New Publication on the history of Chinese climate science in History of Science

My article “National Climate: Zhu Kezhen and the Framing of the Atmosphere in Modern China” has been published in History of Science. An “Online First” version of the article is available here without a paywall. If you would like to cite the Online First version of the article, you can do so as follows: Frank, M. E. (2023). National climate: Zhu Kezhen and the framing of the atmosphere in modern China. History of Science, 0(0). (The print version of the article with an issue number is forthcoming and will be identical in content.)

In this article, I argue that nationalism was more than an impetus for developing scientific institutions in the early 20th century: to some extent, the nation was baked in to the methods of climate scientists, while their findings lent support to the idea of “China” as a natural object. Here’s the abstract:

Can climate be Chinese, and if so, then how? Drawing on personal writings, popular discourse, and scientific reports, this essay considers the work of early Chinese meteorologists in relation to the revolutionary national politics of the early twentieth century. Historians of China have established that nationalism motivated the pursuit of meteorology and other natural sciences, but I advance the more radical position that there was no clear distinction between the practice of climate science and the political ideology that motivated it. With special attention to the career and legacy of Zhu Kezhen from the Xinhai Revolution through World War II, I test this thesis in two arenas: Chinese meteorologists’ production of spatial knowledge, and their production of cultural knowledge. The nation was integral to the questions, methods, and analyses of atmospheric science, which helped to reify the Chinese nation-state.

And here’s the introduction for anyone who just wants to sample the contents:

China “domesticated” the modern sciences of meteorology and climatology not long after the Revolution of 1911, as weather stations and meteorological institutes that were built and run by and for Chinese citizens proliferated across the young Republic. What did China look like from these new weather stations? Did the first generation of Chinese climatologists see a singular “Chinese climate”—or were they more inclined toward trans-national geographies like the famous Köppen classification that presented climate as a series of circum-global zones? Did international standards for interpreting atmospheric phenomena supplant culturally specific ideas about the weather? Put differently: to what extent were meteorology and climatology compatible with national specificity? Drawing on personal writings, public discourse, and scientific reports, this essay considers the work of early Chinese climatologists in relation to the revolutionary politics of the early twentieth century.

Science and nationalism have been an awkward pair in China since at least the “metaphysics and science” controversy of the 1920s, when certain intellectuals who were wary of scientism felt that the spiritual work of building the nation ought to be the domain of a subjective “metaphysics” quite apart from the material inquiry of the sciences.[i] Not all agreed—yet a similar distinction between the spiritual and the material is often replicated in the way we write and teach about the young Chinese republic today. Unsurprisingly, present-day scholars of Chinese history and literature grant precedence to humanists over scientists in the revolutionary canon. Leading English-language surveys like The Search for Modern China and Modern East Asia: A Brief History prominently feature such figures as Lu Xun, who famously abandoned his medical studies in favor of literature because he felt that it was China’s spirits, and not bodies, that most needed treatment, as well as Hu Shih, who traveled to Cornell to study agricultural science but switched tracks to philosophy and emerged as a champion of the Chinese vernacular, while omitting Zhu Kezhen, who, after taking passage on the same vessel that carried Hu Shi to America, completed degrees in agriculture and meteorology and helped to revolutionize China’s understanding of the atmosphere. Perhaps literary giants are emphasized because the atmosphere of greater interest to most historians is not the gaseous atmosphere of meteorological concern, but rather, the metaphorical “atmosphere and political mood that emerged around 1919” during what is known as the New Culture Movement.[ii] This tendency in the literature on China is consistent with broader approaches to the study of nationalism: surveying the field, Lloyd Kramer observes that nationalisms are assumed to be “historical rather than natural phenomena,” such that “the study of nationalism leads to historical analysis rather than to biology or physical geography.”[iii]

Of course, historians of science will recognize that there has long existed a deep and complementary relationship between the rise of nationalism and the growth of scientific institutions. Hiromi Mizuno introduced the concept of “scientific nationalism” in her trenchant study of the Japanese empire to denote “a kind of nationalism that believes that science and technology are the most urgent and important assets for the integrity, survival, and progress of the nation.”[iv] Zuoyue Wang has similarly identified a vein of scientific nationalism in Republican China that was characterized by a “desire to create a strong, unified, and prosperous Chinese nation… based in part on the utilization of science and technology.”[v] Relating this broad trend to the particularities of climate science, Clark Alejandrino observes that the emergence of Chinese-run weather stations in Republican China ushered it into an era of “meteorological sovereignty.”[vi] Zhu Kezhen’s nationalism is a focal point in the aforementioned works by Wang and Alejandrino as well as a recent encyclopedic entry on Zhu by Iwo Amelung, who comments that “patriotic feelings… were a major motivation for Zhu’s work.”[vii]

Even these studies, however, situate scientific nationalism mainly on the administrative side of science such that the practice of scientific observation remains largely exterior to the ideological work of nationalism (and vice versa). In doing so, they reinforce the conceptual divide between scientific and non-scientific developments. This essay advances the more radical position that there was and could be no clear distinction between the practice of climate science in Republican China and the revolutionary politics that motivated it. Here my approach departs from Amelung’s contribution on the “localization” of meteorology under Zhu, which emphasizes the symbolic value of “meteorological sovereignty” for the Chinese nation-state, to look at how “China” itself was baked into the knowledge that Zhu and his colleagues produced in the early twentieth century.

The first two sections of this essay address the place of the nation in climatologists’ production of spatial knowledge and their production of cultural knowledge respectively, without drawing too firm a boundary between the two. In the first section, I argue that the premises and methods of early twentieth-century climate science lent themselves to descriptions of climate in spatial terms that corresponded well with the imagined geography of the Chinese nation-state.[viii] Climatologists collated data from over 100 ROC meteorological stations to produce an image of the “Chinese climate” that encompassed all of the territory within national borders but emphasized the capital region along the eastern Yangtze valley, and later, around the wartime capital of Chongqing. They also variegated that image by outlining “climatic provinces” within the borders of the nation-state.

The second section demonstrates that the use of instruments at meteorological stations did not simply displace culturally specific “ways of knowing” about weather and climate. Instead, scientists promoted the value of classical texts for gleaning phenological data and adapted historical frameworks for thinking about seasonality. Here again it is impossible to establish a neat horse-and-carriage relationship between politics and scientific practice: the use of “China” as a frame of analysis emerged from a sustained engagement with Chinese-language texts among scholars who were steeped in these texts from early childhood. At the same time, the synthesis of modern science with millennia of Chinese-language scholarship inspired Zhu and his colleagues to speak triumphantly of their country’s unique contributions (and potential contributions) to the global imperative of qiu zhen, or “pursuing truth.”

The final section contends that atmospheric phenomena played a role in affirming the notion of China as a natural object. I consider two large-scale weather patterns that were tremendously important to climate scientists of the early twentieth century: the monsoon or jifeng, and the plum rains or meiyu. The former of these confronted climate scientists with a conundrum: should the monsoon be analyzed as a transnational phenomenon that extended across “monsoon Asia,” or were the Indian and Chinese monsoons qualitatively different? I show how the interaction of the summer monsoon with the late-spring “plum rains” supported the perspective that China was both exterior to the Indian monsoon system and partly integrated with an East Asian system of cyclonic rainfall. Zhu’s analysis of monsoons and plum rains took into account both their relative influence on the Chinese nation and their behavior as registered on scientific instruments, illustrating a point that unifies this essay: climatology depended on simultaneous reference to global standards and culturally specific categories of analysis. This nexus of ethnocentric frameworks with atmospheric forces in the practice of climatology is what I term the “framing of the atmosphere.”

Before proceeding, a note on terms: it makes little sense to draw a sharp distinction between “meteorology” and “climatology” in Republican China, and I do not. Meteorology functioned initially as an extension of geography (increasingly influenced by physics and mathematics) and the study of climate as an extension of meteorology. Thus, Zhu was at once a geographer, a meteorologist, and a climatologist. As a rule, I refer to “meteorology” (qi xiang xue) when discussing the use of instruments to measure atmospheric phenomena (qi xiang), and “climatology” (qi hou xue) when discussing scientists’ use of that same meteorological data in combination with other sources to analyze long-term patterns.



[i] Here I refer to a famous debate between the philosopher Zhang Junmai (or Carsun Chang) and the geologist Ding Wenjiang, and its aftermath. Joseph Ciaudo writes that the debate “progressively open up to a large array of topics such as the scientific method, the difference between spiritual and material sciences, the place of psychology, how China ought to be reformed, how students ought to be educated, and which attitude should be upheld toward Chinese and Western cultures.” See Joseph Ciaudo, “Some Remarks on the 1923 ‘Controversy Over Science and Metaphysics,’ ERCCS—Research Notes 3(2019): 3.

[ii] Consistent with the overall historiography of China’s early twentieth century, Rana Mitter writes that “the atmosphere and political mood that emerged around 1919 are at the centre of a set of ideas that has shaped China’s momentous twentieth century.” See Rana Mitter, “A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World,” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 12.

[iii] Lloyd Kramer, “Historical Narratives and the Meaning of Nationalism,” Journal of the History of Ideas 58.3 (1997), p. 526.

[iv] Hiromi Mizuno, Science for the Empire: Scientific Nationalism in Modern Japan (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2008).

[v] Zuoyue Wang, “Saving China through Science: The Science Society of China, Scientific Nationalism, and Civil Society in Republican China,” Osiris 17 (2002): 299.

[vi] Clark Alejandrino, “Weathering History: Storms, State, and Society in South China Since the Fifth Century CE” (PhD dissertation, Georgetown University, 2019), pp. 162-164.

[vii] Iwo Amelung, “Zhu Kezhen 竺可楨 (1890-1974),” Oxford Research Encyclopedias: Climate Science: 5. DOI: Accessed September 1, 2022.

[viii] I borrow the phrase “imagined geography” from Emma Teng, who uses it to “distinguish between the geography that exists on the ground and geography as a cultural construct.” Teng writes that the imagined geography of Qing rulers and officials “delineated the territory that belonged to the ‘our land’ of the Qing empire, in distinction to the ‘barbarian lands’ that lay beyond its boundaries.” See Emma Teng, Taiwan’s Imagined Geography: Chinese Colonial Travel Writing and Pictures, 1683–1895 (Leiden: Brill, 2020), pp. 15-16.

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