1 comments 28 November 2008

Essay introduction for the course "Chinese and Chinese Culture," Xiamen University
Ruben Verwaal

In the intellectual history of China, one of the most distinguished works among the scientific classics is the Wáng Zhēn Nóng Shū 王禎農書 ("Agricultural Treatise of Wang Zhen," 1313). Written during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), the county magistrate Wang Zhen (1290-1333) had specifically designed this work to serve as a guide to agricultural production. The book consisted of three parts: first, a general outline on the origin of agriculture and on various agricultural aspects and techniques, such as its dependence on weather conditions, terrestrial productivity, and human effort; the second part consisted of discussions on the cultivation, protection, harvesting, storage and utilisation of crops, fruit, vegetables, bamboo and other plants and trees; the last and most extensive part consisted of a collection of about 270 illustrations of various farm tools and instruments (Deng Yinke, Ancient Chinese Inventions, 129). Many of these tools have long been lost, making this agricultural treatise an invaluable source of information. What has often been unexplored, however, was the agricultural calendar included in the Nóng Shū.

This essay will therefore investigate a sophisticated feature in Wang Zhen’s comprehensive work on agriculture, namely the yué lìng 月令 (monthly ordinances) or agricultural calendar. The reason for the neglect of attention to this agricultural calendar in the discourse on Chinese astronomy or on agriculture might be found in the reason that it fell exactly in between the two subject matters. Despite the fact that the genre of agricultural calendar was one of utilitarianism (Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation of China, Vol.6, Pt. 2, 52), I would be of the opinion that Wang’s agricultural calendar deserves special attention because his advanced creation was able to include ancient Chinese concepts of Heavenly Stems, the Earthly Branches and Solar Terms, as well as details for year-round farm management.

In order to show the exceptional standing of Wang’s agricultural calendar, we will first briefly look into the history of this literary form. Considering that China was an agricultural economy, farmers have made use of the study of phenology, the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, in an attempt to get a grip on the country’s often unpredictable climate. Second, we will discuss the ancient Chinese philosophical concepts included into the calendar and relate them to their practical use in Chinese society and agriculture. Third, we will investigate the influence of Wang’s agricultural calendar in the continuation of the yué lìng genre.

Ever since the beginning of agriculture in China, farmers made use of natural signals such as blooming in order to decide upon when to begin farming season. For example, before the availability of the calendar, Chinese people would observe the morning and evening stars in order to recognise the seasons. This remained a difficult practice, however. In an attempt to solve this problem, farmers and working people invented a system of the twenty-four jiéqi 節氣 (Solar Terms), with which the seasons could be better indicated and therefore useful for the farmers (Chen Jiujin ascribes the invention of the Solar Terms to the Chinese working people in Jiujin, “Chinese Calendars,” 46 ). Throughout Chinese history, scholars have attempted to perfect the calendar for various reasons, such as to provide new emperors with legitimacy, but the utility of its application in agriculture can be said to remain one of the most important reasons.

1 comments 27 November 2008

2 comments 24 November 2008

Could Schrödinger's cat also have been a dog?

4 comments 16 November 2008

2 comments 11 November 2008

The following is a small hand-out I made of our reading of Faraday. As there were two elderly people in my class I added a slightly sneering comment to rouse them. 


On  Faraday the ‘Anthology of Nineteenth Century Science’ tells he was of middle class decent. He was a member of the Sandemanians, a group of religious Christians who thought there was no basis in the New Testament for a national church and wanted to go back to primitive Christianity. They believed in the unity and harmony of nature. Rather heroically, Faraday, being an apprentice in a book bindery, educated himself and was able to make a career in a field where being of lower descent made you appear a lesser scientist. The following excerpt is from one of his Friday night Christmas lectures. Interestingly to note in advance is that he tirelessly worked behind the scenes to make the experiments look natural on stage. He even got eloquency lessons to improve his public performance. The lectures were held by the Royal Institution to earn enough money for its endeavours.


His public experiments with candles give us an interesting image of science popularized. With crowd pleasers like pop! (ignition of gas) and crunch! (collapse of can after subsequent heating and cooling of inside gas) Faraday was able to excite his audience. Public participation in these experiments build up the entertainment value even more. A lady brings Faraday Japanese candles of luxury to do his experiments with and Faraday says the crowd will be able to make these experiments themselves, which in the case of his experiments with carbonic acid can do not much harm. Faraday uses a simple train of reasoning for explaining what he is doing. Everything is done step by step and in a matter of fact way. This makes the experiments and conclusions evidential, you can see the experiments and even redo them yourself. Faraday unveils the mysteries of nature and makes them intelligible to the public. In one case he even reflects on a social issue when he tells his crowd about the ‘impropriety of many of the arrangements of the poorer classes’  due to bad ventilation. In his chemical explanation of a burning candle Faraday shows how to extinguish the light by putting his mouth over a tube and breathe thereby explaining the necessity of oxygen for combustion. In the end of his experiment with candles Faraday turns his explanation of scientific principles to the public into a kind of sermon. He concludes by stating the beauty of the simple process of the use of oxygen by people. They breathe oxygen which the body turns into carbon dioxide which is used by plants to create oxygen which creates this magnificent circle of dependency. According to Faraday, his listeners are like the candles he used in his experiments. They have this energy to shine, but need oxygen (breathing) to make them live, move, act and do things; they are therefore dependent on their fellow existers, i.e. the plants. He employs his audience to shine as lights to those about them.


To whom is Faraday addressing his public display of science? In the introduction to his lectures, Faraday says he means to pass away from the seniors in the audience and instead claims ‘the privilege of speaking to juveniles as a juvenile myself.’ In his first lecture he further informs his audience of what candles are made of, thereby beginning from the basis in his instruction on chemistry. His listeners need little to no background in chemistry. His lectures are accessible and use the clarity of expression needed for public education; no difficult jargon or an explanation to the words used is given. Faraday further uses his lectures to address social questions such as the conditions of the poorer classes and even his Sandemanian background jumps up at the end of the lecture when he teaches his public the harmony of nature.