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Shu shu 數術: When an actor’s category became an observer’s category, why, and what we can do about it

Abstract : Shu shu (lit. ‘numbers & procedures’), as it appears in Asian- and Western-language sinology alike, is a modern academic field that has arisen since 1993 around excavated divinatory and magico-religious manuscripts, primarily clustered in the fourth to second century BCE. The term itself originates from early bibliographic classification, circa 26 BCE – 92 CE, which placed the astral and mathematical sciences (tianwen 天文 ‘heaven’s form’ omenology, li 曆 mathematical astronomy, and suan 算 mathematics) alongside a variety of divinatory arts (e.g. hemerology, pyromancy, and phrenology). Arguing that shu shu constitutes a singular and uniquely Chinese intellectual whole within which ‘science’ and ‘superstition’ were as yet undifferentiated, scholars have promoted the use of this actor’s category to justify the publication and study of manuscript sources once supressed and derided as ‘superstitious’. As much as these sources do obviously merit study, it is important to reflect critically on their modern justificatory apparatus and its implications. The problem, in brief, is that shu shu, in its post-1993 instantiation, excludes the very ‘scientific’ sources upon which it relies for its justification, presenting an alternative history of science from which contemporaneous astronomy, mathematics, cosmology, and optics have either been either excised or recast in a mystical light. The theoretical framework behind this purportedly progressive move, ironically, goes back to the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century anthropology of the ‘primitive’, which, among other things, denies non-Western man a quantitative relationship with numbers. In this paper I will deconstruct the modern category of shu shu as it has thus far been applied and suggest why and how we might begin actually moving forward with the interdisciplinary study of divination and the astral and mathematical sciences in pre-modern China.
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Contributor : Daniel Morgan Connect in order to contact the contributor
Submitted on : Friday, November 4, 2016 - 9:06:58 AM
Last modification on : Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - 2:38:32 PM


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  • HAL Id : halshs-01360195, version 1


Daniel Patrick Morgan. Shu shu 數術: When an actor’s category became an observer’s category, why, and what we can do about it. Writing histories of ancient mathematics – Reflecting on past practices and opening the future, ERC Project SAW, Oct 2016, Paris, France. ⟨halshs-01360195⟩



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