Science and Technology in Modern China: A Historical and Strategic Perspective on State Power


“Carry out the policy of opening to the outside world and learn advanced science and technology from other countries. China cannot develop by closing its door, sticking to the beaten track and being self-complacent.”[1] On October 10, 1978, Deng Xiaoping articulated his vision for China’s development through these words. Deng instituted “Reform and Openness (改革开放) in the same year, a broad set of reforms that opened China up to the world and stood in stark contrast to a Maoist China characterized predominantly as a closed Communist society.

The focus of this paper is Deng Xiaoping and his 1978 reforms, the “Four Modernizations,” specifically the science and military defense components of this policy. I argues that the two components were intricately linked, and that Deng saw scientism as the foundation for bolstering state power. Though it is indisputable that Deng’s reforms were instrumental in bringing China out of Mao’s era, questions linger.

Just how “revolutionary” were the science and security components of Deng’s reforms? Were they completely distinct from events that occurred throughout Chinese history or were they a continuation of historical trends in a modern context? I argue the latter: China’s historical fascination with foreign technology as a means to bolster state power significantly influenced Deng. I first define scientism and provides context for scientism in China today before transitioning into an overview of Deng’s reforms. To evaluate the influences on Deng’s reforms, three parallels in Chinese history are employed. The first is Zhang Qian’s quest for steel production and mining techniques during the Han Dynasty, an example of China’s historical desire to integrate foreign technology into domestic practices to improve state power. The second is the fascination with Western technology during the Boxer Rebellion and the May 4th Movement, which sparked the growth of scientism in China. The third is the scientific fanaticism during the Maoist Era that laid the foundations for the development of science and technology under Deng. The paper ends by arguing that scientism remains an integral part of Chinese society today. Therefore, Deng’s reforms were a product of history, and should be viewed in a broader historical and cultural context.


Scientism Defined and Scientism in China

Martin Ryder, technologist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver, defines scientism as a “philosophical position that exalts the methods of the natural sciences above all other modes of human inquiry.”[2] Scientism has been used to influence public policy and development in various parts of the world. The Western world, by embracing scientism, was able to industrialize in the mid-nineteenth century. An extreme example is Nazi Germany, which combined scientism and utopianism to form a regime efficient in suppressing opposition and building state power, but had an atrocious human rights record.[3]

Scientism in China manifests itself as a desire to use science to modernize in order to expand China’s global influence and prevent foreign encroachment of its territory. This desire for independence and self-determination is rooted in history as China’s central location has made it susceptible to invasion. Examples include Xiongnu during the Han Dynasty, Mongols during the Yuan Dynasty, Western imperialists during the end of the Qing Dynasty and Japan during World War Two. The fear of invasion has been etched into Chinese consciousness.

After World War Two, the desire for Chinese self-empowerment emerged in the near feverish pursuit of science. Scientism was the logical ideology for modern China to adopt—the historical desire for technology and fascination with the natural world made it easy for Chinese society to accept scientism as a means of modernization and self-preservation. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms were a continuation of a historical need for foreign technology, and must not be divorced from this context.


Deng Xiaoping Reforms

In March 1978, Vice-Premier Fang Yi proclaimed that “the dark clouds [of the Cultural Revolution] have been dispelled and the way has been cleared. A bright future lies ahead of us.”[4] Fang Yi was riding on a wave of enthusiasm ushered in by the promise of Deng’s rule. Indeed, Deng’s reforms transformed China and were responsible for the scientific and technological renaissance after the implementation of “Reform and Openness.” As Richard Baum deftly puts it, the “austere and colorless collectivism of the Maoist Era was supplanted by an upscale entrepreneurial ethos labeled ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics.'”[5] China today is a hybrid society as a result of the reforms, politically driven by deep-seated Communist ideologies and led by a technocratic body, but economically defined as predominantly a Capitalist system, albeit with the often referenced “Chinese characteristics.”[6]

Deng’s reforms were numerical: the “Four Modernizations” are reforms to agriculture, industry, science and military defense. Particularly, science and military defense shared a close relationship. The idea was to utilize scientific methods and foreign technology to “pull China up by its bootstraps” militarily, in turn providing political leverage and stability.[7] Therefore science, in the context of Deng’s reforms, played a foundational role in national security and state power. Deng also realized the importance of education and maintained that the spirit of “[letting] one hundred schools contend” was essential to China’s scientific development.[8] To achieve the goal of acquiring foreign technology through scientism, Deng sent Chinese students abroad to study Western scientific techniques, in hopes for them to come back and utilize that knowledge in their homeland.[9] By opening China’s markets, he made it economically feasible to compete with foreign nations and attract students back to China. To some degree, the economic components of Deng’s reform aimed to support the larger political and security agenda of bringing foreign technology into China.[10]

However, the close relationship between science and security in Deng’s reforms was not unprecedented. Although Deng’s idea of mass importing foreign knowledge was revolutionary for China at the time, his focus on enhancing state power by importing foreign technology had historically been embraced by the Chinese. For instance, Zhang Qian’s search for iron mining techniques during the Han Dynasty is an example of this Deng-era phenomenon in ancient China. Both the start of scientism as a means to “save” and “enlighten” China at the turn of the twentieth century and later the nationalist embracement of scientism under Mao, used scientism as a vehicle to improve security and state power in China. Hence the history of linking science and security had a profound, even subconscious, influence on Deng as he was formulating the “Reform and Openness.”


Parallels with the Search for Iron and Steel in the Han Dynasty

Zhang Qian and the Silk Road illustrate China’s historical fascination with foreign technology and desire to incorporate new technology into its own society to enhance state power. The term “Silk Road” is a blanket statement for all trade conducted primarily between the Han Dynasty and Roman Empire, but it is somewhat of a misnomer. The Silk Road was comprised of much more than Roman desire for Chinese silk; it was an advanced trading network that spanned thousands of miles, intricately connecting two great empires in arguably the first large-scale exchange of goods and ideas that transcended spatial boundaries.

An often glossed over component of the Silk Road are the strategic motivations behind the exchanges. China was arguably motivated most by strategic interests to engage in Silk Road trading, particularly the pursuit of iron ore and steel. By the early Han Dynasty, though the Chinese were already able to make iron the iron ore that could be harvested at the time were of poor quality, resulting in brittle iron.[11] During the Han Dynasty, iron was becoming the essential component of weaponry, so acquiring better mining techniques to access better ore also became a military priority.

Zhang Qian was an imperial envoy of the Han Dynasty sent by Emperor Wu Di to establish connections with foreign powers. One of Zhang’s main missions in trading with foreigners was to acquire iron-mining techniques in order to enhance the Han influence.[12] In the process of discovering these iron-mining techniques, Zhang became exposed to steel production techniques.[13] China had been experimenting with steel at the time, but had yet to produce enough to supplement iron in warfare. Evidence of steel swords during the Han Dynasty suggests that Chinese military had acquired the technology needed to get the furnaces hot enough to make enough steel for weapons.[14] The technology for making steel was acquired over time through Silk Road trading established by Zhang Qian, which further bolstered the Han’s military power and influence.[15]

Though the events of the Han Dynasty were not explicitly associated with scientism, they underscore a desire for foreign technology to bolster state power that started early in Chinese history. This association between foreign technology and state power has become deeply rooted in the Chinese consciousness, and played a large role in influencing Deng’s policies. The 1978 reforms were driven by the same desire to acquire foreign technology via trade as seen in the Han dynasty.


Parallels with the End of the Qing Dynasty

“China is the sick man of Asia.” This was the phrase used by Western imperialist powers to describe China through much of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Indeed, China under the late Qing Dynasty fell far behind, its population suffering from the effects of the two Opium Wars and government corrupt. By the mid-nineteenth century, China was divided up by multiple Western powers, each competing to “enlighten” the “heathen and backwards” people of China.[16]

The end of the Qing Dynasty was a history lesson for China. Its humiliating defeat during the Opium Wars, the partition and occupation of China by foreign powers and the weakness of Qing Dynasty government convinced young Chinese intellectuals that there was a need to adopt superior foreign technology to repel invasion. Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao led the first wave of young intellectuals who tried to change China.[17] Aided by the translations of Western texts by John Fryer of the Jiangnan Arsenal, they became exposed to Western methods such as engineering and calculus.[18] This first wave of intellectuals would lay the foundations for scientism in China.

The desire to repel foreign forces in China culminated in the Boxer Rebellion, the iconic instance of Chinese outrage at Western occupation in China near the end of the Qing Dynasty. The failure of the Boxer Rebellion in 1901 resulted in the Eight-Nation Alliance of foreign powers to capture Beijing and plunder China’s capital of much of its treasures.[19] Ultimately, the failure of the rebellion ignited a strong sense of nationalism in students, many of whom, including Hu Shi and Zhu Kezhen, set off to the United States to study Western methods at the most elite universities.[20] This group of students was responsible for guiding China on the path to scientism.

As Zuoyue Wang, a professor at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona puts it, if there was “one dream that united this group of Boxer students, it was a dream of saving China through science and technology.”[21] Zhou Ren, one such Boxer student who majored in mechanical engineering at Cornell University, wanted to “sharpen the tools for a strong Chinese nation.”[22] These students would later become the movers and shakers of early modern China. Their faith in science and technology brought about a renaissance in Chinese attitudes toward these fields—the May 4th Movement.[23]

The May 4th Movement, a movement to modernize China’s education and society was started and continued by students like those who went abroad after the Boxer Rebellion. The focus on assimilating foreign technology has always been a priority for China, but it was with the May 4th Movement that scientism, in its modern meaning and form, rose to prominence.[24] The end of the Qing Dynasty saw the start of a nationalist movement towards scientism as a means of state empowerment, one that would provide the basis for the expansion of such ideology under Mao, and then Deng.


Parallels with the Maoist Era

Though China under Deng’s rule was drastically different from the Maoist era, scientism and the pursuit of foreign technology continued to prevail. “The same anxiety and [fear]” of falling behind technologically that characterized the Chinese mentality at the beginning of the twentieth century drove Mao to pursue science zealously.[25] However, some of his enthusiasm was also influenced by the very nature of Marxism itself. Marxism is a materialistic, non-religious ideology that includes the scientific method among its core tenets.[26] Marxism’s foundational “scientism” made it easily acceptable by the Chinese, and Marxism under Mao’s Communism reinforced China’s trend towards scientism that started in the early twentieth century. Therefore China’s history and Communism entered a reciprocal relationship under Mao that solidified scientism in China, laying the foundations for Deng’s reforms in 1978.

Mao amplified existing Chinese sentiments for Western technology on a much larger scale. Under Mao, a “mass science” program was instituted. This state-sponsored program attempted to engage each individual in the scientific development process, emphasizing the need to debunk the myth that science is only for the elite and the importance of “spirit over expertise.”[27] Of course, this mass science program had strategic purposes. Mao tried to increase scientific productivity to quickly achieve results, which would broadcast China’s capabilities to the rest of the world and provide leverage against world powers in international relations.

The most important example of the interaction between science and national security under Mao was the need to prove Chinese militarily capability to both the Soviet Union and the US—China did so by building the nuclear bomb. As Mao said, “either kill the tiger or get eaten by him, one or the other,” meaning, as he later clarified, that “so long as [the US] possessed nuclear bombs, China must have them too.”[28]

Mao’s nuclear program was predominantly homegrown. Sure, China received Soviet aid for its nuclear program early on, but the Soviets were reluctant to divulge the most critical pieces of information to the Chinese. Worsening relations between the two countries led to the termination of Soviet aid in 1962, a Sino-Soviet split that surely Mao had predicted.[29] From then until when the bomb was detonated in 1964, the Chinese were left to themselves.

The mere fact that the Chinese were able to successfully detonate their first bomb made clear the importance Mao attached to becoming an effective nuclear power. Indeed, the bomb project faced extreme challenges in China, the largest being the Great Leap Forward. This movement caused massive famine in China between 1958 and 1961, and rural industrialization, which was officially the purpose of the entire project, “saw its development…aborted by the mistakes of the Great Leap Forward.”[30] Despite the economic disaster brought about by the Great Leap Forward, the nuclear bomb program continued and finished before schedule in 1964. In fact, even amidst economic deterioration, the amount of resources poured into the nuclear bomb project was astounding. China’s first bomb was uranium, which meant that it had an operating gaseous diffusion system for purifying uranium. To put into perspective, the French gaseous diffusion plant, which was just about to produce enough fissionable materials for a bomb in 1965, had cost about one billion dollars.[31] The Chinese project, which resulted in a functional bomb, must have been of a similar magnitude. To invest so much into a nuclear project that may have failed, since China had to piece together important details of bomb creation, emphasizes the importance of the bomb to China’s national security agenda.

The successful completion of the bomb reveals not only Mao’s, but also the larger Chinese population’s desire to acquire the bomb. Building it required the Chinese to discover much of the construction details on their own, and many scientists had to work extremely hard and take many risks to finish the project. This fanaticism speaks not only to how important this scientific creation was to the leadership in terms of national security, but also to how widespread the idea of scientism was in the population.

The scientism underlying the development of the nuclear bomb under Mao was a continuation of the mentality that started to materialize at the end of the Qing Dynasty: the need to develop advanced technology to prove that China is capable and self-determinate. The success of the nuclear bomb in signaling China’s scientific competence and the advantages China gained on the international stage through “Big-Stick Diplomacy” no doubt had a profound impact on Deng as he was instituting his reforms. Deng realized that the Chinese population was already attached to scientism for developing China’s state power, so it was advantageous and logical to continue making scientism an integral part of Chinese society. The scientism component of Deng’s reform was thus historical—the precedence for scientism set by Mao influenced Deng to continue emphasizing science as a means of modernization.     


Deng’s Legacy—Scientism in China Today

Today, China remains fixated on playing “catch up” with the world in the scientific arena. The country still embraces the mentality that there is a need to assimilate foreign technology for security purposes. This obsession with scientism can be observed from the Chinese government’s continued encouragement of an education system that places utmost importance on scientific fields, a systematic delineation of study that was instituted under Mao and continues today.[32]

General Li Jijun succinctly laid out China’s current idea of national security. “What China desires most is a peaceful and stable international environment in which it can focus on economic development and the improvement of its people’s life [sic].”[33] Li’s assessment of China’s goals is a classic example of its political rhetoric. How will there be a “peaceful and stable international environment?” China must engineer one for itself. It does so by becoming powerful enough so that neighboring countries do not dare to invade it. Only when China becomes both a regional and a global power will the international environment be stable enough for its people’s lives to improve—no other nation will seek to challenge it. Hence, implied in Li Jijun’s seemingly passive message is the familiar mission to modernize for self-determination and self-preservation.

Thus, China’s survival is as much a national security problem as one of internal politics, because the country’s history fuels Chinese perceptions that “outside threats are responsible for China’s historical weakness and subjugation.”[34] China continues to require Western technology to generate what the Chinese term “comprehensive national power.”[35] “Comprehensive national power” envisions China as a developed country with sufficient wealth and technology so that it is “capable of challenging US strategic power in East Asia.”[36] The import of Western technology has propelled China to the ranks of world powers and having achieved success with Deng’s reforms, China has only redoubled its efforts of acquiring Western technology to achieve the international status it desires.

Deng’s legacy is thus very much alive today. Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” (三个代表) created in the immediate years after Deng expanded funding for scientific research, was built off of Deng’s plan of economically enticing the best researchers and scientists into China.[37] Hu Jintao extended the influence of scientism in China through the “Scientific Outlook on Development” (科学发展观) using the scientific method as the basis for political and social development in the future, broadening the scope and application of scientism in China.[38] More interesting, is Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” (中国梦). Though the concept of the “Chinese Dream” remains somewhat nebulous, scientism is still needed in order to champion Xi’s vision of China’s “peaceful rise” while also “strengthening the military” under the increasing scrutiny of other powers.[39]

Today, scientism plays a foundational and even more expansive role in China, not only in terms of national security and state power but also in terms of the very fabric of Chinese society. The emphasis on science has played well into China’s favor, it has allowed China to develop at astonishing rates and it is only logical to expect scientism to continue to have a strong presence. The challenge for China today is figuring out how to balance this culture of scientism with the forces of globalization.


Going Forward: Implications of Scientism for China and the World

For China, scientism and the pursuit of foreign technology has become a part of national identity. History has ingrained in China a fear of “falling behind” and invasion, something that has currently become its greatest means of development. With growth come challenges. The wealth generated by development and the forces of globalization have created a rampant consumer culture, one that values efficient capital generation, even if it means making shortcuts and lowering standards. Though scientism is deeply entrenched in the Chinese conscience, the shortcutting and money laundering brought by the competing consumer culture threatens to slow Chinese growth. The question is whether or not the Chinese can succeed in maintaining their large scale support for high-level, high-quality scientific research for national security in a time and society where consumerism threatens to swing even the most steadfast to its side.

China’s scientism also has implications for the international community, particularly by creating problems in the United States. In the US, funding for scientific research is dwindling by the day but China’s investment has only increased. The magnification between the differences in scientific advancement has all sorts of ramifications for the US. Not only does the competition for better military defense become fiercer, it also negatively impacts the US in terms of medical, engineering and industrial growth. The differences become apparent in the long run, tilting the international power balance in China’s favor. The US needs to make investing in technological innovation and research a priority, much like what China has been doing throughout history.



“Black cat, white cat, one that catches mice is a good cat.” —Deng Xiaoping

Deng Xiaoping’s reforms were revolutionary in that they embraced Capitalist values after a period of fervent Communism under Mao—the difference could be described as clearly as night and day. Deng is credited to be the father of today’s China by pulling the nation out of close-minded Communism with his radical, open-door reforms in 1978. However, one of the essential components of the reforms—utilizing science to modernize China and provide it the means of self-determination—was not Deng’s radical idea; it was based on a history of desire for foreign technology. Zhang Qian’s quest for iron mining techniques during the Han Dynasty reflects a long Chinese history of seeking foreign technology. The lessons of the May 4th Movement paved the way for scientism in China, which was implemented on a national scale under Mao. In this view, Deng’s reforms continued the emphasis on scientism, but morphed the fanaticism of the Maoist era into something more sustainable and palatable for the future.

Nonetheless, Deng’s reforms have far reaching effects. As a result of his decision to import foreign technology to modernize China, China has rapidly developed and is now a major world economic and political power. Also because of Deng’s reforms, scientism plays an even broader role in Chinese society than ever before, seeping into its politics, its economics and its national identity. Scientism is what made China’s development possible and is what will continue to drive the rise of China; it is at the core of China’s success.                    

Mason Ji (’16) is a Global Affairs major in Morse College.

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——. “Science and the State in Modern China.” Isis 98:3 (2007): 558-570.

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 [1] Deng Xiaoping, “Excerpt from Talk in Federal Republic of Germany” (Speech, October 10, 1978), 1.

[2] Martin Ryder, “Scientism,” University of Colorado, Denver, 2013, <>.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Richard Baum, “Science and Culture in Contemporary China: The Roots of Retarded Modernization,” Asian Survey 22:12 (1982): 1166.

[5] Richard Baum, Burying Mao: Chinese Politics in the Age of Deng Xiaoping, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 3.

[6] Orville Schell and John Delury, Wealth and Power (New York: Random House, 2013), 401-404.

[7] Song Zhiming, Deng Xiaoping Theories (Beijing: Remin University Press, Resource Center, ed. A3, 2006), 15-18.

[8] Xiling et al., Analysis of Deng Xiaoping’s Scientific Thought (Shen Yang: Liao Ning People’s Press, 1992), 121-122.

[9] Ibid, 104-106.

[10] Ibid, 56.

[11] David Sevillano-Lopez, and F. Javier Gonzalez, “Mining and Minerals Trade on the Silk Road to the Ancient Literary Sources: 2 BC to 10 AD Centuries,” in History of Research in Mineral Resources, eds. J. E. Ortiz, O. Puche, I. Rábano, and L.F. Mazadiego (Madrid: Institution of Geology and Minerals of Spain, 2011), 55.

[12] Sima Qian, Shi Ji (Records of the Grand Historian), trans. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 232.

[13] Ibid, 234.

[14] “History of Steel in Eastern Asia,” Macao Museum of Art, <>.

[15] Christopher Beckwith, Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 9.

[16] Adrian Arthur Bennett, John Fryer: The Introduction of Western Science and Technology into Nineteenth-Century China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), 13, 26.

[17] Ibid., 42-43.

[18] Benjamin Elman, A Cultural History of Modern Science in China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 119.

[19] William Duiker, Cultures in Collision: The Boxer Rebellion (San Rafael: Presidio Press, 1978), 102-105.

[20] Wang Zuoyue, “Saving China Through Science: The Science Society of China, Scientific Nationalism, and Civil Society in Republican China,” Osiris 17 (2002): 291-292.

[21] Ibid., 292.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Zhou Cezong, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), 49.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Fan Fa-ti, “Redrawing the Map: Science in Twentieth Century China,” Isis 98:3 (2007): 533.

[26] Michael Burawoy, “Marxism as Science: Historical Challenges and Theoretical Growth,” American Sociological Review 55:6 (1990): 775-776.

[27] Fan, 533.

[28] John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, China Builds the Bomb (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1991), 2, 15.

[29] Chi-Kwan Mark, China and the World Since 1945: An International History (New York: Routledge, 2012), 53-55.

[30] Dwight Perkings, “China’s Economic Policy and Performance,” in The Cambridge History of China Vol. 15 The People’s Republic Part 2: Revolutions within the Chinese Revolution, 1966-1982, eds. Roderick Macfarquhar and John K. Fairbank (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 54.

[31] Morton Halperin, “China and the Bomb—Chinese Nuclear Strategy.” The China Quarterly 21 (1965): 74.

[32] Wang Zuoyue, “Science and the State in Modern China” Isis 98:3 (2007): 560-561.

[33] Li, Jijin, “Traditional Military Thinking and the Defensive Strategy of China,” (address at the US Army War College, Carlisle, PA, July 15, 1997).

[34] William Tow, Asia Pacific Strategic Relations: Seeking Convergent Security (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 19.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., 21.

[37] Tu Yuanji, “Renowned Scientist Qian Xuesen Views ‘Three Represents’,” People’s Daily, June 24, 2002, 4-7.

[38] Hu Jintao, “Thoroughly Applying the Scientific Outlook on Development” (Excerpt from report to 17th National Congress of CPC, 2007), 1.

[39] Orville Schell and John Delury, Wealth and Power (New York: Random House, 2013), 405.

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