Imagination of the Invisible: Knowledge Production in Modern China (AAS 2016)

Knowledge production in the history of science has since long been understood as an effort of explaining perceptible phenomena by means of scientific empiricism. The underlying assumption is that one can grasp and analyze an objective truth independent of the observing subject. Contrary to this, modern China saw since the 1940s conscious efforts to produce and disseminate knowledge on phenomena that are invisible in the truest sense of the word. Resisting perception by the human eye these phenomena not only require a different epistemology but also are to be mediated by narratives.

This panel focuses on the media, means and strategies in Maoist and post-Maoist China to succeed in making invisible perceptible in cases of both traditional and modern knowledges and practices. The aim is to analyze the imagination of the invisible and to decipher the factors in declaring non-perceptible knowledge either legitimate or illegitimate in a society that — ideologically resting in historical materialism—from time to time denounces the non-empirical as superstitious (until today). We argue that Maoist epistemology is a central element in knowledge production that consciously pursued the politicization of the invisible. Together, the four papers give a nuanced and multi-faceted picture of how knowledge on the imperceptible/invisible is produced and disseminated in modern China.

Organizer: Marc A. Matten (FAU Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany)

Time & Place: Saturday, 2 April 2016, 3:00 PM – 5:00 PM, Room 617, Washington Convention Center 


Marc A. Matten (FAU Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany)

Communication Nuclear Radiation in Maoist China

During the early PR China era the science dissemination campaign (kexue puji) not only aimed at conveying scientific knowledge related to daily life concerns, but also knowledge about invisible dangers, most prominently those emanating from weapon of mass destruction such as nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. The immediate task of the young PRC after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 was to make nuclear radiation visible by iconic metaphors and to teach the population to adopt functioning pre-emptive defense and post-attack protection measures against invisible nuclear fallout should the United States decide to use nuclear weapons.

By focusing on the most characteristic media in science dissemination of the 1950s such as the journals Science Pictorial (Kexue huabao) and Knowledge is Power (Zhishi jiushi liliang) it will be shown how the state used metaphors of the invisible to influence social and political behavior. Convincing the barely literate peasant and the inchoately educated worker of possible dangers in the Cold War required a different epistemology of knowledge than before because addressing the invisible could not simply perpetuate the traditional representation of ghosts and spirits of superstitious beliefs. It had to derive its authority from modern natural sciences and was part of the state’s reconstruction of knowledge in theory and practice starting in 1949.
This paper shows how politics consciously made use of knowing the invisible when creating a new society and thus offers valuable insight in the governmentality in Maoist China.

Miriam Gross (University of Oklahoma)

Vying for one’s Vision of the Invisible in the Intangible Worlds of Disease

During the Maoist era, few invisible entities received greater attention than germs.  Confronted with China’s designation as the ‘sick man of Asia,’ the Communist Party tried to gain legitimacy and showcase its scientific modernity by making microorganisms visible, and thus controllable. Yet, designating what counted as perceptible was only powerful if the population came to share and be motivated by the Party’s new worldview. Using the premise that seeing is believing, health educators in mass campaigns tried to visually impart this knowledge, with microscopes playing a prominent role. However, most efforts proved incomprehensible both to villagers and bottom-level cadres. As a result, the Party was divided over what constituted the acceptable invisible world. This had significant repercussions for political action on the ground. This paper explores the interplay between these two different visions of the invisible. Initially, rural people found the world of ancestors, gods, ghosts, and fengshui far more compelling than the impersonal particles that were the focus of the higher echelons of the Party. As the space for retaining their original worldviews diminished, rural people and leaders learned to carry out scientific performances as an act of faith or political theater, similar to the rituals and language used in popular religion. Villagers naturalized science into invisible domains that felt somewhat familiar; while the national Party felt certain that its transformative vision was instantiated in the minds and bodies of the masses.

Renée Krusche (FAU Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany)

Finding Meridians in Lifestock – Chinese Veterinary Medical Handbooks in the Maoist Era

Chinese Veterinarian Medical (CVM) handbooks have been published throughout Maoist China, building a medical discipline based on experience (jingyan) and traditional knowledge. By state-orchestrated dissemination this knowledge was made available to peasants and veterinarians. Similar to the case of human medicine after 1949 CVM was no longer regarded as a superstitious practice but rather conceived of as a scientific discipline. Turning CVM into a scientific discipline however meant reconciling traditional knowledge with the requirements of empirical science. In this context it is surprising that handbooks and manuals on veterinary medicine in the Maoist era lacked graphic and clear depictions of meridians (jingluo). Though invisible the meridians and their acupoints were firmly integrated in medical treatment methods. Building on the theory of implicit knowledge (Michael Polanyi), this paper shows how the knowledge of meridians and acupuncture points is derived from medical practice, what role the state’s veterinary institutions played when communicating this knowledge, and how acupoints originally located on the human body are transferred to animals. The aim is to explain the state-led process of medical knowledge production in the Maoist era and to explain how the invisible was integrated into the historical-materialist worldview when merging anatomical with traditional knowledge to create the modern discipline of CVM.

Song Xiaokun (International Consortium for Research in the Humanities, Germany)

Translating Traditional Knowledge into Modern Science: A Survey of Contemporary Chinese Academic Discourses on Fengshui

With the modernization process, several systems of Chinese traditional knowledge were designated “superstition” by both the National and the Communist governments. Fengshui has been one of these systems. In 1989, however, the Chinese government for the first time authorized scientific research on Fengshui in a scholarly context. Almost immediately, the academia—the most authoritative institution of knowledge production in China—provided a context for the redefinition of Fengshui in scientific terms.

This paper focuses on scholarly studies of Fengshui as sources to understand the production of legitimate knowledge in present-day China. The foundations of Fengshui in traditional cosmology make its concepts, logic, and purposes alien to modern science. Accordingly, a major challenge for academic studies has been making the “invisible” aspects of Fengshui perceptible to and acceptable by the scientifically-trained mind. This has been achieved in two ways. First, the traditional language of Fengshui is transformed into scientific language, redefining for instance the concept of qi 气 as “magnetic field”. Second, aspects of Fengshui theory that do not fit modern science are neglected, such as the relation between Fengshui and the siting of tombs. In either case, the scientific empiricism displayed in these studies is supported by the Maoist epistemology of historical materialism. However, whether these “invisible” aspects are genuinely refuted, or in some cases quietly left of out sight, is an issue that is vested with political power.