Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Puzzle

Back when Eli was a young bunny, before he took up hip hop and went on world tour,  he roamed the library.  Libraries are odd places, filled with books that appealed to the whims of the librarians, but to make a long story longer, Eli became entranced by several random volumes of Joseph Needham's (aka 李約瑟) Science and Civilization in China.  Needham was a significant biologist who became obsessed with the question of how the West could come to dominate China in science and technology when the Chinese had such a significant lead before 1800. 

Earlier this year, during one of the interminable discussions on early instrumental temperature measurements, Eli thought, well, are there early Chinese instrumental temperature records?  So he wrote to the Needham Institute


I am interested if there is any record of Chinese instrumental temperature measurement and Chinese weather records.  In particular, is any of this discussed in published volumes of Science and Civilization in China (prob. V4?)  I ask as I do not have easy access to the complete set of published volumes as per the World Cat and knowing which volume(s) to target would make my research easier.  I find this curious as I am in Washington Dc, near the US Library of Congress and several university libraries, including my own, but so be it.
Thank you for your help.
and got the following reply from John Moffett, the Needham Institute Librarian
JN has a short section on Meteorology in Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 3 (CUP, 1959), pp. 462-496. There doesn't seem to be much since, in English, though you could try this for some more recent information:


Best wishes,
The link is to a book which describes setting up a weather observatory in Hong Kong, not really early times when compared to the Central England Temperature Series

Early China coast meteorology : P. Kevin MacKeown.
  • Main author:MacKeown, P. K.
  • Title:Early China coast meteorology : the role of Hong Kong / P. Kevin MacKeown.
  • Published:Hong Kong : Hong Kong University Press, c2010
  • Numerous personality clashes and financial and other intrigues surrounded the early efforts to set up an Observatory in Hong Kong. Blending personalities, politics and practicalities of studying the weather, this entertaining book provides valuable and informative insights into the public and private controversies growing out of responses to and responsibilities involved in the protection of life and property. This portrait is set firmly in the context of the history of Hong Kong as British colony on the China Coast and its role as a burgeoning commercial port within the trading complex of the Empire. It brings to life many of the people and institutions in Hong Kong and elsewhere on the development of meteorology on the China Coast.
The Meteorology section of Science and Civilization in China which can be read at Amazon is indeed very thin, essentially nothing but surely there must be diaries, planting records and similar from which a non-instrumental record such as the early CET from which a good proxy record can be formed.  Why are there not (or are there) precipitation records (which after all only require the ability to measure volume)?

So Eli has two questions

1.  Why did the Chinese civilization not develop temperature measurement instruments

2.  Are there historical (not proxy) Chinese records of climate which are being used to develop temperature and precipitation measures.

Perhaps some Chinese bunny could help poor Eli's curiosity

(BTW if somebunny can answer these questions for the  Indic/SE Asia or anyone elses home town, feel free to help, temperature measurement appears to have been very late to develop requiring several technologies but as said above, precipitation is easy, and so are planting records).


Henk Lankamp said...

Perhaps the Southeast Asian Climate Assessment & Dataset (SACA&D) project can be helpful (no China):

Alastair said...

There is a book describing the history of the thermometer here. It was invented in 1611 by a "Roman engineer". I don't think that the Chinese were interested in science. They were the first to discover gunpowder but only used it in fireworks.

They kept a record of sunspots (easy) but did not develop a theory of heat (difficult) needed for a thermometer.


I confess to having read S&CIC cover, as fast as the violumes appeared, which wasn't very hard work since it took over a decade to trickle out of the press. As I recall, as with Aristotles Meteorologia, a lot of the ancient Chinese climate canon was folkloric and related to divination and Taoist theories of respiration. and the role of local climate in health and longevity.

Jeffrey Davis said...

"So I say to you, for a closing sentence: Read at whim! read at whim!"

Randall Jarrell

Anonymous said...

@alastair : I don't think the answer is "they were not interested in science", as Chinese did invent several astronomical instruments on their own, as well as the first seismometers.

It is true that chinese society values traditionally more harmony than disturbances (and science can generate such disturbances), but on the other end they could have a pragmatic interest to meteorology, especially floods/droughts combined with wild rivers.

Imho this is more a matter of mere luck than anything else ; I'm quite sure that, as european priests recorded the weather in their diaries, mandarins have recorded the weather / weather indications in official diaries.
We have several thousand years of writing history ; the trick is to find the useful informations.


PS (not important) : gunpowder was used by Chinese for military actions. Wikipedia lists use of black powder grenades in an instruction manual of 1044. I'm sure guns were widely used in the XIX century, and I think it was also the case before.
My misanthropy says that, as soon as someone finds something which makes the process of killing easier, you can bet it will be used a lot. Nuclear weapon being the counterexample, although lots of armchair generals had wet dreams about tactical weapons.

ob/OBothe said...

It could be that Domrös and Peng in their book "Climate of China" comment on it. However, I think most information on weather/climate in China comes from documentary sources.

a_ray_in_dilbert_space said...

Somebody needs to read up on Chinese history.

Anonymous said...

Many areas of China (some quite small) have chronicles going back hundreds of years, with the expected references to extreme weather - qualitative rather than quantative, but possibly susceptible of detailed analysis. The paper here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/joc.1776/pdf
explores the appearance of the effects of a large volcanic eruption in weather remarks in Chinese regional chronicles.

Frank. D. Mouse.

Alastair said...

I don't need to read the history of China to know that they did not invent the telescope, or the thermometer, or guns, or steam engines, or auto mobiles, or radios. If they had they would not have been so vulnerable to European colonisation.

Perhaps I should have said that the Chinese were not great inventor rather than not interested in science. Technology first arose in Europe - fact. "Why?", is another question.

a_ray_in_dilbert_space said...

Actually you do need to read some Chinese history. The Chinese invented the seismometer, had the most advanced astronomy of their day, were the great explorers of their day, had the most advanced metallurgy of their day, the most advanced medicine of their day...

This was all before the Emperor retrenched to "keep culture pure". I believe this was the middle of the Ming dynasty. Seriously, Alastair, it's worth a read. And you will not understand Chinese culture of today(which you need to) until you understand how they got there.

Anonymous said...

You cannot get away from the fact that between the 10th and 16th centuries, the Chinese were the most technically and industrially advanced nation on the planet.

You might as well as why the Chinese did not discover science. One reason might be that their intellectuals were in thrall to "sages" like Confucius and Lao Tzu, determined to write only about what they wrote, mostly statecraft and moral philosophy. It would be considered subversive to question the Master.

Much like Aristotle dominated western thought, but at least some Aristotle-dissenters survived from the Classical era to inspire the Renaissance. Even the weak tradition of Euclid, Archimedes and Ptolemy survived.


Anonymous said...

It's not a Chinese source per se, but the Royal Navy ships' logs being transcribed at www.oldweather.org include many extended stays in the Orient. Four or six times per day the crew we obliges to log air temp, sky state, wind, and sometimes water temp. Much grist for the mill...

Anonymous said...

Clouds of cherry blossoms!
Is that temple bell in Ueno
or Asakusa?

Anonymous said...

Includes references to historical documents

This might help

Anonymous said...

O cherry flowers, do not hate the river breeze of Kanzo, for it will not stop the flowers falling.
- Heike Monogatari

(roughly contemporaneous with the start of the cherry records linked above)