Professor Leah Zuo Discusses ‘Science’ in Premodern China, the Relevance of Confucius Today and Her Current Projects

leah zuo

Leah Zuo

Students are initially skeptical when Assistant Professor of History and Asian Studies Leah Zuo tells them they will learn that ideas common in premodern China are relevant to them today.

She begins by teaching them about Confucius, focusing in particular on his notion of ritual. “I don’t think that subject is interesting,” one student once bluntly told her. But Zuo said she does end up convincing her doubtful students that rituals continue to underlie modern society. In the process, she also instills in them an empathy for and understanding of people who lived so long ago.

After receiving a Henry Luce Foundation/ACLS Program in China Studies fellowship, Zuo has an 18-month sabbatical in front of her during which she will finish her first book and begin her second. Her first volume is about the famous Chinese figure Shen Gua (1031-1095), who is credited with making a number of startling discoveries well ahead of his time. Her second book will investigate sensory perception in early modern China.

The following is a lightly edited transcript of Zuo speaking about her research and her teaching.

Leah Zuo on her book in progress, A New Way of Knowing in the Middle-period China: Shen Gua and the Birth of Empiricism

“Let me start with the story of the man, Shen Gua, because my book is an intellectual biography.

Why is this man important? He lives in the 11th century, and he is one of the literati, meaning he received a standard Confucian education. Up to this point nothing is so interesting about this guy. Then he wrote a book [commonly known as Brush Talks from Dream Brook] toward the end of his life, in which modern scholars were amazed to find a good number of discoveries resembling modern scientific discoveries, so much beyond his time.

There were many examples; I’ll give you a couple. This guy discovered the change of speed in the apparent movement of the sun without having a telescope. He also provides the first and only account of the invention of movable printing in Chinese history. He proposes all these ideas that modern scientists are happy to agree with. So how is it possible?

This guy was discovered by 20th-century scholars and later promoted by both scholars and layman, including politicians, to be a national hero of China — someone who advanced modern science in medieval times. He has become a household name. There are children’s picture books about him, about how he studied the stars and things like that. I had one of those as a kid! Everyone knows him in China.

The reactions to his achievements do not follow a unified pattern. On one hand he has been admired since his own times for his uncanny ability in technical studies. And his book has been valued as a repertoire of valuable technical knowledge. But on the other hand, if you ask me whether he left a fully articulated theory, such as René Descartes offered to his European audience, I would say no. Because the book I mentioned is not theoretical in presentation. It’s like an encyclopedia, and Shen Gua demonstrated rather than articulated his system through interesting nuggets of knowledge.

My book addresses the reception of his thinking and the particular heritage he left the Chinese community. I am starting with the modern perception of him because he has been created as a modern myth. The job I have as an historian is to transcend the myth of a medieval guy doing modern science in China and see what enabled him to accomplish such complicated work in his historical context.”

How Zuo convinces students about the relevance of Confucius

“As an intellectual historian, I’m interested in how people think, their ideas. The problem with teaching premodern and Eastern thinking at Bowdoin is that the ideas don’t sound very relevant or attractive when you first hear them. They’re naturally rooted in a very different historical context.

For instance, the first key concept we start with in my early philosophy class is ritual. We start with Confucianism, and the concept of ritual. No student shows any interest when you start with that word. Why is that relevant in 21st century American society?

I always give this example: When I met you this morning, we smiled at each other. Did we shake hands? We should have! And then we greeted each other, good morning. We did the whole procedure without forcing it. It was naturally and spontaneously done and we both feel very comfortable about it and it is a very pleasant start of our meeting. This is ritual, as defined in Confucianism.

What does it mean? It means there is consensus regarding our activities and behaviors in the social context that is not forced, coerced or stipulated. Why is that useful? Confucius encourages people on a daily basis to follow ritual, which is to get in touch with a deeper underlying consensus of human activities. In this way, you use much less coercion to rule the community. The community you are forming is a genuine one, rather than a forced one.

One school of rulers [in pre-modern China], the so-called Legalists, decided they wanted to rule with law, and people like Confucius said, “Let’s rule with rituals.” You don’t need to use coercion to rule a community if you have rituals. So what’s good about that? The good part about it is dignity, the understanding of humans as beings of equal dignity.

So when students come into the classroom, I say, “I am not trying to intimidate you with punishment to follow the rules and listen. We are sharing an etiquette that we are collegial and friendly participants in a discussion and we listen to each other, without any coercion on my part. Do you want me to punish you with grades, or do you want everyone participating in this ritual so we can have a productive discussion in a friendly environment?” They all say, “We will all go with the latter!” And they say, “Wow, that is kind of relevant!” That is the lesson we learn as modern human beings. See how far we have to go to bring out the relevance of ritual!

The responsibility I have as a teacher drives me to get into that idea in depth, the roots of that thinking, the source of that thinking. That is why as an intellectual historian eventually I venture into epistemology because that is the source of knowledge, the root of people’s thinking. Why would 11th century people, fellow human beings, think in such a weird way? Provoking empathy is always the point of a history class, no matter the subject you teach.”

Zuo’s new book on sensory perception in early modern China

“My two projects are intimately connected. In my first project, I study Shen Gua’s epistemology and I call him an empiricist because he pays a lot of attention to sensory perception as the source of knowledge, which defines empiricism. In many ways that’s groundbreaking. For various reasons, sensory perception does not play a prominent role, with a clear categorical status, in premodern Chinese thinking.

That’s the underlying current in my first project, which will come into full revelation in my second project — how exactly do people in early modern China deal with the senses, how do they construe them, how do they perceive their utility and significance. I’ve already written an article on hearing that is forthcoming. In the fall of 2016 I’ll deal with vision, and also tactile touch, and perhaps also smell and taste.”