Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Circulation of Knowledge Between Britain, India and China

Book Cover

Book Title

The Circulation of Knowledge Between Britain, India and China: The Early-Modern World to the Twentieth Century. Leiden: Brill, 2013


Lightman, Bernard; McOuat, Gordon and Stewart, Larry (eds.)


In The Circulation of Knowledge, twelve scholars examine how knowledge, material objects and people moved within, and between, East and West from the early modern period to the twentieth century, looking at the ways and means in which knowledge circulated, first in Europe, but then beyond to India and China in both the material and intellectual worlds. By focusing on exchange, translation, and resistance, the authors bring into the spotlight many "bit-players" and things originally relegated to the margins in the development of late modern science, participating in the attempt to open up more nuanced and balanced trajectories of colonial and post-colonial encounters.  

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The first part of the volume is prefaced with an introduction to the James Dinwiddie collection, currently housed at Dalhousie University. Dinwiddie (1746–1815) was scientific attaché to the McCartney embassy to the Chinese imperial court in 1793, and first Professor of Mathematics, Natural Philosophy and Chemistry at the College of Fort William in Calcutta. It is in the latter capacity that the material in these manuscripts– containing a half century of scientific observations, experiments, lecture notes, and journals from 1767 to 1815– was created, providing an insight into the nature of the scientific encounter and the dissemination of knowledge in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries by one of the most significant of the early modern “itinerant” Newtonian natural philosophers. The three essays in this section analyse the social and epistemic legacy of Dinwiddie’s public experiments and lectures in Calcutta, both as spectacle in the colonial metropolis, as a contact point for the exchange of knowledge between Europeans and native elites, and their reception and contribution to the greater body of scientific knowledge upon Dinwiddie’s return to Britain. 

Moving away from this personal perspective, the second section looks at the circulation of knowledge more generally, touching on such topics as the Portuguese voyages of intellectual discovery and their role in bringing Eastern science and mathematics to the West; the origins, dissemination and impact of scientific journals in late Georgian Britain; and the divergent production and circulation of botanical knowledge between Kew and the East India Company’s gardens in Calcutta.

The third part brings the discussion to the introduction and currency of Western ideas in China in the early twentieth century.  Essays explore the Chinese intellectual reception of Darwin’s theories in the late Qing historical context of defeat and revolution; the tussle over fossils and antiquities as markers of sovereignty in the early republic; and Chinese engagement with the wider scientific and geological world at international meetings and exhibitions.

The fourth and final part examines the construction of science in a post-colonial framework, with independent India as the case study.  It looks at science as a centralising project of the Indian state, and its adoption as an important component of secular ideology and national economic planning.  The penultimate chapter appraises a  modern successor of Dinwiddie: the British-born, Indian-naturalised biologist J.B.S. Haldane, and his role in popularising scientific knowledge and promoting institutional reform in higher learning in his adopted country. The volume concludes with an essay on the theoretical and practical aspects of translating scientific concepts across cultural boundaries, and the relation between translation and transmission, as methodological issues in the history of science.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

This volume attempts to bring together in a meaningful historical synthesis several observations on the transit of knowledge and its material culture, originating from separate and diverse sources. Although principally of value to the historian of science and technology, there are several areas in which The Circulation of Knowledge can contribute to a broader understanding of the study of empire in the early modern and modern period. Particularly notable are those essays focusing on how Eastern and Western scientists of an earlier era exchanged ideas and influenced each other’s work, and the growth in Asia of national forms of scientific knowledge in response to Western penetration, such as can be found in Parts Two and Three. The latter collectively argues that China’s engagement with an international regime of antiquities law, and its participation in the wider international scientific and geological community, were components of a global and internal discourse on nation, science, and modernity as it found itself integrated into an international order defined by Western imperialism. Dr Arun Bala’s chapter on the transmission of Kerala mathematics from India to Europe via the Portuguese voyages of discovery also raises intriguing questions on the contribution of intellectual circulation along these older imperial networks to the formation of the modern world.

What the interested reader might find lacking about this book, however, is in the lack of any overarching answer to the question raised by its title. Many of the topics covered in The Circulation of Knowledge appear peripheral to this central premise, or as a collection of unrelated essays appended to the biographical first section on Dinwiddie, and might not satisfy if one reads expecting a grand narrative of how Western science entered Asia, or how Asian knowledge correspondingly influenced Europe.  A crucial omission is the 19th Century, a period in which the rate of scientific advance in the East unambiguously fell behind that of the West, and should therefore have received an accordingly more intensive treatment. These weaknesses should not detract, however, from the individual insight brought by the contributors to their respective subjects, many of which shed light on previously unknown episodes in an increasingly globalised history of science and its circulation.

Annotated by Daniel Lee