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.

New publication: Frontier Atmosphere

In the spring of 2016 I was doing dissertation research at the Sichuan Provincial Archives when I discovered a trove of letters between meteorological observers and their supervisors during the 1940s. Originally, I had planned to briefly consult the meteorological archives to get a sense of weather patterns in the vicinity of Kangding (or Dartsendo), but the meteorological record was an absolute mess: there was little data, but a lot of correspondence about personnel problems and missing or broken equipment.

I was particularly fascinated with the case of a young man with tuberculosis who joined the weather service in 1938, then suffered miserably from coughing fits during his time in Kangding, and pleaded for months with the Central Meteorological Bureau to be relieved from his position. There were many similar petitions from other personnel, and I realized that I’d found something rare: long, detailed testimonies from Han settlers who were absolutely miserable on the frontier.

I ended up devoting a whole chapter of my dissertation to the Kangding weather service, but it was a poor fit with the rest of the dissertation. Fortunately, I’ve spun it off as an article in a forthcoming special issue of The British Journal for the History of Science on meteorology in Asia. Included are two beautiful, full-color illustrations by artist Luodan Rojas–including the one in this post depicting Kangding during a winter storm in 1943. For now the article available on an open-access basis through Cambridge University Press’ FirstView feature:

Frontier Atmosphere: Observation and Regret at Chinese Weather Stations in Tibet, 1939-1949.”

My Year at Yale: a Debriefing

From fall 2020 through summer 2021 I was the CEAS Postdoctoral Associate and Lecturer in the Environmental Humanities at Yale University.

After a long year adjuncting at a struggling college that has since failed and while contemplating an unpaid career as a Microsoft Flight Simulator pilot, I learned that my application to a postdoc position at Yale was successful, which meant I got to continue my research while wearing a Yale hoodie without irony. That’s not all: as the CEAS Postdoctoral Associate in the Environmental Humanities, I had the opportunity to teach an undergrad seminar on the Environmental History of East Asia, I helped to lead a graduate seminar, I joined the Environmental Humanities Steering Committee, and I forged ahead with my book project and several articles. I also joined the wonderful, one-of-a-kind Program in Agrarian Studies as an affiliate fellow.

Postdocs often feel disconnected from the rest of the university, or so I hear, but that wasn’t my experience. The Council on East Asian Studies and the Environmental Humanities Program did an incredible job of making me feel like a part of the community during my time here. My students were the best I’ve had yet, and reading their well-researched papers was an absolute pleasure. I’m convinced that this combination of research, light teaching, and some committee work is exactly the right way to structure a postdoc; it was certainly helpful in job interviews.

The pandemic meant that I spent less time on campus than I would have liked, but then I’m reminded of the false (yet inspiring) notion that the Chinese word for “crisis” combines the words for “danger” and “opportunity”: specifically, virtual events and teaching created opportunities for long-distance conversations and made Yale programming more accessible to the world. People Zoomed in to the Agrarian Studies Colloquium from abroad on a regular basis (including several who beamed in from India). In the spring semester, my co-instructor and I were able to arrange 10(!) excellent guest speakers for a graduate seminar that met five times. These are things you can’t do with entirely in-person programming.

This week I’ve been making daily trips to Sterling Memorial Library for archival research. As the alumnus of a state school with aggressively plain architecture, I am enjoying my gothic surroundings (even if they were built with oil money).

I got a lot done this year with support from CEAS and Environmental Humanities: I made serious progress on my book, I published one article that I’m particularly fond of, and I submitted another. So, thank you!

Interior of Sterling Memorial Library.
A picture I took yesterday to prove that I was indeed in Sterling Memorial Library.

Remembering Liu Manqing on International Women’s Day

Happy International Women’s Day!

Of all the people who figure in my dissertation, my favorite is Liu Manqing 劉曼卿 (1906-1941). Born to a Han Chinese father and Tibetan mother, she married young at the urging of her father, but then divorced her husband and went back to school in pursuit of a nursing career. When she realized nursing wasn’t for her either, she decided at age 23 to undertake an overland journey from China proper to Lhasa to meet with the 13th Dalai Lama, with the vague goal of improving Sino-Tibetan relations.

Liu Manqing

Liu obtained the blessing of Chinese (ROC) president Chiang Kai-shek before setting off for Lhasa, but the trip was of her own initiative and was not an official diplomatic mission. She was a member of the Guomindang (Nationalist Party) and an impassioned believer in Sun Yat-sen’s “Three Principles of the People” and the Guomindang vision of the “unity of the five races”–referring to the Han, Manchus, Hui, Mongols, and Tibetans. Yet at times she was harshly critical of Guomindang implementation of that vision, which typically emphasized assimilation of ethnic minorities into the Han majority.

As Liu’s riverboat traveled up the Yangtze in 1929, she reflected on her difficulty relating to most of the other women in her cabin. Her travel memoir recalls:

I thought upon my cohabitants in this small cabin, these women with whom I am coeval, and of my attending to the affairs of the nation and their attending to the affairs of the home, laden with heavy hearts and under pressure all day long. Although some of our affairs are great and others small, some are public and others private, yet they all occupy us equally and are similar in this respect. (Liu Manqing 1933, p. 4)

Liu Manqing played an active role in Sino-Tibetan relations until her death of illness at age 35. For more on her life, see Fabienne Jagou’s article “Liu Manqing: A Sino-Tibetan Adventurer and the Origin of a New Sino-Tibetan Dialogue in the 1930s” in Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines no. 17. Liu also features heavily in chapter three of my dissertation.