Philosophy and Technology in Modern China

With the eastward spread of Western culture since the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and early Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Chinese reflection began to emerge on the relationship between Eastern and Western cultures. From the 1840s in the late Qing, this reflection began to pay special attention to science and that modern form of technics known as technology.

The immediate stimulus for the modern reflection on science and technology—science being understood primarily in terms of its technological implications—was the defeat of China in the Opium Wars (first in1839-1842 and then again in 1856-1860). As a result, Chinese intellectuals such as Lin Zexu (1785-1850) and Wei Yuan (1794-1857), who were deeply concerned with the crisis facing China since the early nineteenth century, proposed the principle of “learning advanced technology from barbarians in order to oppose barbarians”—that is, importing advanced technology from the West, particularly the technologies of weapons and warships, in order to resist European and American aggression. Chinese civilization was believed to be superior to that of the Western “barbarians.” But in order to defend this superiority, China would need to use the technologies of foreigners to be able to resist Western exploitation and imperialism.

In order to fulfill the goal of strengthening itself against the West, the late Qing dynasty accepted this principle and attempted to implement it in a series of institutional reforms associated with the self-strengthening movement. Initially, there were only attempts to import modern weapons. It quickly became apparent, however, that technology transfer by the simple purchase of military technologies was insufficient. Led by Zhang Zhidong (1837-1909), one of the “four famous officials of the Late Qing,” the self-strengthening movement was deepened to include “Chinese learning of fundamental principles and Western learning for practical application” (Zhang, 1901).

This expanded approach to technology transfer was summarized in Zhang’s Quan xue pian (Essay on the Enhancement of Learning) of 1898, a book translated into English in 1901 as The Only Hope of China. In this book, Zhang placed his hope in two things: a renaissance of Confucianism and the adoption of Western science and methods. In his words, “The old and new must both be taught; by the old is meant the Four Books, the Five Classics, history, government, and geography of China; by the new, Western government, science, and history. Both are imperative, but we repeat that the old is to form the basis and the new is for practical purposes” (Zhang, 1901, pp. 100-101).For Zhang, China should not just import military technologies from the West but also strengthen itself through the selective adoption of Western education and institutions.

Zhang’s position was strongly supported by many elements in the late Qing but was ultimately weakened by a conservative reaction led by the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908). Yet with the creation of the republic in 1912, some version of his policy became the dominant position and has continued into the present. The adoption and application of Western science and technology have been core principles in promoting Chinese industrial development not just in regard to military technology but also with respect to the technologies of mining, steelmaking, textile manufacturing, and so on (Wang, 1994, p. 19). During the nearly one hundred years from the middle of the nineteenth century to the late twentieth century, a strong need to “resist Western aggression (Wang, 1994, p. 20)” drove the Chinese attempt to develop a perspective on technology that would strengthen the nation and increase its wealth.

It was in this historical and cultural context that a special form of Western philosophy—namely, Marxism—was introduced into China and, by the middle of the twentieth century, came to play a central role in Chinese intellectual life. From the founding of the new China—that is, the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—on October 1, 1949, until the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, Marxism became a primary influence on Chinese attitudes toward technology.

Although Marxist ideology is not the same kind of educational foundation that Confucian philosophy once was, even since the death of Mao it has remained prominent at every level, from the primary grades to graduate school. Like Confucianism, Marxism also stresses the importance of practice over theory, as when Karl Marx wrote, in the “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845),

The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. (Thesis 2)

All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice. (Thesis 8)

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it. (Thesis 11) (Engels, 1976, pp. 61, 64, and 65)

Each of these theses can be interpreted to echo approaches found in traditional Chinese thinking, although in more radical forms. Indeed, it may be that one factor contributing to the reception of Marxism in China was the practical orientation of Confucian thought that preceded it.

In this respect, it may be useful to note some key respects in which Mao transformed Marxism in the Chinese context. Mao’s most philosophical works derive from the late 1930s (after the Long March) and prior to establishment of the PRC. Mao’s classics from this period include “On Practice,” “On Contradictions,” and “Dialectical Materialism,” all of which argue for the primacy of experience in producing knowledge (a basic Marxist epistemology with some similarities to American pragmatism) and the revolutionary role of the peasantry (Mao’s special contribution to Marxist theory). In “On Practice,” Mao paid homage to the importance of technology as a basis for both the production and dissemination of knowledge. As Mao put it, “human knowledge is verified only when a person achieves anticipated results in the process of social practice (material production, class struggle or scientific experiment)” (2009, p. 22). In the first conference on science sponsored by the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1940, Mao further stated that “the natural sciences [in which he would have included technology] are going to change the world under the guidance of social sciences” (1993, p. 269). Here “social sciences” obviously refers to Marxism. In his opinion, Marxism thus was serving as the foundation for the promotion and development of science and technology.

Along with this perspective, Mao further adopted the Leninist-Stalinist view that philosophy is not an independent activity but a tool of the CPC and correspondingly established institutions for enforcing party orthodoxy. An Australian scholar has summarized the core of ideological Maoist Marxism this way: “By the 1960s Chinese Marxism had become a formalized dogma made up of borrowings from Soviet dialectical materialism, and Mao’s formulas, which were more voluntarist. This ‘orthodox schema’ was the complex result of efforts to identify and propound a Chinese Marxism distinct from its opponents, its local doctrinal variants, and false forms” (Kelly, 2003, p. 435). It was the notion of the revolutionary character of the peasantry and the voluntarist element in Mao’s thought that justified the effort of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961). A distorted emphasis on the importance of experience in knowledge production could also be interpreted as providing some justification for the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). At the same time, in light of the fact that both of these initiatives caused disasters, some scholars have argued that they did not pay sufficient attention to practice.

Also reflective of the Marxist commitment to science and technology was the proclamation of the Four Modernizations as the basic state goal by PRC Premier Zhou Enlai. First announced in 1954 at the first National People’s Congress, the Four Modernizations program was interrupted by the Great Leap Forward’s emphasis on peasant power. Following the failure of the Great Leap Forward, in 1963 Zhou reiterated a national need to undertake modernization and strengthening of the fields of agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology. Although the Four Modernizations program seemed to place science and technology on an equal footing with agriculture, industry, and national defense, in fact it promoted modernization in these three areas through the application of science and technology. The program achieved one of its most obvious and immediate successes in the 1964 explosion of the first Chinese atomic bomb, followed three years later by the explosion of the first Chinese hydrogen bomb, followed in 1970 by the launch of the first Chinese satellite (thus realizing the “Two Bombs and One Satellite” program). But the Four Modernizations were also manifested in ongoing efforts to mechanize agriculture and to create a transportation and industrial infrastructure. After the death of Mao, in 1978 Deng Xiaoping once again reiterated a commitment to the Four Modernizations, which became a key feature of the Reform and Opening Up.

A less dogmatic and ideological version of Chinese Marxism, but one that continues the positive emphasis on science and technology, is associated with the emergence of what is called “dialectics of nature” research. The term derives from a book of this title by Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), but in China, it has come to include discourse that in the West is called history and philosophy of science and technology. When dialectics of nature discourse emerged in the late 1950s, it did not initially attract much attention. Eventually, however, it gained acceptance among scientists, engineers, and philosophers as a framework within which critical reflection could take place. As stated in the National Twelve-Year (1956-1967) Plan of Science and Technology Development, “just as historical materialism mediates between philosophy and social science so there exists a form of knowledge between philosophy and natural science. Because this [mediation between philosophy and natural science] continues the research initiated by Engels in The Dialectics of Nature, we call it Dialectics of Nature . . . This development emphasizes cooperation between philosophers and natural scientists” (Gong, 1991, p. 4).

Under the dialectics of nature rubric, philosophers and scientists formed a close alliance both theoretically and practically. Because technological innovation and revolution had become such major commitments in the PRC, studies of technological innovation from an epistemic point of view also acquired importance in philosophy. During 1958-1960, some veteran workers at a factory in the northeast industrial city of Harbin became leaders in the invention of some heavy equipment machine tools. A research team composed of philosophical and technological scholars from the Harbin Institute of Technology visited the factory in order to study the features of this successful work. They concluded that success could be expressed in Marxist terms as “grasping the principal contradiction” in any particular situation. Moreover, the scholars argued, others “should learn from them the experience of analyzing the problems in our ‘scientific experiment’ through the point and method of material dialectics in order to promote the learning and research on dialectics of nature” (Guan, 2000, p. 18). According to one later commentator, this approach “greatly attracted the interest of the national academic field of mechanical engineering. It generated heated discussions among a number of university, factory, and institute scholars. It initiated learning, research, and application of the dialectics of nature in the field of engineering technology” (Zhou, 1983, p. 113).

Although the alliance between philosophers and engineers was interrupted during the Cultural Revolution, it was revived after the Reform and Opening Up in order to promote the national task of socialist modernization. In 1981, the first annual meeting of the Chinese Society for Dialectics of Nature (whose establishment was approved by Deng Xiaoping) “mostly analyzed and discussed how dialectics of nature work could serve to promote the construction of China’s socialist modernization in a new historical stage.” A strong belief was expressed that the “dialectics of nature could exert its unique function” in this new historical period (Huang and Zhou, 1988, p. 411).

Chinese philosophy of technology was carried forward under the dialectics of nature rubric until the Academic Degrees Committee of the State Council in 1987 renamed the field the philosophy of science and technology. During the 1980s, some important philosophical works published in the area included Kexue jishu lun (Theory of Science and Technology; Yang Peiting et al., 1985), Kexue jishu xue (Science of Science and Technology; Meng Xianjun et al., 1986), Lun jishu (On Technology; Yuan Deyu et al., 1986), Jishu lun (Theory of Technology; Chen Nianwen et al., 1987), and Jishuxue daolun (Introduction to Technological Science; Deng Shuzeng et al., 1987). In all these cases, there was an effort to distinguish technology from science so that technology could be accorded a proper emphasis in education and government funding. In addition, a number of related monographic studies were published in Chinese at different technological universities: “On the Methodology of Engineering Technology” (Northeast Technical College), “On the Methodology of Technology Development” (Dalian Technical College), “On the Structure and Development of Engineering Technology” (Harbin Institute of Technology), and “Japanese Philosophy of Technology” (Chengdu University of Science and Technology). In these, it is possible to identify an emerging concern with the more effective management of engineering and technology. Finally, on the basis of a general theory of technology, efforts were made to clarify the character of professional work in such specific disciplines as chemical engineering, petroleum engineering, agricultural engineering, biomedical engineering, and military engineering.

The increasing number and size of engineering construction projects in recent decades have shifted philosophical attention from technology to engineering. In this sense, the quest for a proper appreciation of technology has become a quest for a general appreciation of engineering. Work in the philosophy of engineering was stimulated especially by the post-Mao leadership of Deng Xiaoping, who in 1988, furthering Zhou Enlai’s promotion of the Four Modernizations, declared science and technology as primary productive forces, which in reality take place through engineering. Also worth noting is the fact that discourse in the philosophy of engineering, which again stressed its positive aspects and the ability of engineering to contribute to economic and social development, has found a receptive home in the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE). As a new branch of philosophy, philosophy of engineering reveals a strong practical aspect, related to but different than philosophy of technology: “Philosophy of engineering is the overall consideration of engineering activity, which is the human activity of depending on, adapting, knowing and changing nature, and the knowledge of fundamental principles and universal laws concerning engineering activity . . . The only way to promote its development is to approach engineering practice through philosophical reflection” (Yin et al, 2007, p. 16).

According to an interpretation advanced by Wu Guosheng, Western philosophy has from its birth paid more attention to theory than to practice (Wu, 1999). Since the early twentieth century, some philosophical schools in the West have challenged this emphasis. To some degree, the philosophy of technology and engineering are involved in this challenge and can thus be seen as scholarly approaches with a vital future insofar as they manifest a strong tendency to closely link theory with practice. As another scholar has summarized the situation in China: “It deserves to be appreciated that the philosophy of engineering insists on the point of view of practical philosophy, considers the principle of relating theory with practice, and emphasizes the dialogue between philosophers and engineers and other engineering practitioners. Precisely in this way can it have bright future” (Yuan, 2007, p. 111).

It should be emphasized that this is a very limited description of the development of philosophical perspectives on China in the contemporary period. There is at present a significant flowering of philosophical work on technology and engineering that has not been mentioned. The aim here has only been to present some of the general background.

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