Senior Forum Highlights Student Research about Science in China

Science has played a key role in Chinese conceptions of what it means to be modern. Inspired, dazzled, and even threatened by the West’s scientific revolution and its pivotal role in spurring industrial modernity, Chinese thinkers sought to bring the concepts and methods of Western science into Chinese society, industry, and statecraft. The insistence upon science as a mode of knowledge key to modernization has spanned China’s own historical development from the late-nineteenth century to the present day – from the intellectuals’ slogan of the 1920s extolling the virtues of “Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy,” to the present day Chinese obsession with space exploration, the culture of science, or “scientism,” has penetrated almost all spheres of Chinese life.

Visiting Assistant Professor Emily Wilcox devoted her Fall 2012 senior seminar to the topic of “China and the Scientific Imagination.” As students read scholarship concerning the social role of science, much of it in Chinese, they also produced original research papers on a topic of their own choosing. In Spring, these students returned to their papers and revised their findings. This culminated in the Chinese Majors Senior Forum, held on April 19, 2013. Seven students presented their findings to an audience of classmates, faculty, friends, and supporters.

Associate Professor Miranda Brown, a specialist in early Chinese literature and history from the Department of Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan, delivered the keynote address: “Reflections on the Origins of Chinese Prophylaxis: The Ills That Do Not Ail,” derived from her book manuscript in progress on the history of Chinese medicine. Prof. Brown’s talk examined the origin of a key principle in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM): preventative measures to avoid illness before they arise and produce symptoms.

According to Dr. Brown, the notion of asymptomatic illness, and the idea that special measures can be taken to prevent it, derived from texts and manuals of statecraft dating back from the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE). Among the many texts she examined, she paid special attention to the manual of statecraft known as Master Hanfei (Hanfei zi, third century BCE). The notion of hidden, invisible diseases, and the need to act against them before they caused harm, served as rhetorical parables that illustrated the need for governments to act preemptively against possible threats to the state rather than wait until these threats had already inflicted damage. The idea of asymptomatic illness and prophylaxis thus originally began as an extended metaphor to describe effective statecraft. By the Han Dynasty (206 BCD-220 CE), however, medical prophylaxis began to transform from a witty metaphor to an actual clinical practice, and would subsequently shape the whole of TCM to the present day.

Following Dr. Brown’s presentation the students presented their work in two panels, with Dr. Brown as discussant. The first panel consisted of four presentations. Bonnie Beckner, a double major in Chinese and Linguistics, examined the origins of the neo-Confucian term “ge wu” (“the investigation of things”) that arose in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). Suggesting that ge wu marked the beginnings of a kind of thinking that can be characterized as “scientific,” she explored how this principle was exhibited by naturalist Li Shizhen (1518-1593) in his encyclopedic compendium of medical knowledge, the Bencao gangmu. Max Rozycki, a double major in Economics, explored the topic of monetary inflation in the Song Dynasty. Mr. Rozycki argued that inflation could have been prevented in the Song Dynasty if the state had issued bonds; however, traditional taboos about the state being in obligation to private owners of debt prevented the Chinese state from ever adopting bonds as a form of revenue collection. Dereck Chapman, a double major in Government, explored the role of scientism as it pertains to the developing notion of the modern Chinese citizen. Employing insights from the philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Hannah Arendt, Mr. Chapman explored how the Chinese state organized a modern citizenry. Inho Kim, a double major in Economics, explored the meanings of qi, variably translated as “vital breath” or “material force,” and a key concept in Chinese medical and cosmological thought. Mr. Kim explored whether the existence of qi could be proved, and to what extent the existence of qi depended not so much on its actual empirical manifestation, but instead as a function of collective belief and practice.

The second panel featured three papers. Elizabeth Goldemen, a double major in Government, explored the relationship between Communist politics and the development of paleoanthropology and genetics in modern China. She noted the different ways in which the political goals of nation building shaped the trajectories of these two sciences. Clayton Kenerson, a double major in Finance, presented independent research conducted under the guidance of Prof. Yanfang Tang on the sources and consequences of the Chinese real estate bubble. Kevin Mahoney, also a double major in finance, spoke about the rise of microblogging (in particular, the site Sina Weibo) in China, and how the phenomenal popularity of celebrity microblogs constitute a contentious space for political expression and legitimacy.

While the theme of science and society unified most of the forum papers, the students’ own particular disciplinary interests drove their projects. For Ms. Beckner, her work in linguistics led her to trace a particular term, “ge wu,” through Chinese philosophical and medical texts. After graduation, she will teach English for two years in Hangzhou, a scenic town an hour away from Shanghai and a one-time imperial capital. After that, she “will probably come back to (the States) for graduate school.” She hopes the time abroad will help her focus her scholarly interests.

Mr. Mahoney, who studied Finance in addition to Chinese, was more drawn to recent developments in Chinese social media. Although trying to keep up with the latest digital Chinese slang was sometimes difficult, he found the research exciting: “It was a lot of fun. I actually spent more time than I need to reading (blog posts) because it’s actually kind of fun seeing what they’re talking about.” While Mr. Mahoney has one more semester left at WM in order to finish up his finance degree, he will spend the upcoming summer interning in Hong Kong. After graduation, he’d like to work in China, and then is thinking about eventually pursuing a law degree in combination with an MBA. Whatever he chooses to do, he hopes to incorporate what he has learned at WM. “I’d still work with China and use my language skills,” said Mr. Mahoney.

The Chinese Seniors Major Forum allowed WM students to demonstrate how four years of hard work in Chinese language study, coupled with studies in Chinese culture and society, as well as immersion in China study abroad programs, were instrumental in developing their own research projects. They exhibited the College’s goals in greater internationalization as well as modeled the kinds of interdisciplinary work the College is encouraging. Prof. Wilcox’s close work with her students displayed the kinds of mentor-intensive experiences the Modern Languages and Literatures Department has always emphasized in its pedagogy. This year’s seniors are now setting off to pursue new adventures and continued opportunities for learning and discovery.

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