in 1852. Five years Wylie’s senior, Li had been interested in mathematics from childhood, but had not been able to go beyond the first level of the Chinese examination system to get into the career track of the scholar-official. Since 1845 he had been employed as a tutor by a wealthy family near Shanghai. During that time he had built up a reputation as a mathematician through several published works, and developed a significant network of students and admirers in the Shanghai area. Wylie had the Chinese ability and the mathematical interest to appreciate the importance of Li’s work, and developed a great admiration for Li, which Li apparently reciprocated. Wylie requested Li to check the computation in the draft of his Shuxue qimeng in 1853, and subsequently Li convinced Wylie to undertake the completion of one of the great unfinished projects of the earlier Jesuit mission, the translation of books 7–15 of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. The first six books were published in 1608 and had been translated into Chinese by Matteo Ricci, the great pioneer missionary to China, and the scholar-official and Catholic convert Xu Guangqi. The book had become probably the best known of all Western works among Chinese scholars, and the want of the remaining nine sections had been so keenly felt among the specialist community of Chinese mathematicians that one of the most famous had actually produced a Chinese version of the remaining books, by inductive reasoning, from the first six.

Li tells us in his preface to the work that he regarded the coming together of Wylie and the resources of the LMS with himself and his network of Chinese mathematicians as a ‘once in a thousand years opportunity’ to complete the translation of Euclid, while Wylie’s preface confirms that the task was ‘undertaken in accordance with the earnest desire of [Li Shanlan], … whose name … may be looked upon as a guarantee for accuracy in detail’. The first of their joint translations was therefore produced at Li’s behest, not Wylie’s, and it was Li’s students who proofread the text, drew up the diagrams, and funded the first printing of the work. It was reprinted in 1865, along with the first six books, by the office of the scholar-statesman Zeng Guofan. This work was followed up by specialised treatises on algebra and on differential and integral calculus, for which Wylie chose works (by Loomis and De Morgan) that would be technical enough to put the tools for further advancement of their mathematics, independent of Western aid, at the disposal of Chinese specialists, for whom ‘mere superficial essays and popular digests are far from adequate’. ‘A simpler treatise,’ he writes in the preface to Daishuxue, ‘might no doubt have been selected, had the object been merely to initiate the learner into the mechanical process of algebraic manipulation; but in view of the disposition shewn by native mathematicians to investigate principles and deduce consequences, it is probable that a work of this character will really do more to advance the ultimate study of the science, than many books of mere formal rules’. Wylie pays explicit credit to Li Shanlan in these works, for instance in the English preface to that on calculus, where he writes, ‘the translator … considers it but justice to the native scholar Le Shen-lan [i.e. Li Shanlan] … to state that whatever degree of perfection this version may have attained, is almost entirely due to his efforts and talents’.

The collaboration was a fruitful one for both men, for Li’s reputation also rose because of it, and in the 1860s he was appointed first to the staff of the Chinese statesman Zeng Guofan, and then as professor of mathematics at the newly established Tongwenguan in Beijing, where he became a popular instructor despite his spoken Mandarin being all but incomprehensible due to his strong Shanghai inflection. (W.A.P. Martin, who worked with Li as president of the college, describes Li’s speech as a ‘villainous patois’.)

It is, therefore, no coincidence that the major missionary science works of this period were in those fields of learning already most familiar to the Chinese—medicine, mathematics, and astronomy. They were products of social interaction, spurred in considerable measure by Chinese interest.

Natural Theology

A third clue to the missionary motivation is found in the frequent references to the term ‘natural theology’ in connection with their scientific endeavours. For instance, Benjamin Hobson reports that he approached his teaching of Chinese students in the following way: ‘As preliminary to the study of subjects more strictly medical, I would endeavour to convey some instruction in the elementary branches of physics, chemistry, and animal and vegetable physiology, considered with special reference to natural theology’. Daniel Macgowan declared that the goal of his scientific publications was ‘to win the attention of Chinese scholars to the study of natural theology, who perhaps might not care to peruse, much less study, Christian tracts or translations of the Scriptures’. Still more intriguing is the following passage from the same author on the sorts of scientific works that would be of value:

Yet, it is not the admirable treatises of a Paley, or a Chalmers, that is [sic] now needed, but such as will teach the physical sciences, in their connection with Natural Theology, care being taken that … they should not be so burdened by the theological argument as to hinder their employment as text books on the subjects of which they treat. Than anatomy, physiology, or medicine, and the collateral sciences, no subjects are likely to secure more attention. Literary men in this land have all more or less knowledge of medicine, which forms indeed a part of the education of every scholar. The writer has long contemplated taking part in such a work, and should the present undertaking be favorably received, he may feel encouraged to prosecute the subject. The additional expense which such volumes would involve on account of their bulk, and the number of plates requisite, would be more than compensated by the attention they would meet with from scholars; few of whom care to peruse; much less study our Tracts and Scriptures.

Macgowan did not in the end produce a work on anatomy, presumably because Hobson beat him to it, but he did go on to translate long works on geology and mineralogy for the Jiangnan Arsenal. The immediate popularity that Hobson’s work attained vindicates Macgowan’s judgement.

We face a problem in grappling with the view of science that such quotations convey. To 21st-century eyes such statements smack of utilitarianism, employing science as a tool for conveying a non-scientific or anti-scientific end, or even a kind of charlatanism, twisting the science to serve a hidden religious agenda. We are influenced by the long-standing tendency to project the more recent conception of science and religion as being in conflict back into history, as if it were an essential feature of modernity. Recent scholarship on science and religion in the modern era has recognized, however, that the relationship between the two has as often been cooperative or integrated as it has been in conflict. This was never more true than in the British intellectual milieu of the early nineteenth century, in which many leading scientists were also clergymen holding some form of Christian or theistic belief, and in which religious beliefs and scientific discoveries were constantly being reworked and resynthesised within the flexible paradigm of natural theology.

A little digging reveals that the Paley and Chalmers to whom Macgowan refers were, respectively, William Paley (1743–1805) and Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847), both leading clergyman-scholars in Britain in the early nineteenth century. Paley was the author of a book entitled in full Natural Theology, or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature, which was first published in 1802 and remained in print and in use through successive editions for many decades. Chalmers, a minister in Glasgow, published prodigiously over his lifetime on a wide range of scientific, social, and religious topics. It is not possible to know which works of his Macgowan had in mind, but several stand out as possibilities, among them a short treatise called Discourses on the Christian Revelation, Viewed in Connection with the Modern Astronomy, and another work entitled The Evidence and Authority of the Christian Revelation. Both these books appeared in the early nineteenth century and ran into multiple editions in Britain and the United States. In the 1830s, Chalmers authored one of a famous series of eight works dealing with natural theology, known as The Bridgewater Treatises. The Bridgewater Treatises were commissioned by the Royal Society at the behest of the Rt Hon. and Rev. Francis Henry, Earl of Bridgewater, who died in 1829. In his will he left £8000 to the society to fund the writing and publishing of 1000 copies of a work on ‘the power, wisdom, and Goodness of God as Manifested in the Creation … illustrating such work by all reasonable arguments—as for instance the variety and formation of God’s creatures in the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms; the effect of digestion, and thereby of conversion; the construction of the hand of man, and an infinite variety of other arguments; as also by discoveries, ancient and modern, in arts, sciences, and the whole extent of literature’. The amount set aside in the will was apparently more than adequate for the task, for instead of one work the Society commissioned eight separate books by some of the leading scientific minds of the day, including one work devoted entirely to the workings of the human hand, by Sir Charles Bell, President of the Royal College of Surgeons, and another by the clergyman and Cambridge scientist William Whewell, whose treatises on mechanics and conic sections were translated into Chinese by Edkins and Li in 1859. The title of Whewell’s Bridgewater treatise, Astronomy and General Physics Considered with Reference to Natural Theology, is echoed quite closely in the quotation from Hobson above.

What, then, was ‘natural theology’ to British and American minds in the first half of the nineteenth century? In its general sense, the term simply means tenets about God derived from natural reason and observation of the natural world, as distinct from those derived from special revelation. In that sense natural theology is as old as Christian theology itself, and indeed predates it in many of the books of the Old Testament. In early nineteenth century Britain, however, its meaning was more specific: the ‘attempt to construct rational “proofs” for God’s existence and attributes … drawing on the natural sciences’. Essentially, natural theology was a mode of thought in which the rapidly multiplying discoveries of science in fields ranging from the microscopic structure of plants to the vastness of interstellar space were interpreted as providing further proofs of the existence, ingenuity, and beneficence of God as creator. In reasoning, it was an argument for design, fuelled by the increasing awareness, on the one hand, that the behaviour of all bodies terrestrial and celestial conformed to the mathematical laws of Newtonian physics and, on the other, that human and biological life were intricately and ingeniously structured. Both, it was held, pointed necessarily to the existence of an intelligence responsible for the elements of design that science was uncovering, and thus to the existence of the omnipotent and omniscient God of Christian theology.

This reasoning had been critiqued on philosophical grounds by David Hume in the late eighteenth century. He showed that it depended on an a priori acceptance of God’s existence and was thus not a valid proof of it, and on slightly different grounds, in continental Europe, by Immanuel Kant. Nevertheless, it remained the mainstream position among scientists as well as theologians in British academic circles, up until the mid-nineteenth century. It was shaken by the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1858, since his theory of natural selection provided, for the first time, a purely naturalistic explanation for the apparent elements of design in biological life; that is, an explanation not dependent on the supposition of a Creator. Even so, the natural theology paradigm remained strong in academic circles in the English-speaking world, including some reworkings of it to encompass Darwinian evolution within a theistic interpretation. Paley’s book, too, was still being used as a textbook in university education until late in the nineteenth century.

Natural Theology in Chinese

The Chinese texts of the missionary publications on science from the 1850s all advance a natural theology position in this sense, and it is clear from their content that their translators and authors understood their scientific writings not as ‘secular’ diversions but as interwoven with their religious message, as science itself was interwoven with religion in that era. However, they advance their arguments in different ways. In some of the works, notably Wylie’s on mathematics and astronomy, the theological content is confined to the preface, while the text presents scientific content without explicit theological commentary. In others, short theological discourses are placed within the text, either in an opening chapter or tacked on at the end of the book. Lastly, in some cases the theological content is thoroughly interwoven with the scientific, as is the case in the earlier of Hobson’s works and in Williamson and Li’s Botany (Zhiwu xue). This does not necessarily indicate that Wylie’s theological convictions were any less strong than Hobson’s or Williamson’s however, since the subject matter of differential calculus was probably less amenable to theological commentary than botany or human anatomy. It is relevant, too, that the titles which are the most faithful translations of particular Western works (Wylie and Li’s four works on mathematics and astronomy, and that of Edkins and Li on mechanics) are less theological in content, while those which are digests drawn from multiple originals or composed directly by the missionary all fall into the second and third categories.

The first position, in which natural theology is expressed in the preface but not in the body of the text, can be illustrated by Wylie’s preface to Tan tian. After briefly sketching the main ancient schools of astronomy in China and Europe, Wylie then summarises the Copernican breakthrough before launching into an extraordinary string of facts and figures to convey the enormity of the universe according to then-current astronomy, expanding the reader’s view outward by stages—from the earth to the solar system, to the galaxy, to a universe of galaxies. The earth, Wylie states, is but one of eight planets and over 50 asteroids orbiting the sun, and far from the largest of them, for Jupiter is 1400 times the size of earth, and Saturn 900 times. Yet if one were to add up the total mass of all the planets and their moons, it would not equal one five-hundredth of the sun’s mass. The sun’s volume exceeds that of the moon by 60 million times, and ‘it can be considered exceedingly large’ (ke wei da zhi zhi yi). However, the sun in turn is merely one dot in an expanse of stars so vast that a person travelling at the speed of the fastest cannon ball would need 4 million years to reach the nearest one. On a clear autumn or winter night, the eye can see about 3000 stars. Supposing each star to be a sun, with planets orbiting it, then the number of planets likely exceeds 150 000, he continues.

Yet this considers only the stars visible to the unaided eye, which the ancients called the Milky Way. In modern times the telescope has revealed countless more stars [and asteroids], around 20 000 times more than are visible to the naked eye. The Milky Way, we now can see, comprises in the order of 20 191 000 stars. Supposing each to be orbited by 50 planets and asteroids, the number of satellites would total around 1 009 550 000, probably each with its own animal and plant life, like our earth, Wylie declares. In this assertion Wylie reflects the common assumption among mid-nineteenth-century astronomers that essentially all planets are inhabited and sees it as compatible with Christian tenets, though this was called increasingly into question, on both scientific and theological grounds, later in the century. Nor does Wylie stop at the borders of our galaxy, for he continues by stating that employing an even more powerful telescope reveals that the Milky Way is finite. Beyond its perimeters are countless nebulae, and the Milky Way is itself a nebula, thus there exist countless more galaxies (when Wylie wrote, astronomers still supposed nebulae to be star systems, not individual stars in formation).

Having unfolded for Chinese readers the vastness of the universal astronomy, Wylie then turns to explicit theological commentary in the concluding passage of the preface, which is worth quoting directly:

David of old composed a psalm that says: 'When I consider thy heavens, the work of your fingers, and the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?' David, gazing at the sky, did not have a deep knowledge of its laws, yet he still could not help but proclaim his joy and praise. In recent times, by contrast, we humans have come to know the marvels of the heavens, and the omniscience and omnipotence of their Creator, which encompass the vastest and the tiniest of things, so that there is nothing that is beyond His reach and supervision. Although humans are of small account, we receive His grace at every moment in the provision of every created thing we see on the earth. Of all the things we eat and drink, the garments we wear in summer and winter, are there any that are not gifts of the Creator? The great benevolence and mercy of God is such that the same must be true for the beings who inhabit all the other planets also. Now suppose that those beings are pure and not fallen, at one with heaven, and consider that on earth our heavenly nature has been lost, and our planet is riven with deceit and wickedness, yet the Creator has still not abandoned it, but instead sent his beloved son to take on human form for our redemption. Surely we cannot help but offer unending praise for the love and mercy of the Creator. Therefore Mr Li and I have translated this book, that people might know the greatness of the Creator, and to cause them to examine the heavens afar, and in consequence to examine their own person near at hand, and conscientiously cultivate themselves and serve Heaven unswervingly, in response to Heaven’s grace and goodness.

After the preface, however, the work becomes entirely naturalistic in its presentation of the science, following closely the two editions of the English work on which it is based, down to the diagrams and plates. In Wylie’s mathematical texts, the theological content in the preface is less ambitious and less closely related to the scientific content of the work. Instead Wylie explains that he has come to China as a missionary, there is a line or two explaining what Christianity is, and a short justification for his having undertaken to translate the book. Natural theology reasoning is still evident in these prefaces, however. For instance, in the book on algebra, Wylie makes the mastery of algebra tantamount to a religious duty, arguing that God has endowed human beings with intelligence and expects them to use it, and expressing hope that readers of the work, in developing their intelligence through studying it, would become aware of God’s grace in endowing the human mind with the capacity for such knowledge, and consider how to repay Him for that grace.

In the second type of work, the theological content extends beyond the preface, but is generally confined to discrete sections within the text, although it may be implicit within the scientific content as well. The two works of D.J. Macgowan and the later titles by Benjamin Hobson are the chief examples of this. Macgowan’s first work was published in 1851 under the Chinese title Bowu tongshu (literally ‘Almanac of the Investigation of Things’, but given the English title Philosophical Almanac by the author), and the second, Hanghai jinzhen (literally ‘The Navigator’s Golden Needle’, but also called ‘The Law of Storms’) in 1853. Macgowan also produced a monthly magazine named Zhongwai xinbao with scientific and other content, in Ningbo, from 1854 to 1857; howver I have not seen copies of this.

The first of Macgowan’s books, Bowu tongshu, is a polyglot work consisting of several discrete elements, each separately paginated. After the English preface comes an exposition of core Christian doctrines—the attributes of the Creator as revealed in the Bible; the origin and ethical responsibilities of humanity; and the person and work of Christ—framed rather ingeniously around three quotes from classical Chinese sources, and couched as a refutation in Chinese terms of certain Chinese metaphysical concepts. There follows a brief preface outlining the book’s chapters and explaining that Macgowan wrote it in response to the interest of Chinese scholars in scientific subjects. The diagrams and short chapters that follow are ‘straight’ scientific presentations of electricity, galvanism, and the telegraph, while the almanac section explains the Sabbath and refers to the earth having been made 4004 years before the birth of Christ.

Macgowan’s work on storms is less of a mélange, offering a sustained treatment of one subject, the origin and patterns of cyclones in the China Sea. It is, the preface tells us, based largely on a work by a Colonel Reid, with whom Macgowan was acquainted, and accompanied by a foldout meteorological map of the China coast and several diagrams. Once again, Macgowan casts his scientific content in terms of Chinese cosmology, rejecting various theories of the causes of winds found in that cosmology. Everything in nature has a cause, he argues, but the yin–yang cosmology of the Chinese was just a way the ancients had of explaining phenomena they could not understand. He then uses the analogy of a ruler who must have means by which to govern his domain; likewise, God must employ means to govern the world, and the wind is one of them. This appears to be an echo of the search in Western science after Newton for the mechanisms (such as fire) by which God intervened to maintain the stability of the universe, but whether Chinese readers would have found it any more convincing than the alternation of yin and yang is surely open to question. Following this initial chapter, however, there seems to be no further reference to God in the book.

Hobson’s works and their connection to the natural theology of Paley, which drew heavily for its evidence of design on the intricacies of human anatomy, have been most ably discussed by Yi-Li Wu, a specialist on Chinese medicine. The natural theology perspective is most overt in his first work, Quanti xinlun, where it appears throughout the text, and in Bowu xinbian, particularly its second part, which deals with astronomy. In his three later medical works, published in 1857 and 1858, Hobson becomes more subtle in his references to the natural theology perspective, but it remains very much implicit in the way he frames the medical content, for instance in the opening statement of one of the works (Fuying xinshuo) that ‘each of the myriad parts of the human body has its own function, and not one exists in vain’—a key tenet of Paley’s teleological approach to anatomy.

Those first two works, however, along with Williamson and Li’s on botany, illustrate the third approach identified above, in which the natural theology and the science are interwoven throughout the work. He refers time and again through the book to the ‘marvellous design’ (miaoyong) of God in relation to particular organs, often comparing elements of the human body to their animal equivalents, to show the ingenuity of the creator in the variety of their design. He also appends to the book a final chapter giving a general account of the doctrine of creation, and in later editions another chapter explaining the concept of the soul. A similar approach informs the section on astronomy in Bowu xinbian, which is in fact a revision of Hobson’s very first foray into science when he published, in Chinese, a work that first appeared in 1849 under the title Tianwen luelun (Outline of Astronomy).

The work on botany has often been presented as a translation of the English work Elements of Botany, by John Lindley. An examination of both works reveals that while the illustrations in the Chinese work are drawn from Lindley’s, the text is not discernibly based on it. Instead it seems to be a substantially independent composition, and one thoroughly laced with theological comment, repeatedly attributing the variety of plants and the intricacy of their microscopic structure to the marvellous design of God. At the same time, the scientific concepts and terminology introduced in the work were sound, and the work exerted considerable influence over the development of botanical science in both China and Japan. The book is also exceptional in not having a preface supplied by the missionary co-author, leaving Li Shanlan’s as the sole preface, to which I’ll return below.

Natural theology remained the framing paradigm for missionary publications on science throughout the late Qing era, and it was one of the subject categories in the great catalogue of Protestant publications in Chinese published in 1907. David Wright has argued, based on an examination of some of the works discussed here, that the natural theology dimension in the missionary science publications becomes progressively less pronounced after the early 1850s, with a few exceptions. It would be more accurate to say that the first position became the most common one—the science content presented naturalistically, but with a natural theology standpoint expressed in the preface or added in a few lines at the end. It is also important to note, as Wright acknowledges, that two works explicitly propounding a natural theology approach—Williamson’s Gewu tanyuan (1876) and Martin’s Tiandao suyuan (1868)—were among the most widely circulated and influential Protestant books of the later nineteenth century, in China and also in their Japanese and Korean editions.

Chinese and Japanese responses

What would Chinese and Japanese readers have made of these works and their theological presentation of scientific content? This is a difficult question to answer, but there are several useful points we can make about it. Firstly, of course, we should not assume that the theology would have seemed any stranger than the science. Yi-Li Wu highlights, for instance, just how bizarre Hobson’s presentation of Western gynaecological practice would have seemed to Chinese elite physicians, for whom childbirth and women’s ailments were simply not a part of ‘medicine’ (nor, indeed, were physiology and surgery). In particular, she points to the final diagram in Hobson’s Quanti xinlun, which shows a doctor’s hand and forearm inserted into a woman’s uterus to turn a baby and assist a birth, as quite strange to Chinese eyes.

In fact, it could well be the case that the theological content seemed more familiar than the scientific to Chinese readers, since it used existing Chinese terminology rather than the newly coined terms that the missionary translators and authors created for the science. This is an important point that relates to choices made by Protestant missionaries for religious terminology in Chinese, most obviously the term for God, which was the subject of vigorous and sometimes acrimonious debate at the time these translations were being produced. In employing a term drawn from ancient Chinese texts (Shangdi), the missionaries were implying that Chinese civilization had within it vestiges of a knowledge of God based on reason and general revelation—that is, a natural theology, in the broader sense, in the form of a monotheism deep in Chinese antiquity. This was a line of interpretation that missionaries associated with the London Missionary Society developed quite explicitly in writings aimed at Chinese and Western audiences alike, and it coloured their approach to the Chinese classical canon. It was also implicit in the use in scientific texts of Chinese terms like tian, zaohua and zaowu, and miaoyong, and in their repeated claim that their texts aimed to reveal the li, the underlying principle, in the world, through scientific observation. The ambiguity inherent in Chinese terms like tian (heaven) could actually be useful to missionary translators and authors like Wylie, who could put a call to his readers to ‘cultivate themselves and serve heaven’ in Chinese terms, while also making it clear that he was identifying tian with the personal and beneficent universal Creator of Christian theology.

The variant Chinese and Japanese editions of some of these works give us one window into the response to the natural theology perspective, but not one leading to definitive conclusions. The first to be reprinted was Hobson’s Quanti xinlun, which, as we have noted, appeared in a congshu in 1852, the year after Hobson published the original edition in Guangzhou, with some textual changes and the illustrations redrawn as woodblock prints based loosely on the original lithographs. The following year, the original text was republished by the London Missionary Society in Shanghai, with a new set of illustrations accompanying it (woodcuts rather than lithographs). Thus within two years of the publication of the original, two versions of the text and three of the illustrations were in circulation. A Japanese printing, based on the LMS 1853 edition and reproducing its illustrations with great precision and refinement, appeared in 1857.

In addition to cutting new illustrations, the editor of the 1852 congshu edition also went to considerable lengths to excise the references to Christian doctrines and even to a personal creator from the text of the work, falling back on abstract terms zaohua or tian where Hobson’s text used zaohua zhu or Shangdi, for instance, and omitting the final few lines explaining the Christian doctrine of creation. The emended text can still be read as presenting an argument from design, in that it repeatedly enjoins the reader to ‘reflect deeply’ on the ingenuity of the creation as shown in various aspects of human anatomy—a reminder that Chinese intellectuals were quite comfortable with the design-like notion of an underlying unifying li (principle) to the universe. But the editor successfully removed Hobson’s attribution of those elements of design to the operation of the intelligence of a personal and sovereign Creator.

This is the exception rather than the rule, however. The Japanese reprints of Hobson’s Anatomy do vary in how much of the short religious discourse at the end of the book they include, but they do not alter the text within the rest of the work, leaving its theological assertions unchanged. This is also the case with the Japanese reprint of Williamson and Li’s work on botany (Zhiwu xue), notwithstanding its heavily theological tone, and the other Japanese reprints of the missionary science texts that I have seen. The only exception is the Japanese reprinting of Wylie’s short-lived serial Liuhe congtan (Shanghai Miscellany, 1857–58), from which all the religious articles were omitted. Otherwise, the reprinted editions, whether in China or in Japan, seem to have reproduced the original texts and their prefaces without alteration. Where additional prefaces were added, these neither endorsed nor disparaged the theological perspective.

Of course the relationship between natural theology and Christian doctrine was an ambiguous one, whether in Britain or in China. Scholars have noted with reference to the former that natural theology persisted so long in part because it could accommodate a range of theological positions that extended well beyond Anglican orthodoxy. Sir Isaac Newton, who had believed that the astronomical laws he had identified required the periodic intervention of God to keep the orbits stable, had been a non-Trinitarian, while scientists more at home with a deist position than a Christian one could comfortably employ the language of natural theology, and sometimes found it useful to do so. This was in part because, while natural theology reasoning might point to the existence of design in creation and hence to the existence of a divine creator, it could not demonstrate conclusively that the Creator was indeed the God of Christian theology, and still less that God had become incarnate in the man Jesus, died on a cross for the sins of the world, and been raised to life on the third day.

In Chinese, the difficulties inherent in employing natural theology reasoning to advocate Christian faith were if anything greater, not necessarily because Chinese readers would not find the reasoning itself persuasive, but because acceptance of the reasoning did not imply or necessitate Christian conversion. We have already noted that the Chinese editor of Hobson’s Anatomy altered the text in ways that left some elements of the design argument intact, but excised the connection to a personal divine intelligence behind the creation. Li Shanlan, the mathematician who co-authored so many works with the missionaries, seems to have gone further towards accepting the natural theology perspective, but without going so far as to accept Christian baptism. The evidence for Li’s personal religious view is slim, but still suggestive. In his prefaces to most of the works that he co-authored with missionaries, Li Shanlan confines himself to summarising the work, its background, and how it came to be published, leaving any theological comment to the missionary co-author. As we noted above, the one exception occurs in Zhiwu xue, in which Li’s is the only preface. Alexander Williamson, the missionary with whom Li worked on the first seven chapters, returned to Britain in November 1857, and thus would not have been available to write a preface when the work was ready for publication early in 1858. Joseph Edkins, who worked with Li on the final chapter, may have felt that his role in the work was not substantial enough to warrant him supplying a preface, or may have been prevented from supplying one due to his own departure for Britain in February 1858. Also, given that Williamson had only been in the country since September of 1855, his grasp of Chinese was probably not as strong as, say, Wylie’s, which would tend to make Li’s role in the composition of the book even more substantial. So perhaps he felt justified in the impression that his was the principal authorial voice, which is one implication of his supplying the only preface.

Whatever the exact reasons, the content of Li’s preface is fascinating, for in it Li asserts in his own voice that all animal and plant life has been created by Shangdi. Arguing by analogy, in the Paley mode, he writes:

Just as one knows on seeing a beautifully wrought vessel that a skilled craftsman made it, or on seeing fields set in good order that a diligent farmer has worked them so, in examining the beauty and intricacy of plants, one sees the wisdom and sagacity of God (Shangdi). This being the case, their [Williamson’s and Edkins’] decision to translate this work was certainly fitting. Scholars who read this book will in a flash awaken with awe to the necessary existence of God, and in apprehension govern their inward selves and outwardly cultivate their loyalty and filial feeling (wai yi xiu qi xiao ti zhong xin), afraid only of transgressing against the will of God. If that is the result, then the benefit to humanity of translating this book can hardly be called sparse or superficial.

Note that Li makes the same connection as I have discussed between useful knowledge, Christian belief and moral improvement, the latter referring in Chinese terms to the self-cultivation of the Chinese scholar, but within a theistic frame of reference of accountability to Shangdi.

Of course, it is possible that Li felt constrained by the absence of a missionary preface to include some of the religious content customarily found there in his own preface. However, it seems more likely that Li was persuaded to accept the design argument for Shangdi as the Creator of all things—not necessarily a huge leap from Chinese metaphysics—but not the Christological doctrines at the core of Christianity, which were a great distance away. A further indication in favour of this interpretation comes in the memoirs of W.A.P. Martin who, as president of the Tongwenguan, worked closely with Li in Beijing over the last dozen years of Li’s life. Martin reports that Li ‘came very close to professing Christianity’ during his years with Wylie, and recounts a conversation in which Li said to him ‘how can I be lonely when Shangdi is with me?’ while also stating that Li’s ‘faith, if he had any, was a compound of East and West’.

Indeed, ‘a compound of East and West’ is an apt description not only for Li Shanlan’s religious views, but for the missionary publications themselves, including those on science. These works cannot be understood as simple importations of an alien system of knowledge into the Chinese world, because they came into being through interactions—personal, social, and linguistic—between the missionaries and Chinese society. Nor did they simply replace Chinese systems of knowledge in the areas they dealt with, but continued to interact with them over the ensuing decades. At the same time, the missionary science works were important in introducing Chinese intellectuals to contemporary Western ways of conceptualising scientific subjects, particularly in the areas of astronomy, higher mathematics, medicine, and botany. Those of the 1850s were especially significant for their scope and their relative depth.

The intellectual context provided by natural theology in British intellectual circles is what makes the devotion of so much missionary effort to science publishing comprehensible. Again, it is important to recognize that the scientific content and and the natural theology reasoning were not two pulses pulling in different directions, but rather two sides of the same coin for the missionary translators. And yet, as we have seen, natural theology reasoning could point the Chinese reader to theism or monotheism without necessarily pointing to Christianity, and it appears to have done so for some of the few Chinese readers for whom we have evidence.

[To view the citations for this paper please contact the author at ryan.dunch@ualberta.ca]