Image of Photo of Professor Dr Dagmar Schäfer

Matters of science: sound and silk in 17th Century Ming China

The China Centre lecture on Tuesday 1 February 2022 was given by Professor Dr Dagmar Schäfer, Managing Director and Director of Department III (Artifacts, Action, Knowledge), The Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.

Professor Schäfer’s lecture examined the intellectual background of Song Yingxing, the author of the famous Chinese text Tian Gong Kai Wu (The Works of Heaven and the Inception of Things), which was published in 1637. Song Yingxing failed the Imperial Exams six times, but fulfilled his duties as a scholar by becoming a school teacher. His book includes 123 illustrations, which provide a rich insight into Chinese technology in the seventeenth century. The numerous machines included in the Tian Gong Kai Wu demonstrate the skill of Chinese craftsmen, but, in Song Yingxing’s view, the craftsmen do not understand the ‘inner logic’ of the machines that they make. They understand the physical functioning of the objects they produce, but not their deeper significance within the functioning of the material world. Professor Schäfer used the example of silk, including the raw materials, the nature of the weaving process and the sound of silk, to illustrate Song’s view that the material world contains an intrinsic harmony governed by the force of ‘qi’ (‘breath’), the essential life-force of the universe.

The Q&A session included discussion of the following topics: the relationship between physics and alchemy in seventeenth century China; the role of ‘qi’ in Chinese thought; the practical usefulness of the illustrations in the Tian Gong Kai Wu in both China and Japan; the place of Song Yongxing within the intellectual milieu of seventeenth century China; the relationship of Tian Gong Kai Wu to other Chinese compendia; the influence of western astronomy upon Song Yingxing; the relationship of the Western concept of ‘pneuma’ to the Eastern concept of ‘qi’; and the need to re-orient the history of science away from ‘science heroes’ towards the contribution of craftsmen to scientific progress.

The current Managing Director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Dagmar Schäfer is Director of Department III, Artifacts, Action, Knowledge. She is Honorary Professor in History of Technology at Technische Universität, Berlin; Adjunct Professor at the Institute of Sinology, Freie Universität, Berlin; and Guest Professor at Tianjin University (2018–2021). She received her doctorate and habilitation from the University of Würzburg and has worked and studied at Zhejiang University, Peking University, National Tsing Hua University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Manchester, among others. She was previously a Guest Professor at the School of History and Culture of Science, Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Dagmar Schäfer's interest is the history and sociology of technology of China, focusing on the paradigms configuring the discourse on technological development, past and present. She has published widely on the Premodern history of China (Song-Ming) and technology, materiality, the processes and structures that lead to varying knowledge systems, and the changing role of artifacts—texts, objects, and spaces—in the creation, diffusion, and use of scientific and technological knowledge. Her current research focus is the historical dynamics of concept formation, situations, and experiences of action through which actors have explored, handled and explained their physical, social, and individual worlds.

Her monograph The Crafting of the 10,000 Things (University of Chicago Press, 2011) won the History of Science Society: Pfizer Award in 2012 and the Association for Asian Studies: Joseph Levenson Prize (Pre-1900) in 2013. Dagmar Schäfer was awarded the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize 2020, the most prestigious research award in Germany, which is given to “exceptional scientists and academics for their outstanding achievements in the field of research.”