The Far-Seeing Looking Glass Goes to China
Toby Huff has written a fascinating book: Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution in which he studies the spread of the telescope following its invention in Holland and its effect on science in Europe, China, and the two main muslim regions: the Ottoman Middle East and Mughal India. What follows is a summary of how the telescope went to China and what did not happen as a result.
Astronomy in China
Astronomy in China is a state monopoly conducted by the Bureau of Mathematics and Astronomy within the Ministry of Rites, under the Third Minister reporting to the Grand Secretary. The Ministry of Rites is responsible for state ceremonies, rituals, sacrifices, licensing Buddhist and Daoist priests, etc. The Bureau of Mathematics and Astronomy has the main task of preparing the annual calendar (and its regional spin-offs) and identifying lucky and unlucky days. This is the sole purpose of Chinese astronomy, which is why astronomers are called “calendar-makers.” Scientific investigation of the natural world is outside the box. The annual calendar is presented to the Emperor in a grand public ceremony. It includes ephemerides giving meteorological forecasts for each region. Since a failure of the calendar reflects the Mandate of Heaven, it can be dangerous to get these forecasts wrong.
The Datong methods are purely arithmetical; China has not invented geometry, esp. spherical geometry. Signs in the Heavens are assumed to reflect doings on Earth – in both directions. The misbehavior of officials, esp. the Emperor, can cause earthquakes, floods, etc. (The Chinese have evidently not come up with causality, either.) Astronomers study the Heavens for signs to be made known only to the Emperor. Astronomical observations are thus reports from Heaven to the Emperor, just as the observations of the Censorate are reports from the provinces to the Emperor.
The Jesuits in China
1601 Matteo Ricci, a student of Clavius, arrives in Beijing and becomes friends with the brilliant scholar Xu Guangqi. Xu becomes fascinated with the systematic and logical apparatus of Euclid.
1603 Xu converts to Christianity as “Dr. Paul.” Ricci and Xu decide to translate the corpus of Western science into Chinese.
Ricci discovers that he is “the greatest mathematician/astronomer in the world.” The Chinese believe in a flat rectangular Earth with China in the center and with a canopy overhead. They have nothing like Euclidean geometry or Ptolemaic astronomy, and the Ming calendar is regularly failing. Ricci decides that European science can be used to lead the Chinese to Christianity.
1607 Euclid’s Elements is published in Chinese. Ricci translates Sacrobosco’s On the Sphere, a Ptolemaic work from 1250, updated by his mentor Clavius, in order to counter the flat earth belief.
1610 December. Xu Guangqi (Dr. Paul) arranges a face-off between Jesuit and Chinese astronomers to predict various celestial events. The Western astronomy is so much more accurate that the Emperor grants permission to translate the Western science into Chinese. Opposition surfaces among the mandarinate.
The Brave Little Telescope
1608 Hans Lipperhay presents his look-glass [telescope] to the Estates General in The Hague. He advises it be kept secret due to its military potential. Fat chance.
1609 March. Galileo learns of the look-glass and, failing to connect with a traveler said to possess one, he sets out to make his own. [Galileo is a skilled lens-grinder who runs a side-business making spectacles for sale.] He later presents a look-glass to the Senate of the Republic, implying (but not claiming) he had invented it. The Senate gives him a prize, but then reduces the money when they learn he was not the inventor.
1610 Ricci dies in China.
1610 March 11. Galileo publishes The Starry Messenger, announcing the mountains on the moon and the moons of Jupiter. He makes and distributes more telescopes, so that others can confirm his discoveries. Weirdly, and despite repeated entreaties, he does not send one to Kepler.
1610 Galileo gives a telescope to the Bavarian Elector; the Elector in turn lends it to Kepler in Prague. Kepler tells Galileo that many looking through the look-glass (e.g. Martin Horky) have not seen the Medicean stars. Is Galileo pulling a prank? But other astronomers are already making the discoveries: e.g., David Fabricius in Flanders discovers the moons of Jupiter quite independently one freaking day after Galileo. Galileo will later vilify him for claiming priority, but the confusion is due to calendars: Julian in the North, Gregorian in the South.]. Harriot in England sees them in October, as does Kepler using his borrowed instrument; de La Vette and de Peiresc see them in different regions of France in November; Fr. Clavius at the Roman College confirms them in December.
The era of Gosh-Wow-Look! Astronomy commences. There is a rush to produce better telescopes and discover more sights. Kepler publishes Galileo’s letters regarding sunspots and the phases of Venus follow. The idea dawns on folks that astronomy is part of physics, and not simply a specialized branch of mathematics. The telescope is now a “discovery machine” by which the heavens are explored for new phenomena much as Columbus had explored the Ocean for new phenomena, seeking out new life and new civilizations, to go where… Oh, wait. In any case, this is why Columbus’ voyages are so important.
1611 In Europe, Kepler invents a superior telescope using two convex lenses. A bigger, clearer image than the Lipperhay telescope, but the image is inverted. A problem for earthly observations, but no big deal in astronomy.
1611 May 8. The Jesuits throw a big shindig for Galileo at the Roman College, at which they announce their confirmation of all his factual observations, give lectures, and party hearty. Thereafter, Galileo is referred to as a “celebrated” mathematician [or astronomer] because of this celebration in his honor. The Jesuits are teaching the Copernican system as a mathematical model because there is as yet no empirical proof.
1611 During this visit, Galileo is inducted as the 6th member of the Academy of the Lynx-eyed, an early scientific society. He coins the term “telescope” to replace “look-glass.” Shortly after, Johannes Schreck is inducted as the 7th member of the Lynxes.
Meanwhile, Back in China
1610 December. Xu Guangqi (Dr. Paul) had held a face-off between Jesuit and Chinese astronomers to predict various celestial events. The Western astronomy is so much more accurate that the Emperor grants permission to translate all Western science into Chinese. Opposition surfaces among the mandarinate.
1613 Nicholas Trigault is sent back to Europe to recruit more astronomer-missionaries and collect a library of Western scientific books. Among the recruits he secures Johannes Schreck (Swiss), Adam Schall von Bell (German), the delightfully named Giacomo Rho (Italian), and the even more delightfully named Wenceslaus Pantaleon Kirwitzer (Bohemian),
1615 Manuel Diaz [Portuguese] revises Ricci’s translation of the Sphere and adds an appendix summarizing Galileo’s discoveries in The Starry Messenger. This is the first report of the telescope in China.
1616 In Europe, Copernicanism is rejected insofar as fact until it can be demonstrated by empirical evidence. It may still be taught as a mathematical model.
1616 Shen Que has the Jesuits arrested.
1618 In Europe, Cardinal Borromeo gives Schreck a new Keplerian telescope, which he takes to China.
1619 Trigault, Schreck, and the others arrive in Macau with 7000 science books only to find entry into China is barred. They sneak in anyway.
1623 The Jesuits are released and restored just as Schreck and Schall reach Beijing. While in China, Schreck corresponds with leading astronomers in Europe. Kepler responds by sending his Rudolphine Tables. Galileo, as usual, does not help.
1626 Schall writes Treatise on the Telescope and reviews all of the discoveries of “a celebrated Western astronomer.”
1627 Wang Cheng (a.k.a. Dr. Philip) writes Diagrams and Explanation of the Marvelous Devices of the Far West. He points out the telescope’s usefulness in navigation, warfare (you can count enemy horses at a far distance), painting, the camera obscura, etc. Dr. Phil has a hard time explaining about lenses because there are then no words in Chinese for concave or convex. China does not have the technology to grind lenses for eyeglasses or telescopes, and their understanding of optics has not yet reached that of al-Haytham (d.1038).
1629 21 June. Chinese, muslim, and Jesuit astronomers have a face-off conducted by Xu Guangqi in which they make predictions for the next day’s solar eclipse. The Chinese method predicts a 10:30 start and 2-hour duration. The Jesuits, using Tycho’s system and the telescope, predict an 11:30 start and 2-minute duration. They are right on the money. Impressed, the Emperor puts Xu in charge of a huge Calendar Reform Project.
1630 Schreck dies and is succeeded by Schall.
1630 Schall writes Brief Description of the Measurement of the Heavens, introducing the Tychonic geo-helio system. From the observational POV it is not yet possible to choose between the Tychonic and the Copernican system. Xu agrees with Schall that the Ptolemaic system is dead.
1630 Schall presents the translated works and (possibly) the Keplerian telescope to the Emperor.
1631 27 August. Giacomo Rho’s Complete Treatise on the Measurement of the Heavens describes all the Tychonic instruments and includes some of Kepler’s Optics. These are followed by a series of other manuals, summaries, and translations.
1632-34 More face-offs establishes the superiority of the Tychonic system over the Datong system. On 1 November 1634, the Chinese prediction of the conjunction of Venus and Mars is off by eight entire days.
1633 In Europe, Galileo stands trial for violating the injunction of 1616 and propounding heliocentrism as if it were established fact.
1633 Xu Guangqi dies; succeeded by Li Tiánjing.
1638 Giacomo Rho dies. Schall is named Mandarin and head of the Board of Mathematics.
At this point China was up to speed on telescopes, Tychonic astronomy, and Kepler’s optics, and could have had a Scientific Revolution – but did not.
You Think Galileo Had It Bad?
1644 Mandate of Heaven is taken from the Ming and given to the Manchu.
1659 The anti-Christian Yang Guangxian begins his campaign against the Jesuit astronomers, bombarding the Emperor with memorials against them. These memos are ignored until….
1664 The Shunzhi Emperor dies of smallpox and the new Kangxi Reign starts reading Yang’s memos. “The Westerner Adam Schall was a posthumous follower of Jesus, who had been the ringleader of the treacherous bandits in the Kingdom of Judea. In the Ming dynasty he came to Peking secretly and posed as a calendar-maker in order to carry on the propagation of heresy.” Schall is accused of unauthorized use of a telescope and with choosing an inauspicious time for the burial of a Qing prince. Yang extended that to causing the death of the prince, his mother, and the Shunzhi Emperor himself through the choice of inauspicious times and places. Schall and others were bound in “nine long and thick chains of iron, all with iron locks; three around the neck, three on the arms, and three on the feet.”
1664 Schall suffers a stroke, and is sentenced to death by dismemberment. Others are sentenced to exile following 40 blows with the bamboo. But…
1664 An earthquake the following day convinces the judge and the Council of Deliberate Officials to modify the sentences. (Remember: such events were thought to be caused by misbehavior on the part of ministers and officials.) The princess dowager intervenes to absolve the Jesuits. Schall is sentenced to house arrest. Two non-Christian astronomers in the Bureau are pardoned. The Christian Chinese officials are beheaded for treason.
1665 Johann Adam Schall von Bell dies in house arrest. Yang is appointed to succeed him although he knows nothing of astronomy and math. He relies on Wu Mingxuan, his muslim assistant. Yang says “the methods of calendar-making are profound and subtle; it is very difficult to tell the difference (between the two systems). Evidently, the face-offs of the 1630s have been forgotten. But it is also the case that Yang (and his party) do not regard accuracy as paramount. Chinese tradition is the important thing.
1669 Ferdinand Verbiest (Flanders) has to do it all over again, and holds a series of face-offs against Yang and Wu, defeating them soundly. The Kangxi Emperor also turns out to be curious and interested in science and Verbiest becomes his tutor; but this does not outlast the emperor himself.
In the end, nothing came of it. China did not have a scientific revolution. In fact, as Nathan Sivan once wrote: “China had sciences, but not science.” We might say that China never had an Aristotle. They never had formal logic, Euclidean geometry, optics, lens-grinding, either.
In Europe, the telescope led to
a) Instrumental: Rapid dissemination and improvements of the instrument
b) Observational: Discoveries and improvements to star charts and catalogs
c) Theoretical: Progress toward the unified mechanics and theory of universal gravitation
In China, none of these three things happened. The only telescopes were those brought from Europe and all were under government control (as was astronomy itself). Astronomy remained primarily calendar-making and divining lucky and unlucky days.
Whys and Wherefores
Aside from government control of telescopes and astronomy and a remarkable lack of intellectual curiosity, the distinctive factors can be linked to the medieval revolutions in Europe, specifically the legal revolution and the educational revolution.
In the legal revolution, law recognized self-governing chartered corporations: guilds, professional societies, towns, universities, etc. And with the corporations, the concept of jurisdiction, of elected officials, “what affects all must be considered by all.” This never happened in China, where every aspect of life came under the imperial government.
The educational revolution occurred with the invention of the self-governing university and the standardized curriculum not only emphasizing logic, reason, and natural philosophy, but also employing the method of disputation in which lectures were followed by debates covering both sides of a Question. This led to “a culture of poking around” (as Edward Grant put it), that is, of inquiry. In China, education remained confined to the Imperial College, which covered only what we might call “the humanities” and which taught by utter memorization of the classics in preparation for the triennial Examinations. In the intervening two years, “teachers sat idle” for lack of students. In the prefectures, the “cram schools” were exactly what they sound like.
The unchallenged assumption was that “wisdom exists vouchsafed from the past” and the scholar’s task is to learn what that wisdom is. There was no debate. Even in the brief period when, under Xu and the Jesuits, astronomy was included in the exam, the questions still had to be answered in the strict format of “the eight-legged essay.” The student was given a quotation of say six characters. The eight-legged essay consisted of three sentences of preliminary statement, four legs addressing the first half of the quote, a four sentence transition, four legs addressing the second half of the quote, a four sentence recapitulation, and a grand conclusion. Each four-legged section had to be in paired antitheses (pro/con, false/true, shallow/profound, etc.) with each half of each antithesis being balanced in length, diction, imagery, and rhythm. This has been compared to writing a fugue based on a few introductory notes.