The Economic History Review

Neo-Confucianism and the rise of science and technology in Medieval China

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Authors: Baomin Dong, Bowen Cheng
Published online: January 29, 2024DOI: 10.1111/ehr.13325

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The Song dynasty (960–1279 A.D.) witnessed a surge of scientific and technological development, notably in mechanical engineering, metallurgy, shipbuilding and nautics, civil engineering, manufacturing, etc. At the same time, Neo-Confucianism, which advocated ‘upholding heavenly principle and annihilating human desire’, flourished in Song time. The rise of Neo-Confucianism as a conservative movement appeared fundamentally at odds with the splendid technological achievements in Medieval China. To address the question, we dismantle the notion of Neo-Confucianism in the Song dynasty context by constructing the indices of the Neo-Confucian spirit characterized by the pursuit of principle (li), broad learning, and scepticism on the basis of Song Confucian works recorded in the Records of Song and Yuan scholarship (Song Yuan xue an). Our results show that the popularity of Neo-Confucianism facilitated the development of science and technology during the Song period. Using historical Confucian academy data compiled from several extensive surveys, we show that the vigorous development of the Confucian academies served as a channel to propagate the Neo-Confucian spirit in a locality, thereby influencing the scientific and technological output of the Song era.