University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > HPS History Workshop > Ancient Chinese mathematics in action: Wu Wen-Tsun's ethnic historicism after the Cultural Revolution

Ancient Chinese mathematics in action: Wu Wen-Tsun's ethnic historicism after the Cultural Revolution

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Ethnic historicism is a basic component of cultural nationalism. It presumes the existence of a national essence, to be discovered through historical studies, which can inspire the revival of a depressed ethnic community. Science can be subject to ethnic historicism for broadly the same reasons, and with the same effects, as other human activities, as the case of the Chinese mathematician Wu Wen-Tsun (born 1919) shows. He followed in many ways the reformist ‘route to ethnic historicism’ described schematically by Anthony D. Smith. Wu’s position also exhibits many common features of the reformist compromise between the national essence and a universalist ideal of progress of humanity. It shows that an application of nationalist principles to mathematics, rather than religion or political organisation, is perfectly possible, and involves broadly similar arguments and myth-making strategies. Although the scope for truly culturally distinctive practice inspired by historicism is severely limited in modern mathematics, Wu Wen-Tsun managed to establish a local Chinese school in his research area (automated deduction and equation solving), capable of competition in the world. This (the setup of a ‘rival nation of one’s own’) has been portrayed as the ultimate motivation for cultural nationalism by Ernest Gellner. Wu’s story thus demonstrates that opposing theories of cultural nationalism can be quite compatible in individual cases.

This talk is part of the HPS History Workshop series.

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