Heritage and Betrayal: A Treatise on the Emergence of Modern Science in Western Civilization Heritage and Betrayal: A Treatise on the Emergence of Modern Science in Western Civilization

Book Reviews

Chen Fong-ching (Institute of Chinese Studies, Chinese University of Hong Kong)

SDX Joint Publishing Company, 2009, 718 pp.

Reviewed by Wu Fengshi, Chinese University of Hong Kong (Harvard-Yenching Visiting Scholar, 08-09)

Heritage and Betrayal is a brilliant and unique inquiry into the scientific tradition in Western civilization. It is not simply a textbook of the history of scientific development from ancient Greece to Enlightenment England, but an exploration of the origins and fate of Pythagorean science in the broad context of what has made the West a civilization. More importantly, it is meant to be an introduction of the Western scientific tradition to academia and the general public in China.

For those who are not total strangers to modern China’s quest for “knowledge of the West” (xi xue) and Sinology in Europe since the end of the First World War, the subtitle of the book in Chinese, “Why Modern Science Originated in the West”, should reveal part of the author’s endeavor and ambition: the next over 700 pages respond to one of the most influential arguments (or “assertions” in Chen Fong-ching’s own words, page 15) on Chinese civilization ever made by a Western scholar-the Needham Thesis, “Why the Industrial Revolution Did Not Originate in China.” Both Chen’s introduction and the lengthy preface by the Kluge Prize scholar Yu Ying-shih (a lifelong friend of Chen’s since their time at Harvard) serve well the purpose of re-examining the Thesis itself and explaining its overwhelming popularity among contemporary Chinese academicians. The conclusion, Chen’s counter-thesis as suggested by the subtitle, does not shy away from arguing that Chinese scholars’ embracing of Needham’s findings on technological development in pre-modern China has been at the price of a genuine learning of the scientific tradition in the West. (pages 20-26) In a way, it is not peculiar to the history of science that there is a need to re-assess the Western heritage as a whole in Chinese scholarship. The generation of Chinese intellectuals between 1910s and 1940s who traveled abroad and returned with books on Renaissance and Enlightenment, “Democracy and Science” have left the task of “going back to Athens” unfinished until today.

Chen Fong-ching, a Harvard College graduate of 1962, a PhD in physics, an intellectual returnee just like those abovementioned, “a young and enthusiastic educator and reformer” at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the 1970s in Yu Ying-shih’s words, is a truly multi-disciplinary scholar. His writings range from classical Chinese studies and comparative literature to history and philosophy, and he has once again produced a feast of knowledge with this book. The four main arguments in the book are expected to inspire further discussion and scholarship: 1) Despite many sharp turns, there is something fundamental and continuous embedded in Western civilization as a whole; 2) The intellectual center of the Western tradition has never been fixed in one geographic location, but has moved around Europe, West Asia and Northern Africa; 3) The scientific tradition in the West has had an intimate and intricate relationship with religion (particularly Christianity); and, 4) The “Neo-Prometheus Revolution” led by Pythagoras (500BC) and Newton’s revolution (1700 AD) are two ground-breaking moments in the history of science in the West. Ironically, the latter both carried on and betrayed the spirit of the former.

The importance of Chen’s teaching in contemporary Chinese academia becomes clearer if one is familiar with research fashions in the country. The recent introduction of Leo Strauss and his teaching of classical political philosophy has achieved wide-spread currency, yet criticism as well, or even jealousy and suspicion. Chen’s work might look old-fashioned to some eyes with its solid and nuanced investigations, but it is a fresh breeze for many in the midst of popular worship of the School of Athens and zealots in search of Western classicism.