2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 49

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Trying Experiences: Empirical Claims, Practical Experiments, and Authenticating Knowledge in Modern China

Organizer and Chair: Eugenia Y. Lean, Columbia University, USA

Discussant: Tong Lam, University of Toronto, Canada

During the late nineteenth and twentieth-century, new ways of authenticating knowledge and making epistemological claims arose that turned on notions of experience, empiricism and experimentation. Such epistemological strategies are conventionally associated with what was a new, evolving global discourse on modern science. Yet, while undeniably related to such a discourse, Chinese engagement with such epistemologies were highly complex, inflected by a long native tradition of investigating the natural world, as well as by local politics and concerns. This panel seeks to explore how early twentieth-century geo-scientists and editors of technological treatises, as well as Mao-era agricultural scientists and masses engaged in earthquake prediction, articulated and appreciated the value of hands-on experimentation (shiyan), notions of fact (shi) and experience (jingyan) in their respective endeavors. How did these epistemological strategies gain authority to authenticate and legitimate ways of interacting with the material world? How did they become means for Chinese actors to correlate the world they knew with the world they found themselves in and the world they hoped would come? Each paper will present a specific historical case from the late Qing to the People’s Republic of China, providing us with a sense of change over the twentieth-century. The commentator will be Tong Lam, whose own research has examined epistemology and the rise of social sciences in early twentieth-century China. He will start the panel with general comments about the issues at stake and then, follow the presentations with questions to stimulate discussion.

Fake Things, True Claims: Practice (Shiyan) and Authentication in 1930s’ Chinese Collectanea on Domestic and Industrial Science
Eugenia Y. Lean, Columbia University, USA

In an era of vibrant capitalism and burgeoning mass media, 1930s’ China was not only characterized by an explosion of mass-produced things and mechanically-reproduced texts, it was also marked by increasing anxiety about inauthentic knowledge, counterfeit goods, and pirated words. Accompanying the flow of “legitimate” commodities and objects, a shadow economy arose in the industrializing centers of Republican China of untrustworthy things, sub-quality medicinal items, as well as pirated and foreign goods. With an increasingly sensational mass media and a highly commercialized marketplace of ideas, skepticism abounded about what sources of information were trustworthy, and concern about illicit words and misleading information was rampant. By examining 1930s’ collectanea on domestic and industrial knowledge, this paper explores how this era was marked by an increasing sense of ambivalence regarding the impact of industrialization, capitalism, and the mechanical reproduction of words and knowledge. To authenticate knowledge about industrial objects, these texts promoted a notion of verifying through practice and testing (shiyan), and identified the texts’ reader-practitioners of shiyan as ultimate guarantors. Such an emphasis on hands-on verification echoed the endeavors of practical editing and compilation that Chen Diexian, the editor of these collectanea, used to legitimate and authenticate the series themselves and the production knowledge they sought to promote. In an era of perilous markets, false knowledge, and questionable science, these texts and their emphasis on empirical verification offered strategies with which to give order to abundant materiality and dizzying textual profusion.

Shishi qiu shi: Experimenting with the Past in Modern Chinese Science
Grace Y. Shen, Fordham University, USA

For almost two millennia of Chinese history, the phrase shishi qiushi, or ‘seeking truth from facts’, served both polemical and hortative functions. Though the facts in question were often textual, meditative, or anecdotal, the phrase helped intellectuals differentiate knowledge from belief as the proper basis for philosophical, philological, and political debate, and it carved out a privileged space for those who could argue from direct contact with acceptable evidence. In the early 20th century, these forms of acceptable evidence were challenged by unfamiliar knowledge claims from outside, and shishi qiushi found new life as a rallying cry for everything from empiricism to skepticism, pragmatism to positivism—whatever could be used to debunk the authority of received knowledge. Amidst this radical critique of traditional learning, some of the most persuasive attempts to resuscitate historical and textual authority came from practicing scientists, who saw an invaluable resource in China’s long record of natural observations. This paper first examines the ways in which the notion of ‘fact’ shifted from the late imperial to early republican periods, and then again in the early People’s Republic. Then it uses an extended case study of Chinese geoscientists to analyze the ways in which historical data was transformed into acceptable material for modern scientific study, even historical ‘experiments’, through the theorization of precision, reliability, error correction, and simulation.

The Role of Experiment and the Significance of Failure in Mao-Era Agricultural Science
Sigrid Schmalzer, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA

In the post-Mao era, the new leadership came to define the Mao-era approach to science as a colossal failure. This paper will present a systematic critique of this "failure narrative" using Mao-era agricultural science as an example. First, this narrative does not acknowledge the direct engagement with questions of failure in Mao-era propaganda. Far from blanket optimism, propaganda emphasized the difficulties associated with agricultural experiment and recognized failure as a normal experience to be expected in the research process. Second, the post-Mao failure narrative does not recognize the real and complex issues at the center of Mao-era agricultural work. One of the causes of failure most commonly identified in post-Mao critiques is the inappropriate application of models: celebrated, stereotyped practices were forced on local communities in defiance of on-the-ground realities. What post-Mao critiques do not capture is the attention devoted to such problems during the Mao era. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, we find rural experiment groups dedicated to testing new seeds and methods to determine local suitability and attempting to produce new varieties and techniques on site that better matched local conditions. Finally, the failure model applies a different standard to socialist China than to other historical contexts. Critics have laid the blame at the feet of "politics" and "ideology" in ways that we seldom see applied outside the socialist world, though politics and ideology exist in every time and place and do not always conflict with the principles of experimental science.

"The People's War against Earthquakes": Science and Natural Disasters during the Cultural Revolution
Fa-Ti Fan, Binghamton University, SUNY, USA

China experienced a series of major earthquakes in the 1960s and 70s. In response to the threat of natural disasters, earthquake monitoring and prediction became one of the most important and urgent scientific programs in China. This paper examines the earthquake monitoring and prediction program, called “Collective Monitoring, Collective Defense,” during the Cultural Revolution. The program emphasized mass participation in science, everyday knowledge, and observations of macro-seismic phenomena. It called for a particular kind of empirical claim-making and knowledge production, valued experience-based knowledge from the masses, and pursued a vision of the relationship between the modern state and science specific to the Mao era. The paper thus explains the ideas, practices, and epistemology of the program within the political context of the Cultural Revolution. It also suggests possibilities for comparative analysis of science, state, and natural disasters.