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PROJECT ICCM: Individual routes and circulation of knowledge in China
Organiser: Catherine Jami (SPHERE)


This project proposes a new approach to the history of science, technology and medicine in China from the sixteenth to the twentieth century - to assess the impact of individuals’ geographic mobility on the circulation of technical knowledge.

This issue is peculiarly relevant for the last centuries of the empire: the bureaucratic system dictated a specific mode of mobility of the elites. A sequence of examinations led candidates from their district of origin to the provincial capital, and from there on to Beijing. Selected for their mastery of the Classics, the metropolitan graduates were assigned to positions in the provinces, changing location regularly during their career. But the ways in which individual itineraries shaped the circulation of knowledge need to be studied not only for civil servants, but also for various socio-professional groups, such as the scholars privately employed by high officials, craftsmen, medical doctors, Buddhist monks, and emperors themselves. To these groups should be added the actors of the globalisation of knowledge during this period; these include Christian missionaries who were the first mediators between China and Europe from the seventeenth century onwards, French colonial doctors, and the Chinese students who returned from abroad during the last decades of the empire. Thus in order to integrate China into a global history of science, we propose to apply to the study of contacts between China and the rest of the world the same approach that we propose to apply within the empire, where different local cultures met.

Two tasks will be carried out. On the one hand, the question will be tackled through a number of case studies, chosen to exploit the expertise of the members of the project. This will allow us to derive significant results, as a great variety of places, social milieus, periods, and actors will thus be investigated and compared. Knowledge and practice relevant to fields such as architecture, sericulture, medicine, natural history and statistics will be analysed, in ways that set the conditions of travel of technical knowledge within the broader context of the ways in which expertise such as classical scholarship circulated amongst the elite. In parallel with this effort, a database will be compiled using the sources relevant to our case studies. This database will be coupled with a Geographic Information System (GIS) in order to develop a digital tool for the cartography of knowledge. Once this database and GIS are online, further data can be fed into them, and the utility of the system can continue to be developed beyond the lifetime of the project. Thus, by applying a question inspired by a peculiar feature of imperial China in a global perspective, this project will open a new field of research, and make available to researchers a tool that will help them to locate scientific and technical knowledge within societies.

Individual itineraries and the circulation of scientific and technical knowledge in East Asia (16th–20th centuries)

ICCM ANR-09-SSOC-004 Final Conference

26, 27, 28 November 2012. University Paris Diderot. Organisation : C. Jami (SPHERE)