Confucian Scientific Identity: Qian Daxin's (1728–1804) Ambivalence toward Western Learning and Its Adherents

Volume 06, Issue 2

This essay deals with a battle that, on the surface, appeared to be a battle over scientific issues but in its deeper echelons was also a cultural battle over the very identity of eighteenth-century Confucian scholars. It reveals tensions between “ancients” and “moderns,” between Chinese Confucians, Western Jesuits, and the adherents of their scientific teachings. The works of Qian Daxin—one of the most prominent scholars of the time—serve as the axis to the story, but the implications go well beyond Qian himself. Specifically, I examine three case studies: debates over the length of the tropical year, notions of cosmology, and the value of π. The arguments Qian had pursued unravel an anxiety over the image and contents of Confucian identity and studies and demonstrate the tight nexus of scientific endeavors and Confucian classicism in the eyes of eighteenth-century protagonists. Furthermore, this essay explores the ways such scholars perceived the structure and nature of knowledge—scientific and otherwise—as linked to the cultural and scientific identity of the Confucians.

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