Dror Weil

Assistant Professor, University of Cambridge
Faculty Advisers: Benjamin Elman and Michael Cook

The Vicissitudes of Late Imperial China's Accommodation of Arabopersian Knowledge of the Natural World, 16th-18th Centuries


This dissertation charts the movement of knowledge of the natural world from the Islamicate world to China, and its subsequent transformations by local Chinese scholars. It argues that the study of Arabo-Persian texts constituted an important channel of knowledge transmission, connecting China to Western scholarly traditions. At this dissertation's core stands a movement of Chinese Muslim literati that emerged in the late-sixteenth century and promoted the study of Arabo-Persian texts. By importing methods of philological investigation from the Islamicate world, the movement sought to highlight knowledge of the subtleties and operations of the natural world embedded in Arabo-Persian texts. This study investigates the effects that China's socio-political environment had in shaping the forms of accommodation of Arabo-Persian knowledge. It discusses the utilitarian policies of the Yuan and early Ming dynasties that facilitated an early wave of transmission of specialized knowledge in fields such as astronomy, astrology and medicine to China, yet restricted the accommodation of Arabo-Persian philosophies of nature; advances the claim that the socio-political circumstances during the late-fifteenth century, characterized by the erosion of traditional Confusian ideology's authority and the popularization of knowledge, provided suitable conditions for the accommodation of foreign knowledge and paved the way for the rise of a scholarly movement interested in the study of Arabic and Persian texts; surveys the rise of Islamic literature in translation and the genre of Chinese expositions on Islamic themes that emerged in the mid-17th century, resulting from pressures from the non-Muslim learned community and the efforts of Islamic scholars to widen their audience; and finally, it suggests that adverse socio-political conditions for Islamic scholarship emerged during the 18th century, and led to its breakdown. Through an analysis of the Persian and Arabic texts that circulated in China during the 16th to 18th centuries, this dissertation demonstrates the variety, richness, and unique features of the collection. Further, it discuses the effects of translation and printing on the accommodation of Arabo-Persian knowledge of the natural world in China.