In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Philology and Science in Imperial China

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Chinese Studies Philology and Science in Imperial China
Ori Sela, Xue Zhang
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0201


Philology and science have been intertwined throughout Chinese history. The specific characteristics of each changed over time, yet their general meaning in premodern China lingered. Philological practices entailed deep engagement with language and text, and science, more specifically, natural and exact studies often followed the Confucian dictum of “investigating things” (gewu 格物). In imperial China, and especially in Confucianism, the term for philology was xiaoxue 小學 (literally: lesser or minute scholarship), and understood, for the most part, as subservient of daxue 大學 (literally: great learning), the realm of broad scholarship and big ideas. Xiaoxue originally referred to paleography (wenzi 文字), as comprehension of scripts their historical changes was key to understanding early texts in various forms. By the eleventh century, xiaoxue had broadened to include paleography, phonology (yinyun音韵), and exegesis (xungu 訓詁). In the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), scholars associated with evidential scholarship (kaozheng/kaoju xue 考證/考據學) elevated the status of xiaoxue to an unprecedented height: textual studies became the singular most important path to Confucian—and other—teachings, and more generally, to the pursuit of facts and scientific knowledge. Although science had no exact correlation in premodern China, systematic attempts to comprehend natural phenomena (e.g., calculation, observation, and experimentation) certainly existed. Chinese categories relevant to such endeavors were diverse, and often discipline-specific (e.g., mathematics), and the umbrella term “investigating things” designated many of them. “Things” could refer to nature, but frequently referred to texts. Thus, the methodology of investigating nature through textual inquiry had inspired Chinese thinkers through the ages, and during the Qing, as evidential scholarship became the mainstay of research, the nexus of philology and science intensified and lingered into the modern era. This bibliographic entry deals with Chinese philology and science, that is, up to the late nineteenth century, when a host of new terms and ideas flowing from around the world changed philology, science, and their nexus dramatically in China. In what follows, we engage, first, philology, its contents, and its development (also as one form of “science”), and then the relationship between philology and the sciences, or, as the traditional Chinese category has it: “the investigation of things.” The final section situates the nexus between Chinese philology and science in a broader context, in which exchanges between China and the West are discussed.

General Overviews

In China, until the late nineteenth century, scholars adopted philology as a crucial approach to conduct textual studies and research natural phenomena while fulfilling the Confucian idea of “investigating things.” Philology, however, fell from grace when the ancient goal of investigating things was replaced by imported modern science. The nexus of philology and science, under these circumstances, became archaic, and early-20th-century Chinese intellectuals deemed what they regarded as excessive philological engagement during the Qing as useless, escapist, and a reason for China’s lagging behind the West. In bibliographic terms, general accounts of Chinese philology per-se and as a whole are scarce. In Chinese, driven by the aspiration to modernization and science, scholars scrutinized the intellectual legacy of the imperial past by the standards of modern science. Philology is no exception. While intellectual histories were written from the early twentieth century in China, it was only in the 1980s that dedicated histories of philology came into being. Practicing linguists interested in philology wrote the first two chronicles of Chinese philology—Wang 1981 and Hu 1987. The studies of the Chinese language, according to Wang Li and Hu Qiguang, were meant to evolve from philology to modern linguistics, from a proto-science to real science. A few years later, He 1995, questioning such a teleological narrative, provided a nonlinear account of Chinese philological tradition up through the late nineteenth century. In English, as the discipline of history of science extended its reach to include philology, Chinese philology gradually became a topic. The historical Chinese interest in the relationship between name and reality had convinced the editors of Science and Civilisation in China that language and philology—i.e., the study of language—constituted the social background of sciences in premodern China. Harbsmeier 1998 examines historical lexical texts to address the Chinese language as the medium of scientific discourses. Pollock, et al. 2015 historicizes the relationship between philology and science and showed the possibility of writing the history of Chinese philology as part of the history of global early modern science. In that, more general framework was added to specific works of Chinese philology in Western languages and Japanese, discussed in this section. It should also be stated that in recent years, scholars working on philology in Chinese history include not only those dealing with the Chinese language, and, for example, Manchu studies have witnessed a growing audience.

  • Harbsmeier, Christoph. Science and Civilisation in China. Vol. 7: The Social Background. Part 1: Language and Logic in Traditional China. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    Harbsmeier noted that historically, Chinese scholars were conscious about the usage of language, especially the nomenclature of things. He regarded the classical Chinese language as a medium of scientific discourses and examines lexicography in premodern China.

  • He Jiuying 何九盈. Zhongguo gudai yuyanxue shi 中国古代语言学史. Guangzhou, China: Guangdong jiaoyu chubanshe, 1995.

    He argued against the progressivist narrative of philological practice. He also opposed applying the philology-linguistics division, a modern invention, to premodern China. Chinese philology does not follow a linear path, the path of becoming scientific. Instead, its concerns and methods shifted continuously from one time period to another.

  • Hu Qiguang 胡奇光. Zhongguo xiaoxue shi 中国小学史. Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 1987.

    A chronicle of philological practice from early China to the Qing dynasty. Hu nicely demonstrated the nexus between philology and classicism in premodern China. Compared with Western linguistics, Hu pointed out, Chinese philology, as a classics reading aid, is text-centered and historically oriented. Falling short of theoretization, Hu suggested, Chinese philology is less “scientific.”

  • Pollock, Sheldon, Benjamin A. Elman, and Ku-ming Kevin Chang, eds. World Philology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

    An edited volume on the global history of philology in the early modern period. Although they recognized the variability of philological practice, the editors identified the shared concerns across time and space, that is, the usage of languages and the interpretation of texts. The volume reveals a transregional transformation: philology was once “the queen of the sciences” in the early modern period but has been marginalized since the twentieth century.

  • Wang Li 王力. Zhongguo yuyanxue shi 中国语言学史. Taiyuan, China: Shanxi renmin chubanshe, 1981.

    Wang Li’s lecture notes on the development of Chinese philology from antiquity to the Qing and the transformation of philology to linguistics in the twentieth century. As a practicing linguist, Wang recognized the merits of traditional philological approaches but insists that scientific studies of the Chinese language did not appear until the May Fourth movement in the early twentieth century.

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