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On Their Own Terms

On Their Own Terms

Science in China, 1550-1900

Benjamin A. Elman

ISBN 9780674016859

Publication date: 04/30/2005

In On Their Own Terms, Benjamin A. Elman offers a much-needed synthesis of early Chinese science during the Jesuit period (1600-1800) and the modern sciences as they evolved in China under Protestant influence (1840s-1900).

By 1600 Europe was ahead of Asia in producing basic machines, such as clocks, levers, and pulleys, that would be necessary for the mechanization of agriculture and industry. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Elman shows, Europeans still sought from the Chinese their secrets of producing silk, fine textiles, and porcelain, as well as large-scale tea cultivation. Chinese literati borrowed in turn new algebraic notations of Hindu-Arabic origin, Tychonic cosmology, Euclidian geometry, and various computational advances.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, imperial reformers, early Republicans, Guomindang party cadres, and Chinese Communists have all prioritized science and technology. In this book, Elman gives a nuanced account of the ways in which native Chinese science evolved over four centuries, under the influence of both Jesuit and Protestant missionaries. In the end, he argues, the Chinese produced modern science on their own terms.


  • Elman's robust book is...replete with telling facts, compelling arguments, and persuasive conclusions. Over the past two decades, Elman has made major contributions to Chinese social-intellectual history by writing books about the evidential scholarship movement, Jiangnan regional academic lineages, and the civil service examination system in late imperial China. Building on the strengths and research of all his previous books, Elman synthesizes for the first time the history of Chinese and Western sciences in China from 1550 to 1900.

    —Marta E. Hanson, American Historical Review


  • Benjamin A. Elman is Gordon Wu ’58 Professor of Chinese Studies at Princeton University.

Book Details

  • 606 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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