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Ting Wen-chiang

January 29, 2010

Charlotte Furth. Ting Wen-chiang: Science and China’s New Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.

E. Elena Songster (2000)

Ding Wenjiang was a scientist and a nonpartisan political activist. He saw China as a country in need of modernization and saw science as the only means by which to modernize it. Charlotte Furth examines the New Culture movement through Ding Wenjiang’s tireless efforts to modernize China through scientific rational reforms. Ding Wenjiang personified the idealistic belief that science could transcend cultural difference. At the same time, Ding’s pure rationalism alienated him from many segments of Chinese society. For Furth, Ding Wenjiang’s attempts to create a rational society revealed a society that could not be easily molded to scientific theory.

Ding was a product of classical Chinese education and western “sciencism.” Furth credits Ding’s Confucian ethical training for fostering his strong dedication to public service. His pragmatism and positivism, on the other hand, stemmed from his study of western science. Furth names Ding the Chinese Huxley because he espoused the same sciencist outlook which states that “scientifc reasoning provides the sole guide to truth in all matters about which human beings may reliably know anything” (p. 27). Ding studied geology and zoology at Glasgow University and returned to China just as it had become immersed in the 1911 revolution. Through his involvement with the New Culture Movement, he associated closely with Hu Shi and Liang Qichao and began writing for such New Culture Movement publications as Reconstruction (Gaizao), Independent Critic (Duli pinglun), and Endeavor (Nuli zhoubao). Ding Wenjiang attempted to make “Mr. Science” an integral part of China’s everyday life through his writings and his work as the manager of a coal mine, the Director-General of Greater Shanghai, a professor of geology at Peking University, and the Secretary-General at Academia Sinica.

Ding’s sciencism not only clashed with traditional norms of society and with fervent revolutionary sentiment, but it also clashed with some of the ideals of the New Culture Movement, which advocated gradual reform. One example was his support for the concept of eugenics, introduced by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton. The science of eugenics dismissed the emphasis that the New Culture Movement placed on education as a means to improve society; instead eugenics promoted the proliferation of desirable traits through selective human reproduction (p. 71). Because Ding was consistently loyal to reason and scientific methods, Furth has a difficult time categorizing Ding in the context of early twentieth-century Chinese society. He respected the fact that communism was grounded in a concrete ideology, but he disagreed with the notion of revolution. He favored a rational system over personal freedom and thus separated himself from the liberals (p. 236). Moreover, his personal history led him to favor a stratified society ruled by the elite. His ideals better suited the era of enlightened despotism in Europe than the chaos of early twentieth- century China.

Ding’s six-month stint as the Director-General of Greater Shanghai epitomized his atypical dedication to principles over politics. By accepting this position under the southern warlord Sun Chuanfang, Ding burned several political bridges. Although Ding did not support the concept of warlord rule, because he was a pragmatist he saw this as an opportunity to effect localized change. Other activists in the New Culture Movement, however, saw this appointment as a betrayal of the movement. The Guomindang also viewed his alliance with Sun as traitorous. Ding’s efforts to try to create an administration of peace in the midst of the warlord power struggles were smashed by Chiang Kai-shek’s attack on Shanghai in October 1927. The Shanghai massacre debunked Ding’s dreams for rational, nonviolent administration in a country at war. He finally reimmersed himself in geology and continued his mission of rational modernization through science.

Two reviews, C.H.G. Oldham (Pacific Affairs, 44.3 (Autumn 1971): 433) and Jerome B. Grieder (The American Historical Review, 76.3 (June 1971): 822), make the important observation that this book offers new insight into the importance of western scientific thought on this well- studied period of Chinese history. As Paul K. T. Sih points out in his review, (Journal of Asian Studies, 30.2 (February 1971): 442-3), Furth’s biography is also the first full length account of Ding Wenjiang’s life, in any language. Ding’s Chinese biographers, Hu Shi and Fu Sinian, never completed their projects. Ding Wenjiang guided many to see science not only as a useful intellectual import from the West, but also as an ideology that embodied moral truth. The tragedy for Ding Wenjiang was that in China, scientific rationalism did not command the same religious-like following that it enjoyed in the western countries and was ultimately overpowered by militarist politics.

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