How did 19th century Korean scholars understand western modern astronomy Although many believe that modern science can be transmitted without any fundamental changes, I argue that western science introduced in 19th century Korea can only be understoo ...
How did 19th century Korean scholars understand western modern astronomy Although many believe that modern science can be transmitted without any fundamental changes, I argue that western science introduced in 19th century Korea can only be understood by examining the Korean intellectual context. Ch’oe Han-gi 崔漢綺(1803-1877), an enlightened Korean Confucian scholar and his Sŏnggi unhwa 星氣運化(Dynamic Change of Stellar Air, 1867) which depended heavily on John Herschel(1792-1871)’s Outlines of Astronomy shows how an indigenous context influences the understanding of a foreign science text.
The fourth edition of Outlines of Astronomy was translated in China in 1859 by Li Shanlan 李善蘭(1811-1882), a Chinese mathematician, and Alexander Wylie(1815-1887), an English missionary to China. Tantian 談天(Conversation about the Sky, 1859), the Chinese version of Herschel’s book, was then imported into Korea during the 1860s. Ch’oe, who was an enthusiastic collector of books imported from China, must have been the first Korean to read Tantian. Although he generally praised modern Western astronomy highly, he nonetheless argued that this work lacked some important parts. In his Sŏnggi unhwa he added those missing parts, which included deliberate distortions and numerous mistakes.
Why could Ch’oe, who was more versed in the newest western knowledge than any other contemporary Korean intellectual, not understand it correctly First, Ch’oe’s primary concern was his philosophy of Qi(氣學, Kihak). His ‘Kihak’ emphasized the universal principle that covers the whole universe, from human body to celestial bodies. From around 1850, he had already reached the conclusion that the universal principle is based on two lower principles—the principle of cosmological uniformity and the mechanism of air-globe. Therefore, when he read Herschel’s astronomy in 1860s, he deliberately distorted scientific facts and theories in order to validate his own principle of the universe.
Second, Ch’oe did not have sufficient background knowledge to understand Herschel’s astronomy correctly. He studied Jesuit astronomy that had been introduced in Korea from China during the 17th and 18th centuries. Much of this knowledge, however, was based on old and even obsolete scientific facts and theories that are not consistent with modern astronomy. Worse, he did not recognize the difference between old and new astronomy in the West. This led him to select scientific facts in modern astronomy for his philosophical discourse freely.
Third, traditional Confucian scholars did not regard astronomy as a major subject for scholarly pursuit. Confucian scholars in 19th century Korea used astronomy to strengthen their own philosophical ideas. Ch’oe was not an exception to this general trend. Even though he claimed astronomy was an important part of universal knowledge, he considered it to be a secondary knowledge.
Ch’oe’s understanding of Herschel’s astronomy demonstrates a typical case of how modern science was accepted in 19th century Korea and how a scientific text was understood differently in a different context.