Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, Volume 7, Issue 2, Article 1 (Dec., 2006)
Shu-Chiu LIU
Historical models and science instruction: A cross-cultural analysis based on students’ views

Previous Contents Next

Three early Chinese models

The early Chinese drew up their pictures of the universe with a focus on the relations between Heaven and Earth. Three cosmological models (see Figure 1) were advocated by different schools and held true for a long time. These models were once highly advanced in human history, but as a whole, because of the lack of systematic theories, failed to move forward and eventually were replaced in the seventeenth century by the Western theories.

  The Gai Tian Model (Hemispherical Dome) Hun Tian Model (Celestial Sphere) Shuen Ye Theory (Infinity)
Figure 1. Three early Chinese models of the universe.

The great emphasis on ethics of the most dominant philosophical school, Confucianism, had much to do with how Chinese people conceived the world. It is also often considered as one of the major obstacles to eliminate their childish beliefs from scientific theory (Jin et al., 1996). The Chinese science developed along with an endeavor of active participation in the real world and consequently an emphasis on technology. Most of the experiments were conducted for practical purposes, and few for verifying scientific theories. Jin et al. (1996) pointed out that the Confucian doctrine rests upon a particular conception of the world which they term “man in nature”. The spirit of this doctrine is that “mankind is meant to maintain the universal harmony by following the natural rules” and there is a de-emphasis of reasons for natural phenomena because they are beyond human intellectual comprehension.

Therefore, the Chinese scientists took for granted that their tasks are to “discover” and “follow” the natural rules, rather than to “reason”. This view did not demolish even as late as in the nineteenth century, when the eminent scholar Ruan Yuan still complained about the changing theories in Western astronomy: “The laws are always changing…I don’t know where the real reason lies.” He went on to argue that “heavenly laws are so profound and subtle that they lie beyond human ability”. It is therefore prevailing in Chinese history of science that theories are intended to express certainties rather than search for reasons. Only in this way can theories “last forever without error” (Jin et al., 1996).

To point out again, the lack of reasoning is regarded as a hindrance to revise their scientific theories. The three dominant cosmological models in early China started in slightly different times, but all remained to have their voices until the seventeenth century when missionaries came to China and transmitted the Western view of science. It is worth noting that two of the models (Hun Tian and Gai Tian) maintained a flat Earth, either like a disk or a square, and the round heavens, either spherical or hemispherical, whilst the third (Shuen Ye) did not give descriptions of the shapes. The main characteristics of the ancient Chinese models of the universe include:

1.     The models did not address what we know as “universe”, but instead “Heaven and Earth”- a “researchable” universe -. Precisely, “Heaven and Earth” denotes a space to be observed from the Earth and to be home of all visible heavenly entities. It was believed that beyond this space there is unknown infinite cosmos.

2.     The Earth was flat.

3.     The heavens were round; the heavenly bodies were moving freely.

These features are remarkably distinguished from those of the Greek cosmological models in which the universe was finite, Earth was round (spherical) in its center, and the heavens were layers of solid spheres; the heavenly bodies were attached to the layers respectively.


Copyright (C) 2006 HKIEd APFSLT. Volume 7, Issue 2, Article 1 (Dec., 2006). All Rights Reserved.