Traditional Chinese Mathematics in the 19 th Century Western World

Vol. 44 No. 1   3/2003   


Traditional Chinese Mathematics in the 19th Century Western World


Xiao-qin Wang









Key words

Traditional Chinese Mathematics, J. F. Davis, E Biot, A Wylie, K.L. Biernazki


      In the 17th and 18th centuries, information on mathematics of ancient china was exclusively drawn from the relevant writings of the Catholic missionaries, who knew nothing but the Gou GU theorem incorporated in ZhouBi, which was erroneously dated back to 1100 B.C. Misunderstandings could be found no less frequently in the Western publications on China. This state continued in the first half of the 19th century. Ignorant of the history of Chinese mathematics, J. F. Davis, authority on Sinology at that time, asserted that the Chinese know nothing about the place value of numbers and they have no algebra.

      However, the Italian historian of mathematics G. Libri, who fled to France as a political refugee, and got to know the famous French Sinologist S. Julien, discovered the place-value notations in Cheng Dawei’s Suanfa Tongzong, which had been collected by the Royal Library of France. The French Sinologist E Biot, disciple of S. Julien, made a close study on the same Chinese mathematical work and published ageneral tale of it. Biot also translated the whole of Zhou Bi,but his translation is full of errors.

      Alexander Wylie, the British missionary and Sinologist who came to China in 1847, was the Western forerunner in the field of the history of Chinese mathematics. In 1852, he fully introduced, for the first time to the West, the Chinese mathematical literature and achievements, including the place-value, Tayan RuleTianyuan Rule, and the method of solving numerical equations of all order, pointing out their world significance, refuting the prevailing erroneous statements on Chinese mathematics in Western publications, exerting far-reaching influence on the later Western historians of science.

      Having been translated into German by K. L. Biernatzki, Wylie’s paper was known to western mathematicians such as M. Cantor, H. Hankel , L. Matthiessen, O. Terquem and J. Bertrand. The last two translated Biernatzki’s translation; the Dayan Rule and Tianyuan Rule

were misunderstood by Cantor and Terquem, of whom the former judiciously reappraised the Dayan Rule according to Matthiessen’s corrections. Matthiessen, an acute German mathematician, proved the identity of Chinese Tayan Rule with C. F. Gauss’s rule in his Disquisitiones Arithmeticae, and also offered an explanation of case in which the moduli are not relatively prime in pairs. However, he did not know the Qiuyi Rule, by means of which the solution ax ≡1(mod b) is found.

      Though more about Chinese mathematics was knows to westerners in the 19th century than in the 17th and 18th centuries, their knowledge of this subject was still limited. Some attainment in Chinese mathematics, such as those in The Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art, one of the most important mathematical classics in China, Liuhui’s Cyclotomic Rule, Zu Chongzhi’s famous fractional value of π, Zugeng’s derivation of the volume of a sphere, etc., were unknown to them.

      Because the original mathematical works and relevant research literatures were extremely scarce, the transmission of traditional Chinese mathematics in the West in the 19th century was not smooth at all. In the first half of 20th century, despite the publication of Y.Mikami’s The Development of Mathematics in China and Japan, the transmission was impeded by suspicion, derogation and prejudice of western historians such as L. Van Hee, G. Loria and G. Vacca. The history of transmission of traditional Chinese mathematics tells us that it could not be properly appreciated and valued through second-hand literatures alone and that both Chinese and western historians of Science should do much more in studying, the translating and promulgating it in order to make it known to more western scholars in the new century.



Author: Xiao-qin Wang
Genre: Article