The 7th International Conference on the the History of Science in China, Shenzhen, 16-20 January 1996

Bulletin of the International Society for the History of East Asian Science, Technology and Medicine, 1.2: 11-12.

Donald B. Wagner

It seems that in the foreseeable future there will be two separate series of conferences on our subject, with respectively 'China' and 'East Asia' in their titles. It should perhaps primarily be an occasion for celebration that East Asian science has become a well-established field; on the other hand an uncoordinated multiplicity of conferences means that many of us will be forced to choose among them, since our travel alowances do not permit many long-distance conference trips. For my part I give travel in China a higher priority than other parts of Asia, and for this reason I attended the Shenzhen conference rather than the one on 'East Asian' science to be held in Seoul in August this year.

The Shenzhen conference had two themes, 'Chinese scientific thought' and 'Science in 20th century China'. Both 'science' and 'thought' were interpreted quite broadly.

There were 103 participants, of whom 81 were Chinese (including 5 from Taiwan and 2 from Hong Kong). Of the 22 foreign participants, 8 were native speakers of Chinese, while many of the rest were quite fluent. The de facto language was thus Chinese, and papers given in English were not widely understood.

There were three 'plenary sessions', devoted to papers of general interest, including one session devoted to the memory of Joseph Needham. Other papers were given in 'scientific sessions', of which four always ran in parallel. Often the choice of which scientific session to attend was very difficult.

The plenary session in memory of Joseph Needham included talks by H. T. Huang on 'Joseph Needham and the state of science in China during World War II' and by Joseph C. Y. Chen on 'Needham's views on scientific thought in China and their import'. Another paper which could have been included here was Zha Youling's on 'Joseph Needham and Shi Shi Middle School', on a copy of the Dao zang which JN purchased in Chengdu for the Cambridge University Library. Throughout the conference JN's name was often heard, usually with praise, occasionally in a more critical context.

In the divided sessions my own interests led me to those on mathematics and technology. Here I can mention only a few of the rich variety of papers on offer. The Zhou bi suanjing and its commentaries were the subject of papers by Qu Anjing and Jiang Xiaoyuan, both of whom argued that the book contains proofs of propositions in an axiomatic framework, as well as one by Sun Xiaochun on a more technical point.

On early bronze technology two papers broke new ground by applying stringent engineering considerations to archaeological artefacts. These were Yang Qing's 'Scientific thought in mechanical design of the Qin dynasty', on the design of the bronze weapons found in the Mausoleum of the first Emperor, and Su Rongyu's 'The formation of the tradition of piece-mould foundry technology and its impact'.

Participants were taken on two local bus tours. One showed us the enormous rate at which the city of Shenzhen is growing, both outward and upward. The other was a visit to a theme park, China Folk Culture Villages, with living exhibits of the cultures of China's 56 nationalities. This was followed by an evening of entertainment, based on the songs and dances of China's minority peoples, by two remarkably versatile troupes of dancers and acrobats.

At the closing ceremony of the conference it was announced that the next conference in this series will be held in 1998 in Berlin. It will be organised by Welf Schnell of the Working Group for the History and Philosophy of Chinese Science and Technology, at the Technical University of Berlin. His collaborator in organising the conference will be Su Rongyu of the Institute for History of Natural Sciences, Chinese Academy of Science, who expects to leave for Berlin in October this year.

My attendance at the Conference was funded by the Leverhulme Foundation.