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Building of “New China’s Astronomy” by Václav Laifr

Building of “New China’s Astronomy” by Václav Laifr

Martin Lavicka25 Jan 2016Leave a comment


Building of “New China’s Astronomy” and the Establishment of New Historiography of Traditional Astronomy in the 1950s and 1960s: An insight from the oral history sources

written by Václav Laifr (Chiang Ching-kuo International Sinological Centre,
Charles University in Prague)

Annotation: The period of seventeen years before the Cultural Revolution can be roughly divided into the period of Socialist Construction (1949–1957) and the Great Leap Forward and Post-GLF Period (1957–1966). Although science was supported throughout the whole period as an indispensable tool for the building of the socialist economy, political campaigns presented a significant hindrance for its development. The Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) brought almost complete paralysis of research.
In my previous paper I investigated how this period influenced the work and lives of several astronomers, using recently published oral biographies of Xi Zezong (1927–2008, historian of Chinese astronomy) and Li Yuan (born 1925, popularizer of astronomy). With this background, I conducted an interview with Professor Chen Jiujin (born 1939, historian of Chinese astronomy) during my stay in Beijing in April 2014. I also got access to the interviews with Professor Wang Shouguan (born 1923, pioneer of radio astronomy in China), conducted by my colleague Chu Shanshan from the Institute for History of Natural Sciences in Beijing. This paper focuses on what new information these interviews bring for understanding ideological and political influences on the historiography of Chinese astronomy. I will also mention methodological problems of oral history in the Chinese environment, especially when the research is conducted by a foreigner.


1 Introduction
This paper is part of a broader research project, focused on political, social and foreign influences on the historiography of traditional Chinese astronomy in two different periods, after the establishment of the Chinese Republic (1911) in the 1920s and 1930s, and after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 till the beginning of the so called Cultural Revolution (1966). The research, which is a Ph. D. dissertation project, is focused on the lives and works of two historians of astronomy Zhu Wenxin 朱文鑫 (1883–1939) and Xi Zezong 席泽宗 (1927–2008).
As we will see in more detail later, research on the history of natural sciences including astronomy was re-established and institutionalized in the 1950s, so for the main research topic mentioned above it is particularly important to see its motivation and influences. The comparison to a situation in another astronomical discipline of that time can bring a clue to the different position of both disciplines in Chinese sciences. The two disciplines are the historiography of Chinese astronomy, represented by Chen Jiujin 陈久金 and modern (radio) astronomical research represented by Wang Shouguan 王绶琯. I regard these two disciplines as suitable for a comparison because in this period they were, much more than now, branches of the same ‘tree’ of astrophysics. Unlike today, historians of astronomy were recruited solely among astrophysicists. In later periods, people with other specialties were let in, in China for example Wang Yumin 王玉民 in the 1980s, who was one of the only two doctoral students of Academician Xi Zezong.1

As an important primary source, I conducted an interview with Chen Jiujin 陈久金 (born 1939),2 a historian of Chinese astronomy, in Beijing in April 2014 and I also got access to interviews conducted with Wang Shouguan 王 绶琯 (born 1923) by Dr. Sun Xiaochun and Chu Shanshan from the Institute for History of Natural Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.3 Wang Shouguan is considered to be a pioneer of Chinese radio astronomy.

The main points of this paper are:

  1. To summarize briefly the situation in historiography of traditional Chinese astronomy in the 1950s and 1960s and in modern astronomical research.
  2. To answer the following questions: What do these interviews bring for understanding ideological, political and social influences in this period? What new information they bring about Xi Zezong (one of the two historians on which my main research project is focused)?
  3. To highlight the methodological problems of oral history in the Chinese environment, especially when the research is conducted by a foreigner.
  4. To provide comparison of political and social influences in the fields of modern astronomical research (especially radio astronomy) in China versus the historiography of traditional Chinese astronomy in the 1950s and 1960s.

2 Historiography of Traditional Chinese Astronomy in the 1950s and 1960s
Interest in the history of traditional Chinese astronomy, using modern scientific methods and scientific purposes, appeared in China as early as the 1920s. There was no kind of institutionalization, only the historical section of Chinese Astronomical Society was established (1922). The most important historians of astronomy of this period were Zhu Wenxin 朱文鑫 (1883–1939), who was the first Chinese to write the complete history of traditional Chinese astronomy and Western astronomy in a two-volume Short History of Astronomy (Tianwenxue xiao shi 天文学小史) published in 1935, as well as Gao Lu 高鲁 (1877–1947) and Gao Pingzi 高平子 (1888–1970). Before them, the Chinese scholars interested in the history of traditional astronomy were rather mere compilers of historical sources and did not use the perspective of western scientific approach to study them.

(to continue reading, please go to our Proceedings from the 8th Annual Czech and Slovak Sinological Conference available for free in iPDF)


1 Wang was a radio reporter with some educational background in mathematics. Xi’s first doctoral student was Jiang Xiaoyuan, born 1954, probably the most influential historian of Chinese astronomy active in China. In other countries, like Czechoslovakia, the history of astronomy was written also by historians and later, after the revolution in 1989, also by philosophers.
2 Interview with Prof. Chen Jiujin, a historian of traditional Chinese astronomy, Beijing 1 April 2014.
3 Interviews with Prof. Wang Shouguan, prominent Chinese astrophysicist and radio astronomer, by Dr. Sun Xiaochun and Chu Shanshan, Beijing 2013. These interviews are currently prepared for publication by Sun and Chu.

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