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ChinaDemands Of Ritual Precision And The Impact Of Western Learning

Since at least about 150 B.C.E. Chinese scholars, in the relatively rarefied contexts of court rites and projects, had perceived that space and time were quantifiable through measurement and notation of positions. But with the impact of Western learning after 1600, not only did the royal court become increasingly chronometric, so did urban and mercantile culture. In 1644 an important Jesuit, Adam Schall von Bell, proposed to the court that the one hundred minutes of the day be changed to ninety-six for purposes of meshing with the European twenty-four-hour clock. Gear-driven clocks introduced by Jesuits and other westerners made an enormous impact, and through much of the 1700s the court employed Jesuit clock technicians. Throughout urban China clock makers found a niche, and we even have writings on their arts that contain thoughts about time in a new, ontologically self-contained way, not part of traditional, relatively indirect, approaches to "time."

Many Chinese, familiar with Jesuit ideas, consciously isolated Western challenges to Chinese notions of time from the accompanying cosmological and theological arguments. Some, however, engaged the new theology. Zhuang Qiyuan (1559–1633), who was influenced by Jesuits, pondered integrating the Christian "god" into Confucianism: "People of our age all know there is a Heaven, but they do not all know the reason why Heaven is Heaven. If Heaven had no ruler, then there would only be the present moment, motionless and stagnant, dreamlike without the mysterious spirit." His descendant Zhuang Cunyu (1719–1788), not Jesuit-influenced in the same way, wrote that the "Great Ultimate" (an Yi jing schema for cosmic unity) is "Heaven. Nothing is prior to the beginning of Heaven." The latter Zhuang was arguing that Confucian (Yi jing) cosmology was temporally prior to all things, implicitly positing the Chinese view as favorable to a Christian heaven. The Zhuangs were influential in fostering the Han Learning movement. From about 1600 to 1825 quite a few leading scholars reconstructed Han-era masters of Yi jing systematics (like the aforementioned Jing Fang), purged their product of any Buddhist and Daoist taint, and reexamined China's own early mathematics. The movement developed tools for potentially taking astronomy and math back from the Jesuit grip. Yet the Western worldview would dominate, and after the 1949 Communist revolution, with its assaults on intellectual culture, Chinese tradition—which had once accommodated a fine variety, including hermetic gua time, Daoist eschatology, and ad hoc technical progress in time-related arts like math, computational astronomy, and music—was replaced by modern science and physics and by reductionist interpretations of Western philosophy.

False dichotomies like "China the cyclical" versus "the West as progressive" do not work. Arnaldo Momigliano once demolished such caricatures about Jewish versus Greek "time," noting that even within one culture we must not automatically compare a historian's ideas about time with a philosopher's (given the latter's unbounded room for natural and metaphysical speculation). The same caveat applies to Chinese ideas of time. Educated officials, who wrote history, had to address the demands of political cycles, yet their classicist work could be "regressive"—seeking a perfect, primordial age of unity. Court ritualists perceived a certain progress in their arts, and alchemical writers and metaphysical philosophers used time-related ideas to pursue ontology and epistemology. The gua time presented here is just one possible, if important, way to approach a Chinese "concept" of time. The history of Chinese alchemy and medicine will in the future present other models, as will studies of scholar-ritualists.


Bokenkamp, Stephen R. "Time after Time: Daoist Apocalyptic History and the Founding of the T'ang Dynasty." Asia Major, 3rd ser., 7 (1994): 59–88.

Libbrecht, Ulrich. "Chinese Concepts of Time: Yü-chou as Space-Time." In Time and Temporality in Intercultural Perspective, edited by Douwe Tiemersma and H. A. F. Oosterling. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996. The first part is a critical review of Needham's piece.

Loewe, Michael. "The Cycle of Cathay: Concepts of Time in Han China and Their Problems." In Time and Space in Chinese Culture, edited by Chun-chieh Huang and Erik Zürcher. Leiden and New York: Brill, 1995.

Needham, Joseph. "Time and Knowledge in China and the West." In The Voices of Time: A Cooperative Survey of Man's Views of Time as Expressed by the Sciences and by the Humanities, edited by J. T. Fraser. 2nd ed. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981. Nathan Sivin has convincingly demonstrated the unfeasibility of Needham's take on the "scientific" nature of Chinese Daoism.

Pregadio, Fabrizio. "The Representation of Time in the Zhouyi cantong qi." Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie 8 (1995): 155–173.

Sivin, Nathan. "Chinese Alchemy and the Manipulation of Time." Isis 67 (1976): 512–526. Closer analysis of Daoist-alchemical "time," to which Needham alluded briefly.

——. "Chinese Concepts of Time." The Earlham Review 1 (1966): 82–92.

——. "Cosmos and Computation in Early Chinese Mathematical Astronomy." in T'oung Pao, 2nd ser., 55 (1969): 1–73. A pathbreaking study of the historical and political implications of early seekers after precision in eclipse ephemerides, and their abilities (and failures) to perceive and apply cumulative achievements in mathematical astronomy.

Swanson, Gerald. "The Concept of Change in the Great Treatise." In Explorations in Early Chinese Cosmology, edited by Henry Rosemont Jr. Chico, Calif.: Scholars, 1984.

Howard L. Goodman

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Thallophyta to ToxicologyTime - China - Gua Time, Manipulable Time And Social Time: Progress, Alchemy, Salvation, Metaphysical Time: Terms And Philosophies