Reflections on Visual and Material Sources for the History of the Exact Sciences in Early Imperial China

NTM Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin 28 (3):325-357 (2020)
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Abstract

This article takes stock of the seeming wealth of visual and material sources concerning stars and numbers that has come down to us from early imperial China and their minimal impact on how we write the history of astronomy and mathematics in this period. My goal is to offer ideas about how we might better engage with these sources and work across ancient and modern disciplines. I begin by outlining the conceptual categories into which our historical subjects divided these sciences, followed by an overview of those visual and material sources we know from textual sources to have once existed versus those that are currently extant. The historiographic disconnect, I argue, is due in part to an inherent disconnect in the sources that have survived and, in some degree, to terminological and categorical confusion between those working in the history of science, divination, and art. Pointing to what are, in my opinion, good examples of how we might move forward and beyond the limits imposed by our sources and disciplinary boundaries, I then end on a list of questions I think fruitful to explore. What, for example, do we mean by “accuracy” when speaking of how constellations are represented in technical literature and tomb murals?

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