Project “Fixing Foreign Sciences” (concluded)

Fixing Foreign Sciences – Political Interventions in Transnational Knowledge Transfers in Maoist China

This project starts with the assumption that historical materialism equipped the People’s Republic of China with an ideology that saw progress and development no longer as a result of fateful coincidence (Newton’s apple) or a sudden revolution (Thomas Kuhn), but as the consequence of thoughtful planning ahead of time. Similar to Stalinist Russia (Pollock 2006) Maoist China focused on the removal of coincidence and contingency by envisioning five- and twelve-year plans of science development (such as the “Outline of Developing Science and Technology between 1956 and 1967”). Science and technology became an integral part of planned economy and were subjected institutionally, organizationally and financially to political leadership (Du 1959, Xu and Fan 1957). The central epistemological principle in science was inductive reasoning because according to Mao Zedong’s 1937 text On Practice(Shijianlun) any scientific reasoning should rely on social practice and empirical observation. Scientists who were contrary to that following Karl Popper were considered violating the holy principles of materialism and suffered political persecution for their assumed idealist and/or bourgeois epistemologies (see here the ideological struggles related to Einstein’s theory of relativity [Hu Danian 2005] or the fate of the mathematician Shu Xingbei during the Cultural Revolution [Huang Yong 2008]).

The history of science and technology in modern China has long argued that quality and intensity of state interventions in defining good/sound/legitimate science depended on political changes that occurred at specific historical crossroads, may it be the foundation of the PRC 1949, the Great Leap Forward (1958-61), the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) or the reform-and-opening policy of Deng Xiaoping in 1978 (Suttmeier 1980, Andreas 2009, Bauer 1980, Fan and Cohen 1996, Kaple 1994, Schmalzer 2008, Schneider 2003 etc.). State intervention is generally equaled to impediment of scientific progress because both ideology and rhetoric of class struggle could not allow researchers to pursue science for the science’s sake, thereby limiting their creativity and innovation. Especially the interpretation of the Cultural Revolution period as anti-intellectual has subscribed to this view, leading to the rarely questioned assumption that Maoist China insisted on a closed space of knowledge production that—with the exception of the early 1950s where Soviet sciences were introduced (Shen Zhihua 2009 and Jersild 2014)—oriented itself to the ideals of local autarchy and national autonomy (Matten&Kunze). According to this interpretation only Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening” policy after the death of Mao Zedong 1976 opened this space again, allowed for intellectual exchange and interaction of scientists in- and outside the nation and integrated Chinese researchers into the global community again. The aim of the proposed project is to question this view by describing the continuous transnational interconnectedness of the Chinese Academy of Science (Beijing) in the years from 1949 to 1978. I want to show that despite the aforementioned radical ideological struggles in that era scientists were not simply subjected to (be victims of) politics, but played an important role in producing knowledge in close exchange with their global peers. As preliminary studies have shown this global community of scientists neither followed Cold War logic nor was exclusively national in character (Schmalzer 2016, Matten 2018).

It goes without saying that in order to properly assess the transnational character of knowledge production the question of epistemology cannot be left aside. Maoist science philosophy holds that texts are a validation of the objectivity of a particularinterpretation that is communicated to the reader by his very act of reading (that is, experiencing). Understanding a text thus means to comprehend the authorial intent, and not some objective truth that operates outside the scientist’s mind (Knight 1986). Such a view had severe consequences for making foreign knowledge serve China’s socialist construction, and the cases of knowledge taken from “Western” genetics, evolution theory and nuclear physics (whose epistemic propositions without exception contradicted historical materialism)shows that its acceptance was highly contested (Matten 2018, Schneider 2003). The question is how knowledges from non-socialist countries (that in general tended to use deductive reasoning as an epistemological technique and thus preferred theory over practice) could be received as valid, and what kind of epistemic innovations were necessary to do so.

In this context, the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China (中国科学技术情报研究所) at the Chinese Academy of Sciences played the most significant role. Founded in 1956 its primary task was—reacting to the growing tensions with the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin—to gather technological knowledge beyond Soviet sciences and to introduce it to Chinese scholars via translation. In a first step, the aim of the project is to provide an overview on what has been translated, who was responsible for choosing and translating foreign materials, and how fast did the transfer occur? This involves having a look at the institute itself, as well as its network with government officials, party cadres and esp. embassy personnel abroad that provided foreign materials. Secondly, taking into consideration that the translations were in many cases amended by prefaces and commentaries that guided readers to a correct understanding the analysis of the paratexts (Genette 1997) will help to identify the rhetoric and arguments used for validating non-indigenous knowledge. These may range from practicality and efficiency (in the case of technological innovations and improvements), to the acceptance of epistemological principles that had also been imported (empiricism, objectivity, positivism), to creative innovations that intended to contradict the often-assumed universality of European epistemic notions (as in the case of elementary particles, see Matten 2018), or efforts to rediscover distinct Chinese knowledge traditions (as in the case of Chinese medicine, see Taylor 2005).

The ensuing questions to this project are how and to what extent scientific knowledge can be assured in a time when general and abstract forms of knowledge are increasingly replaced by “other” facts and when the role of the state in determining scientific truth is seemingly dwindling though global challenges would more and more require the state fixing science, even if that could potentially entail repercussions for the autonomy of scientific research.



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