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Benjamin Elman questions previous narratives of Japan's rise and China's fall

Summary by Euhwa Tran

Posted: June 5, 2009

Benjamin Elman is a Professor of East Asian Studies and History and the Director of the Program in East Asian Studies at Princeton University. His research fields include Chinese intellectual and cultural history, history of science in China, and Sino-Japanese cultural history. Elman’s lecture, entitled “What was ‘Mr. Science’ called Kexue/Kagaku in Chinese after 1900?”, suggested that the traditional view of the inevitability of Japanese success and Chinese failure in the late nineteenth century was inaccurate and needed to be rethought.

Elman opened his lecture with a question: Given that “kexue (科学)”, the modern Chinese term for “science,” derives from Japanese, why did Chinese intellectuals decide to use that rather than a Chinese term? Elman dispels the notion that there was no Chinese term for “science” or that the so-called Chinese lack of science caused the inevitable downfall of China in the late imperial period. He first pointed out that the Chinese had long used the term “gezhi (格致),” meaning the “investigation of things” to refer to subject matters related to medicine and the social sciences. Furthermore, the term was used extensively to refer to “science” by John Fryer who translated many texts on Western science into Chinese.

Second, Elman asserted that the Japanese victory over China in the 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese War was not a foregone conclusion but rather that it came as a surprise not only to China, but even to Japan itself. Japan had gone into semi-seclusion after the defeat by Ming China in 1598, whereas China under the Qing had expanded to include Taiwan, Manchuria, Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Furthermore, despite the defeat of the Chinese navy at the hands of the Western powers in the mid-1800s, China had instituted reforms, was advancing technologically, and still possessed a navy twice the size of Japan’s navy.

Elman made it a point to note during his lecture that he was not disputing the victor of the Sino-Japanese War. Japan’s victory and the ensuing flood of Chinese to Japan to study helps to explain why the Chinese adopted the Japanese term for science rather than used their own terminology. But although Japan’s victory is not in question, Elman concluded that the narrative of Japan’s rise and China’s fall as inevitable is one that was constructed after the war was won and thus requires rethinking.

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