science & thingies that go bang in medieval china

Daniel A. Foss (U17043@UICVM.BITNET)
Wed, 11 Oct 1995 18:11:18 CDT

knowledge called Thunder Rites. It was used to destroy the premises
(outlaw shrines housing evil spirits, socially reprehensible gods, or
politically subversive supernatural entities) and personnel (sorcerers
manipulating the preceding) of religious cults whereof the ruling Song
Dynasty disapproved. Thunder Rites was first formulated and disseminated,
as an organized body of knowledge, in 1102, under the fervently Daoist
emperor Huizong. (Valerie Hansen, Changing Gods in Medieval China, 1127-
1276, Princeton University Press, 1990.) Exorcistic techniques involved
the use of a vast repertory of spells, incantations, amulets, talismans,
and a mixture of "sulphur, realgar, saltpeter" which we call "gunpowder."
(See Judith Magee Boltz, "Not By the Seal of Office Alone: New Weapons
in Battles With the Supernatural," in Patricia Buckley Ebrey and Peter
N. Gregory, Religion and Society in T'ang and Sung China, Ch 7, pp. 241-
305.) The purpose of Thunder Rites, in other words, was to blow up,
demolish, temples and gods whereof officialdom disapproved, and to
kill offensive religious practitioners in the process.

Gunpowder was developed by Daoist alchemists during the interstate wars
of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period of disunion (907-960). It
never lost its original religious associations, having been a by-product
of the alchemists' quest for an elixir of immortality. Many other Chinese
technical innovations were likewise generated by Daoist R&D; much of Chinese
abstract mathematics was similarly developed as Daoist meditation techniques
whose objective was not "problem-solving" but inner illumination.

Chinese protoscientific and technological development was in no way
inferior to the European before the watershed of 1330-1350. Indeed, it
was considerably superior. The watershed in question corresponded to the
differential impact of the Bubonic Plague on Europe and China; massive
social, cultural, and political upheaval in both; and an aftermath where
neither followed the same development trajectory as previously. Had the
watershed not occurred, there might have transpired an emergence of Chinese
"science" which might have yielded "results" as impressive as ours, but
which might have taken centuries before it looked at all "scientific,"
by our standards.

Empirical investigation in China, before the watershed, was aggregated
with mystical illumination and religion. Formal reason was, by contrast,
aggregated with the promulgation and discussion of self-evident moralism.
European protoscience in the thirteenth century was in not too dissimilar
a situation, where the experiments of Roger Bacon and Grosseteste, both
Franciscan friars, presupposed that their minds were honed in argumenta-
tion on questions of Scholastic theology.

As I see it, the non-culture-specific discussion of science should begin
with an Olympian perspective where we ask, "What is the permissible latitude
whereby or wherein 'science' should look 'scientific' to its practitioners
(as well as nonpractitioners)? To put it another way, is the currently-
observable aggregation, in Western science, of empirical investigation with
formal reason the only possible aggregation of modes of thought which may
be considered scientific?

I note in passing that Thunder Rites was indeed replicable. When the
practitioner used spells, incantations, amulets, and talismans in
conjunction with gunpowder, he could, reliably, blow things up.

Daniel A. Foss