Dr. Chen Fong Ching obtained his Bachelor of Arts in Physics from Harvard University and PhD in Physics from Brandeis University. He joined the Department of Physics of The Chinese University of Hong Kong as Lecturer in 1966 and was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1977. He was made University Secretary in 1980 and Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies in 1986. Dr. Chen is a distinguished scholar and university administrator who has rendered nearly half a century of outstanding service to The Chinese University. He is currently Honorary Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of Chinese Studies, Senior College Tutor of United College, and Honorary Professor of the Department of Physics. Dr. Chen was awarded Zhu Kezhen History of Science Visiting Professorship by the Institute of History of Natural Science of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2004.
It has been nearly half a century since I returned to teach at the Chinese University of Hong Kong after completing my studies in 1966. During the past 50 years, Hong Kong has undergone enormous change and the Chinese University of Hong Kong has thrived. I myself have also experienced several twists and turns in my own research and career. Looking back, I can divide this long period into three 14-year phases.
In the first 14 years from 1966 to 1980, I started my career at the Department of Physics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Apart from teaching and research, I also participated in university affairs. Life was busy and pleasant. Sometimes I would give general lectures and write essays for newspapers and magazines. Other than that, I did not have the opportunity to touch upon liberal arts subjects, although I had developed an interest in the liberal arts as a middle school student.
With much freedom over course selection back in my college days, I spent about one third of my time on literature, history and philosophy. As a result, certain vague ideas began fermenting in my mind during my first 14 years at the Department of Physics. However, the division between different disciplines was rigid in the 1950s and 1960s. Scientific education focused purely on science. Other aspects, such as the effects of science on society and humanity as a whole, were rarely paid any attention. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, regarded as an alternative popular science book, was published in the year I completed my university education. Ten years later, E F Schumacher's book Small Is Beautiful became popular, but that was all. The history of science and its philosophical and religious background were still a blank field for most scientists, including me, even though I had some curiosity that went beyond science itself. In 1980, I went to work at the University Secretariat and spent six years there. This was an important interregnum in my academic career. It allowed me to stop and think about my future life and work. I also got the chance to write and present articles to the public, which brought me the opportunity to work at the Institute of Chinese Studies.
I thus stepped into the second 14-year period (1986–2000). At that time, the Institute of Chinese Studies was not very active and aroused little attention. Only one of its units, the Art Museum, occasionally held exhibitions with exciting opening ceremonies that attracted some interest. While working at the institute on existing projects such as archaeological excavations and the publication of translations, I also promoted new developments such as the founding of the journal Newsletter of Chinese Language, but I put most of my effort into three other areas. Firstly, I collaborated with Professor King Ambrose Yeo-chi, Professor Jin Guantao and Professor Liu Qingfeng to found the journal Twenty-First Century to provide a platform for communication among Chinese intellectuals around the world. Secondly, I established the Research Centre for Contemporary Chinese Culture, through which we organised many lectures and seminars and published many influential books, including the ten volumes of History of the People's Republic of China. Thirdly, working with Professor Lau Din Cheuk, I built a database of traditional Chinese ancient texts, and published more than 60 indexes of related texts based on the database. Later I also collaborated with Professor Jao Tsung I to include excavated ancient texts in the database and promote relevant publications. The smooth development of these projects was due to several factors. First, the institute itself had certain resources. More importantly, we got support from the university, especially from President Kao Kuen. In founding Twenty-First Century, for instance, we encountered many obstacles, but President Kao Kuen was among the few to fully support the concept of the journal. We were also very lucky that the Hong Kong government began implementing new policies in the 1980s that included financial support for university research. Otherwise projects such as the ancient text database would have been impossible.
Apart from institutional affairs, I also did some research myself. I was interested in comparative research on modernisation at the time. The core issue was why the outcomes of modernisation were so different among non-Western countries. Although Western scholars used to answer this question by applying a sociological view, the attempt was unsuccessful. The drastic change in Russia later further proved that these opinions were one-sided. I therefore decided to study the question all over again. The first country I explored was Turkey. Although in the long-term confrontation with Europe, Turkey had become the "sick man of the Near East", it finally recovered under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who was deeply admired by Sun Yat-sen. Unlike the situation in China under the Manchu reign, several successful centralised monarchs emerged in Turkey. However, all of their reforms failed in the end because the Islamic conservatives were too powerful. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was the only one who saw through the situation and resolutely got rid of this obstacle. The case of Russia was even more peculiar. Modernisation in Russia started at the beginning of the 18th century. With absolute power, the Russian tsar pushed through a top-down modernisation without being hindered by either internal obstacles or external intervention. Compared with China, which struggled for reform between domestic troubles and foreign invasions, Russia was much more fortunate. However, after 200 years of endeavour, modernisation failed in Russia also. Why? In my opinion, the process of modernisation is affected by different types of factors, namely, random factors (such as the combination of individuals) and structural factors (such as society and cultural traditions). These two types of factors interact with one another. In the book Understanding Imperial Russia, Marc Raeff stated that although the tsar had a strong mind and great power, he lacked an understanding of the fundamental meaning of 'modern' that meant that his efforts were in vain. I found the analysis very insightful. I also studied why Spain, an advanced and powerful maritime empire in the 16th century, was reduced to a mere appendage in the battle for supremacy between Britain and France in the 18th century, and why Japan, a disunited feudal country in the early 19th century, rapidly came to dominate East Asia within a mere 30 years. Although I expended a lot of effort exploring these questions in the 1990s, they were vast and complicated, and I did not have the time to dig deep enough. Apart from academic articles, I compiled a translation collection of The World under the Impact of Modernization consisting of six kinds of books (Academia Press, Shanghai, 1996). The collection attracted quite a lot of attention and two of the books were reprinted.
Fortuitously, I also became interested in the history of science. At first, I studied the history of Chinese astronomy to prepare lecture notes, and got to know the first ancient astronomical text in China, the Zhou Bi Suan Jing. Later, I wrote a research article on this ancient text for an international conference on sinology. I thus became interested in Chinese mathematics, and wrote several articles on the topic in succession. At the end of 1997, I published the article "Why Did Modern Science Arise in the West?" in Twenty-First Century. This was the beginning of the book Heritage and Betrayal: A Treatise on the Emergence of Modern Science in Western Civilization.
I was 60 years old at the turn of the century. It was time for me to think about retirement. The Institute of Chinese Studies had recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. To mark the event, I wrote and edited the book Growing up with The Chinese University: CUHK and ICS: A Photo History, 1949–1997. The book was published in 2000, and thus marked the end of my second 14 years.
After serving the Chinese University of Hong Kong for 36 years, I retired in 2002. Freed from institutional affairs, I was able to devote all my time to academic research. I felt completely relieved, and a whole new world awaited me. In that year, I had a collection of papers published: On the Threshold of the Brave New World: Selected Papers 1984–2000. I was also invited by Professor Tang Yijie to speak at the Cai Yuanpei Lectures and the Tang Yongtong Lectures at Peking University. My lectures focused on past critics of science and philosophy and current ideas about freedom and equality. These lectures were later collected and published by the Peking University Press. The following year I accepted Professor Chen Shaoming's invitation to give several lectures on the relationship between science and other disciplines at the Department of Philosophy of the Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. The lectures were also arranged into several papers for later publication.
The most influential event in my academic research was an invitation from Professor Liu Dun to be the Zhu Kezhen History of Science Visiting Professor at the Institute of History of Natural Science of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2004. I mainly gave public lectures and courses for graduate students. I prepared about 100,000 words of lecture notes that basically depicted the embryo of Western scientific history, including its religious, academic and historical background. Ms Zhang Yanhua, an editor of the Joint Publishing Company who also came to my lectures, invited me to arrange my lecture notes for publication. I accepted without hesitation and promised to hand in the draft a year later. The idea proved naive, however, because my lecture notes were merely outlines, and needed further analysis and detailed discussion before they could be published as a proper academic work. I spent four years working on and putting together the materials. The book Heritage and Betrayal: A Treatise on the Emergence of Modern Science in Western Civilization was finally published in 2009. The development of science has lasted more than two thousand years in the West, and the emergence of the history of science as a subject can be traced back almost 100 years. My research mainly absorbed and combined previous achievements to develop an integrated and systematic history of Western science. Although there were not many original discoveries, I emphasised that the appearance of Euclid's Elements in Ancient Greece was a breakthrough that represented the first revolution in the history of Western science. In other words, Newton's Classical Mechanics was not the first but the second revolution in Western science. Although this idea was not previously unknown, no one had pointed it out directly. How did the scientific revolution emerge in Ancient Greece? It was closely related to the pursuit of universal mysteries by the mystical Pythagorean School, and especially their worship of 'numbers'. Interestingly and paradoxically, Western science emerged from religion. In ancient times, only religion and its doctrine of eternal life had the magical power to attract and motivate the most talented people at the time to devote themselves to researching impractical abstract ideas and theories. As a matter of fact, the Christian doctrines of the immortal soul and eternal life for humans did not exist in Hebrew Monotheism. The origin was also probably related to the Pythagorean School.
I was prompted mainly by the Zhou Bi Suan Jing to explore the origin of Western science. The Zhou Bi Suan Jing and the Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art are the two treasured classics of ancient Chinese mathematics. However, in depth and precision of thought, they can hardly be compared to Euclid's Elements, which emerged in a similar period or even earlier. Tracing back the roots of Euclid's Elements throws up two clues. The first is ancient Babylonian mathematics. Emerging around 1900–1600 BC, the period of the Xia and Shang dynasties in China, ancient Babylonian mathematics far surpassed the Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art in various respects. The existence of systematic ways of solving quadratic equations was one example. The other clue was Pythagoras. The mystical school he founded is closely related to the entire academic tradition in the West, including Plato and his Academy. For instance, according to the Dialogues of Plato: The Republic, the leaders of a country should receive training in rational thinking through the "Four Arts", namely music, astronomy, mathematics and geometry. This idea was borrowed from the Pythagorean School. In China, such an idea would barely have been accepted, let alone further developed. However, in the West, Pythagoras became the symbol of the fountain of wisdom. His constant influence could still be felt in the 17th century, when Kepler was still deeply engrossed in certain peculiar ideas of the Pythagorean School. I spent a lot of time studying Pythagoras and his influence before I finally reached my conclusion about 'the first scientific revolution' mentioned earlier. I also started to question Joseph Needham. On the one hand, he overly exaggerated and praised the achievements of ancient Chinese science and technology (actually mainly technology). On the other hand, he denigrated ancient Greek science (especially mathematics) and ignored the connections between Islamic and European science in medieval times. For me, these opinions were too subjective. While Chinese people often felt pride because of Joseph Needham's arguments, such blind optimism was not helpful for the development of contemporary Chinese culture.
The next question is how we compare the ancient science of China with that of the West. As a matter of fact, the Zhou Bi Suan Jing is almost the only book in ancient China that accords with the modern scientific spirit. It proposes an operational model of the Sun to explain the natural phenomena of sunrise, sunset, longer daytime in summer and shorter daytime in winter, and so on. The model is also extended to explain daytime and night-time during summer and winter at the North Pole and the Equatorial areas. These explanations were based on fundamental assumptions obtained through mathematical deduction. However, the book was later negated due to apparent defects, and its mode of thinking was ignored and forgotten. Of course, the book of Mozi also contained certain scientific observations, such as the observation of lenses. These were the only achievements in ancient Chinese science that were comparable to those of ancient Greece. Unfortunately, such paltry achievements were not able to flourish in Chinese culture. Both the Zhou Bi Suan Jing and Mozi were later completely neglected and forgotten. Why did ancient China lack the grounds for the growth of analytical and theoretical science? An apparent answer is that the Chinese were too practical to become interested in theoretical discoveries that lacked obvious practical value, whereas people in ancient Greece loved analytical thinking. However, there may be a deeper reason. Most people in ancient Greece were practical too, which can be seen from the fact that Greek comedy often made fun of philosophers. In my opinion, the deeper reason is that, rather than a homogeneous society, ancient Greece consisted of several hundred independent city states in different regions. It thus contained numerous heterogeneous factors. Unique ideas and thoughts beyond the dominant stream were therefore able to find a niche in which to survive, or to transfer to other niches during times of radical change. By contrast, China achieved a grand political unification ('the entire world under the sky belongs to the empire') and an almost homogeneous cultural atmosphere from very early times. Such a society was not only unfavourable for the development of unique thought and ideas, but also unfavourable for people of exceptional thinking to find a niche in which to survive. I once wrote an article about the paradoxical development of traditional mathematics in China: in the 'golden ages' (such as the Han, Tang and Northern Song dynasties) , mathematics did not involve much creativity, whereas in 'declining times' (such as the Wei-Jin, Southern and Northern dynasties and the period between the Song and Yuan dynasties) , mathematics experienced surprising growth. The key reason is that during a decline, the country underwent disruption and orthodox culture decayed. Alternative thought and ideas were accordingly provoked and tolerated.
Overall, what features in ancient Chinese science is a practical spirit. This is most apparent in the powerful life of Chinese medicine. However, Chinese medical science is to a large extent not rational science but empirical science. Rather than seeking fundamental principles from natural phenomena to form a logical system, the 'theory' of Chinese medicine comprises largely empirical inductions from extensive practical experience. Certainly, for a highly complicated organism like the human body, the synthetic diagnostic method of Chinese medicine does show advantages in certain respects. It therefore survives today and has even won space for further development, rather than being eliminated by modern medical science, which is indeed a miracle.
Although the history of science as a subject in the West can be traced back almost two hundred years, as a university subject it only dates back to the 1920s, less than 100 years ago. However, since the 1960s, it has begun to develop at a tremendous speed. In China, the history of science is still at its beginning. Although scholars such as Li Yan and Qian Baocong started to study the history of mathematics and astronomy, respectively, in the 1920s and 1930s, it was not until the 1980s that the history of science was included as a university subject. As for Hong Kong, to my knowledge there are even fewer scholars of the history of science. Unfortunately, such a poor situation cannot easily be changed in the near future.
The importance of the history of science lies not only in its relationship to science itself, but also in its connection with the origin of Western civilisation in its entirety. As a result, the two questions of why modern science first appeared in the West and why the modern world first emerged in the West are two sides of the same coin. Since the May Fourth era, Chinese people have been longing to learn from the West. However, to really understand the West and the modern world, we have to study the formation of Western civilisation over the long term rather than merely looking at its political and economic development in the past one or two hundred years. That is why I consider the history of Western science (and certainly the history of religion and thought) to be a subject that is in need of urgent and careful study by the Chinese. Of course, it is a long-term project that cannot be achieved by one or two individuals or one or two universities, but requires the transformation of the ideas and thinking of the whole nation.
Now the third 14-year period of my life at the Chinese University of Hong Kong has passed. There is still a long road ahead. I only wish more people would join me on this road.