HOME - Janux - D2L - Email Wikipedia course web page Vimeo course videos Course materials at iTunes U (optional) Twitter: #ouhoscurator
History of Science Science in Asia - The Great Wall

History of Science Online

- Course Info - Time tips - Semester at a glance - Weekly assignments at a glance - Timeline -

LibraryThing: Science in Asia Week 12: Science in Asia

Science in Premodern Asia

# Due Date Pts Activity Time
2 Wednesday 11:59 p.m. 15

Islamic science

2 hrs.
  1. At Janux, watch the “From the vault: Science in Pre-modern Asia” video prompt for this assignment.
  2. Share your thoughts in the Discussion at Janux.
  3. Science in India:
    India is already the most populous democracy in the world; projections suggest that by 2020 it will become the world's most populated country. Many Americans do not realize the rich history of science and technology that India boasts, even before the Scientific Revolution of early modern Europe. Yet India inherited the same Mesopotamian legacy in the exact sciences as ancient Greece, and remained in vital contact with western science throughout antiquity and the middle ages. Again we see that the growth of western science cannot be understood apart from rich and sustained interactions with other cultures.
    1. Begin your exploration of Indian science with this brief history of zero.
    2. Now read David Pingree, “Astronomy in India,” in Astronomy Before the Telescope (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994), ed. Christopher Walker, pp. 123-142. You will find this article in the Content area of Desire2Learn. Read pp. 123-129; skim pp. 130-140; then read pp. 141-142.
    3. Optional: A good survey for reference is the 12-volume History of Science and Technology in India, ed. G. Kuppuram and K. Kumudamani (Delhi, 1990), available in the OU History of Science Collections. Wikipedia also provides a brief overview of science and technology in ancient India.
  4. Science in China:
    1. The history of science in China was pioneered in the 20th century by Joseph Needham. Glance over the titles of the volumes of Needham's massive project, Science and Civilization in China.
    2. Read this brief biography of Joseph Needham.
    3. Read the "Introduction" section of this page on the Needham Research Institute in Cambridge, England.
    4. Read my supplemental notes on the Needham question, in which I raise doubts about Needham’s fundamental question.
    5. An article by Nathan Sivin provides an excellent overview of science in China: Nathan Sivin, "Science and Medicine in Chinese History," in Nathan Sivin, Science in Ancient China: Researches and Reflections (Ashgate, Variorum, 1995), section VI, pp. 164-196. To access this article go to the Content section of Desire2Learn. Skim this article to get the gist of the breadth and character of science in ancient China. Focus on the following pages, which in most cases are the introductions to each section or topic: pp. 164-168 (introduction); 173-176 (Mathematical astronomy); 178-179 (Qualitative sciences); 181-186 (Medicine); and 191-193 (Transmission).
    6. Optional: If perusing the massive tomes of Needham’s Science and Civilization in China proves intimidating, try a readable, short work by Needham: Science in Traditional China (Harvard, 1982). Both are available in the OU History of Science Collections. Wikipedia provides a brief overview of science and technology in ancient China.
  5. Quiz: Afterwards, take a Topic 1 quiz in the assignments area of Janux. The quiz will be composed of 12 of the true/false questions listed in the Study Questions below. Topic 1 quizzes must be completed before Wednesday night at 11:59 p.m.
  6. Optional: Some additional print sources are recommended at LibraryThing.
  7. For additional images, see the following History of Science Collections Flickr collections: Japan and China.

From the Vault script:

Thanks for joining me in the History of Science Collections of the University of Oklahoma Libraries. Let’s look at a few books that throw light on the story of science in Asia. (Globe in background; on location in History of Science Exhibit Hall).

China monumentis, printed in Europe in 1667 by Athanasius Kircher, contains two maps which reflect a growing European awareness of the history and significance of the people of Asia. On this map of Asia, we can see the subcontinent of India, southeast Asia, Japan and Korea. Kircher’s more detailed map of China may be the first map of China to be printed in Europe. Europeans were beginning to recognize that Chinese history was as ancient as Egypt’s, and that China’s cultural achievements were equal to their own.

Confucius, Sinarum philosophicus (Paris, 1687): Confucius lived in the early 5th century BCE, roughly contemporary with the Pythagoreans and Presocratic natural philosophers. Confucius taught: “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself,” an early version of the Golden Rule. Confucianism emphasized the cultivation of justice and sincerity in relationships, beginning with one’s family, including respect for one’s ancestors and for tradition. This edition of Confucius, printed in Paris in 1687, contains another map of China, published only 20 years after Kircher’s. Map of China inserted between p. xx (7th group) and p. 1 (8th group)

Decorative screen emblem: Yin and yang, a recurring motif in traditional Chinese thought, express the idea of the interconnectedness of opposites. Phenomena which appear as dualities to us, such as darkness and light, or high and low tides, will turn out to be interdependent and profoundly related.

Guifang Dou, Shinkan Kotei meido kyukyo (1659): This is The Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Moxibustion, a classic treatise on acupuncture. It describes acupuncture treatments for a variety of conditions, with 36 depictions of acupuncture points for both adults and children. This copy was printed in 1659 in Japan.

Nobutoyo, Yahon Hiden: This is a set of Samurai manuscripts, drawn on rice paper in the mid 1800’s, copied by hand from mid-16th-century sources. This one is entitled “The book about the arrow.”
Nobutoyo, Koto no sho: This is “The book about leggings.” (cowboy chaps)

Baba, Nobutake, Shogaku tenmon shinansho (1706): We can use this work to represent Asian astronomy. Here is an armillary sphere, with feet of dragons. It was written by Baba Nobutake, a Kyoto physician, and published in Osaka, Japan, in 1706. Baba countered superstitious interpretations of solar eclipses, and used magnetic theory rather than yin and yang to explain the tides. Baba adopted the Tychonic model of cosmology, and the book exemplifies the interplay between Asian and European ideas.

In this book in 1620, Francis Bacon championed the new era of modern discovery by pointing to three supreme novelties: printing, gunpowder, and the magnet. The richness of Asian science is evident in the irony that each of these “modern European discoveries” came to Europe from Asia, unbeknownst to Bacon.

The starting point for modern western understanding of traditional Chinese science is the monumental work of Joseph Needham. The massive volumes of Needham’s Science and Civilization in China explore the scientific heritage of Asia.

Similar works are appearing for other regions of Asia, such as this 12-volume history of science in India. 12-volume History of Science and Technology in India, ed. G. Kuppuram and K. Kumudamani (Delhi, 1990)

Asia boasts a rich history of science and technology, even before the Scientific Revolution of early modern Europe.

Science is a story. What stories do you want to hear and tell about science in Asia?


TOPIC QUIZ: The statements are either True or False. When you take the quiz at Janux, you will see 12 of these statements, chosen at random, worth 2 points each.

From the Vault video: Science in Pre-modern Asia

  1. Confucius lived roughly contemporary with the Pythagoreans and Presocratic natural philosophers.
  2. Yin and yang express the idea of the interconnectedness of opposites, which are regarded as interdependent and profoundly related.
  3. In a book published in 1620, Francis Bacon championed the new era of modern discovery by pointing to three supreme novelties (printing, gunpowder, and the magnet), each of which had come to Europe from Asia, unbeknownst to Bacon.

Brief history of Zero

  1. In the Almagest, Ptolemy used the Babylonian sexagessimal place-value system of numbers with an O to represent empty places.
  2. An inscription on a stone tablet from India, which includes a date equivalent to 876 A.D., includes at least two numbers containing a zero.
  3. In the 7th century A.D., the Indian mathematician Brahmagupta suggested a set of rules for arithmetic operations involving zero and negative numbers.
  4. By 665 A.D., Mayan mathematicians used a base 20 place-value number system with a symbol for zero.
  5. The Chinese mathematician Ch'in Chiu-Shao used the symbol 0 for zero in 1247.
  6. Around 1200 in Europe, Fibonacci described the nine Indian numeral symbols and the sign 0.
  7. David Pingree, “Astronomy in India”
  8. Early astronomy in India shows the influence of the Mesopotamian tradition of Mul Apin.
  9. Advanced Babylonian planetary theory was transmitted to India via ancient Greek intermediaries.
  10. Indian astronomers produced theoretical innovations in spherical trigonometry.
  11. Evidence exists for the coordinated, simultaneous observation of a lunar eclipse in both India and Alexandria.
  12. Indian astronomy excelled in mathematical aspects such as the development of sophisticated methods of approximation.

Magruder, “Supplemental Notes on the Needham Question”

  1. The “Needham Question” is “Why was astronomy so well developed in pre-modern China?”
  2. Magruder disagrees with Needham by arguing that modern science was formed by the sustained historical interaction of European, Islamic, Indian and Chinese cultures.

Nathan Sivin, “Science and Medicine in Chinese History”

  1. Sivin argues that modern science was formed by the sustained historical interaction of European, Islamic, Indian and Chinese cultures.
  2. Books were printed in China centuries before Gutenberg.
  3. All three innovations which Francis Bacon used to defend the superiority of moderns over the ancients (namely, printing, gunpowder, and the magnet) originated in Asia.
  4. Sivin suggests that a Chinese visiting one of the great cities in Europe in 1400 would have been envious of European technological advancements and urban conveniences.
  5. Sivin argues that pre-modern sciences in Europe and China resembled each other more than either one resembles modern science.
  6. Sivin states that early modern technology in Europe was the result of applied science, rather than craft knowledge.
  7. Needham credited the Chinese with the longest continuous records ever compiled of celestial phenomena such as eclipses, novae, comets or sunspots.
  8. Large, water-driven Chinese astronomical clocks were constructed in the medieval period.
  9. Chinese conceptions of temporal processes were generally linear or directional, rather than cyclical.
  10. Yin and Yang refer to two complementary parts or aspects of things that are united in some kind of relationship.
  11. The prevalence of acupuncture in Chinese medicine eliminated the need for herbal remedies and botanical medicines, which were not studied until European contacts intensified in the 19th century.
  12. The Greek medical theory of the four elements was of Chinese origin, transmitted to Greece through India about 500 B.C.
  13. Indian astronomers brought mathematical techniques in astronomy to China before the middle of the 7th century A.D.


Do you have a great quote for this page? Let me know! (If used, a new quote is worth 1 point extra credit)

University of Oklahoma logo

HSCI 3013. History of Science to 17th centuryCreative Commons license
Kerry Magruder, Instructor, 2004
Brent Purkaple, TA

Report typos or broken links

Go to this course at

spellcheck.net | wordcounter.net

Many thanks to the pedagogical model developed in Mythology and Folklore and other online courses by Laura Gibbs, which have been an inspiration for this course.

Academic Calendar

College of Arts and Sciences Online



This course is currently undergoing major reconstruction to bring it into alignment with the new version of the course at Janux