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Technological Literacy in China

A Chinese Perspective on Technological Literacy

Nan Wang

Background: Literacy in China

Literacy involves formal education. Learning to read and write in Chinese is inherently more time consuming than it is in nonideographic languages, and some degree of formal education has been more continuous in China than in any other society in the world. Although the Analects describe conversations between the sage Confucius and his students in a time roughly parallel to that presented in Plato’s Socratic dialogues, Plato’s Academy was closed in 529CE and never reopened. By contrast, Confucian educational traditions, although often interrupted, have repeatedly been revived and continue into the present.

Additionally, prior to the modern period, Chinese philosophy was the foundation for all formal education. Even the earliest grades stressed the reading and memorizing of passages from the Confucian classics. Philosophy could serve this function in primary education because, in the Confucian tradition, learning provides guidance for dealing with the problems of human life. Confucius expressed such a view clearly at the beginning of the basic Confucian text: “To learn and then have occasion to practice what you have learned—is this not satisfying?” (Kongzi, 2003, p.1). The goal of Confucian philosophy is practical, not theoretical, knowledge.

The nonelitist and practical character of Chinese philosophy can be elaborated with three further points. First, it should be noted that the Western word philosophy is quite recent in Chinese; it was initially rendered into Chinese as zhexue in 1873 by the Japanese scholar Xi Zhou (1829-1897), who studied in the Netherlands. Recall that, from 1637 to 1854, the only Western

J.R. Dakers (ed.), New Frontiers in Technological Literacy © John R. Dakers 2014

country in regular contact with Japan was the Netherlands and that in the late 1800s Japan was also of considerable influence in China, especially because of the positive Japanese example of learning from the West. According to Shuowen jiezi (Analytical Dictionary of Characters), the first word book giving a systematic analysis of grapheme and word origins in Chinese, the initial character zhe means “knowledge” or “capacity to acquire knowledge,” with an extended meaning of “wisdom”; the second character, xue, means “learning.” The Chinese term for philosophy thus means “learning to become a wise and knowledgeable person” (Cua, 2003, p. 499). Xi Zhou came up with his proposal to translate “philosophy” into Chinese only after a long period of reflection on the best way to capture the meaning of Western philosophy in the Chinese language. Before Xi Zhou’s word coinage, the abstract notion of philosophy was always embedded in more specific neo-Confucianist terms created by Cheng Hao (1033-1107), Cheng Yi (1032-1085), and Zhu Xi (1130-1200), such as qiongli xue (inquiry learning into the universe), xingli xue (theory of human nature), or li xue (learning of principle).

In a note to explain why he decided to create zhexue to replace specific terms with a more general one, Xi Zhou wrote:

The original English word for zhexue is philosophy, and the French word is philosophie. Both derive from the Greek word philosophos, which means the person who loves (philo) wisdom (sophos). The functional implication in the Chinese language is the so called “scholar who follows the example of the wise person,” according to a proposal by Zhou Dunyi in the Song dynasty. Later generations specifically identified philosophy [in general] with neo- Confucianism [a specific philosophy] and even literally translated the former as the doctrine of neo-Confucianism. In many instances, it is better to translate philosophy as zhexue in order to distinguish it from Confucianism in East Asia. (Sun, 2010, p.125)

This analysis by Xi Zhou requires commentary. Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073) was a Chinese neo-Confucian philosopher who, in his Tongshu (All-Embracing Book), distinguished three types of educated persons: the sage, the wise person, and the scholar. The sage is the most educated and acts in accordance with the principles of heaven (i.e., of all reality); the wise person strives to be but has not yet become a sage and is thus of a lower rank; and the scholar strives to be but has not yet become wise and is of still lower rank. In Confucianism, the ultimate goal of education is nothing less than sagehood; however, this cannot be achieved overnight but only through a step-by-step transition.

Second, it can also be noted that even when acting in accordance with the principles of heaven, the sage is not separated from human affairs. In the words of Feng Youlan (1895-1990), a Chinese philosopher who made special contributions to the revitalization of Chinese philosophy in the twentieth century, the sage stands out not in terms of behavior but in terms of orientation. According to Feng, “The sage does nothing more than most people do, but, having high understanding, what he does has a different significance to him. In other words, he does what he does in a state of enlightenment, while other people do what they do in a state of ignorance” (2007, p.560).

Finally, in Chinese philosophy, ethics dominates over epistemology: practice over theory. In the words of a knowledgeable and influential American interpreter of Chinese philosophy,

The Platonists were more concerned with knowing in order to understand, while the Confucians were more concerned with knowing in order to behave properly toward other men.

In China, truth and falsity in the Greek sense have rarely been important considerations in a philosopher’s acceptance of a given belief or proposition; these are Western concerns. The consideration important to the Chinese is the behavioral implications of the belief or proposition in question. What effect does adherence to the belief have on people? What implications for social action can be drawn from the statement? (Munro, 2001, pp. 54-55)

Confucius makes the same point in the following passage: “Every day I examine myself on three counts: in my dealings with others, have I in any way failed to be dutiful? In my interactions with friends and associates, have I in any way failed to be trustworthy? Finally, have I in any way failed to repeatedly put into practice what I teach?” (Kongzi, 2003, p. 1).

This strong practical orientation naturally supports an appreciation of human practice and experience. Technics—the craft making and use of artifacts, which has become systematized into technology in the modern period—is an indispensable part of daily life. As such, technics naturally becomes very early an object of Chinese philosophy. This is reflected in the various words used to discuss making and using.

In modern Chinese, English words such as “art,” “skill,” “technique,” and “technology” can all be translated as jishu. Unlike the situation with philosophy as zhexue, the creator of the word jishu is unknown. But jishu is also a word that deserves special comment. In ancient Chinese, ji and shu were always used separately. According to Shuowen jiezi, ji means “ingeniousness and skillfulness of craftsman,” with an extended meaning of “(exclusive) talent and the ability of craftsmen in general,” although it sometimes refers to “certain special arts,” such as singing and dancing. Ji can be acquired only by intuition and understanding and can only be perfected through practice. The original meaning of shu is “the ways or roads in the town,” with an extended meaning of “skill, method, procedure.” Shu refers not only to the skill, method, and process in physically making and using but also to mental action, political trickery, martial arts, art, mathematical calculation, necromancy, Daoist magic, and more. In this sense, Chinese knowledge is based on shu, which means that it pays more attention to the configuration of methods and procedures in order to memorize and be able to use them flexibly in practice (Liu, 1996, p. 688).

There is still a third word that, because of its close association with “technology,” deserves mention: gongcheng, or “engineering.” According to Shuowen jiezi, the original meaning of gong is literally “(artisan’s) skillful work on adorning something,” but some scholars, such as the Chinese linguist Yang Shuda, argue that gong originally referred to “a kind of instrument, such as bevel gauge” (Yang, 1954, p.58) and that cheng was “a measurement unit of length,” with an extended meaning of “a general name of measurements of all kinds.” As historians Joseph Needham and Wang Ling have concluded, “From the earliest times the word gong implied work of an artisanal character, technical as opposed to agricultural. This is perpetuated in the modern term for engineering, gongcheng, the second of the two characters having originally meant measurement, dimension, quantity, rule, examination, reckoning, etc.” (Needham, 1963, p. 9).

According to Yang Shengbiao and Xu Kang, the association of the two words appeared at the latest in Xin tang shu (New History of the Tang Dynasty; 1060). They argued that gongcheng usually referred to the standard or evaluation of the progress of skilled work, especially the manual work schedule (Yang and Xu, 2002, p. 38). The fact that traditional engineering was chiefly civil engineering (e.g., the construction of imperial palaces and official offices, temples, canals, city walls, bridges) means that, as Needham and Wang also observed, “the associations of the Chinese terms for engineers and artisans seem always to have been more civilian and less military than [similar terms] in the West” (Needham, 1963, p. 10). Gongcheng became the translation for the English “engineering” in China during the self-strengthening movement (1861-1895) by British missionary and scholar John Fryer (1839-1928), who, among the foreigners in China, translated the greatest number of western books into Chinese (Wang and Xu, 2002, p. 39).

Generally speaking, from ancient times, philosophy in China was always associated with more clearly practical interests than it was in the West. Moreover, technology and engineering paid more attention to the artisanal character related to civil facilities than they did in Europe, where technical activity was so often associated with the military. These various points all support the idea of a unique philosophical perspective on technology and technological literacy in China.

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