News Flash: Europe not center of known universe after all

Hey everybody,

I'm going to be a little longer with the MA-thing. I've gotten an extension until the 22nd of May because of some logistical issues.

But I just wanted to share something I learned today completely by accident. As it turns out, Gutenberg didn't invent movable type first after all. In fact, a fellow named Bi Sheng did, in China, way back in the 1040's sometime. His type was made out of baked clay, which was later turned into wooden type by others.

And as if that wasn't enough to shake my eurocentric view of the universe, it turns out that Michel de Montaigne was not the first essayist, either! Well, I knew that, actually. He just popularised it, and created a really elegant style in it. But I was intrigued by the introduction to this Wikipedia article on Shen Kuo, a Chinese polymath and scholar:
The Dream Pool Essays (Pinyin: Meng Xi Bi Tan; Wade-Giles: Meng Ch'i Pi T'an Chinese: 梦溪笔谈) was an extensive book written by the polymath Chinese scientist and statesman Shen Kuo (1031-1095) by 1088 AD, during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) of China. Although Shen was previously a highly renowned government official and military general, he compiled this enormous written work while virtually isolated on his lavish garden estate near modern-day Zhenjiang, Jiangsu province. He named the book after the name he gave to his estate, the "Dream Brook". The literal translated meaning is Brush Talks from a Dream Brook, and in his biography in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography (New York 1970-1990), Shen Kuo is quoted as saying:

Because I had only my writing brush and ink slab to converse with, I call it Brush Talks.
...Because this is basically the biography of Michel de Montaigne, set in China. Montaigne was a noted statesman and occasional soldier who sort-of-retired from public life to a country estate near Bordeaux (which he was also elected mayor of twice, while being sort-of-retired from public life). He spent his days reading and writing in his tower and occasionally combating the plague in nearby Bordeaux.

Lesson: the Chinese do everything before we do, and get only a fraction of the credit for it.

Oh, and if you haven't read Montaigne, you really, really should.

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Blogger Lasse said...

I am in shock!

May 14, 2007 11:47 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few points: did you read Shen Kuo? Are you sure this might be called essays? Or would it be less Eurocentric if we called Montaigne's work Brush Talks (or feather quill talks)?
Further, Montaigne is really, really boring to read. You might call it elegant, but I find it to be posh verbosity. On the other hand, Montaigne is extremely interesting to discuss, as thinker, philosopher, ideologuer, etc. But dull. As. Dish. Water.
Just my opinion.

May 14, 2007 12:58 pm  
Blogger mrtn said...

Oh, S. What is it about you English majors and the French? While you can keep your Flaubert and your stinky cheeses, as far as I care, not to mention your Rene Descartes; Montaigne is, to put it in technical terms, The Shizzle.

You have to put him in his context, though. While he didn't write for the MTV generation, his methods and worldviews expressed in his writing, and the very skillful combination of form and content makes him *very* special in my mind. He may be posh and verbose, but then he was the mayor of Bordeaux, and someone who spent most of his waking hours reading and writing. Even if he is a slow read, I find that that's one of the pleasures of his work. I've also had to seriously restrain myself not to go off on Montaigne-related tangents throughout my thesis.

Anyway: Kuo I have not read, no. He's apparently not available in English (or any other language I know). The excerpts in the Wiki-article seem essayistic, but then (as I argue at poshly verbose length in my thesis) the essayistic method is something that needs to unfold over time.

May 15, 2007 2:29 pm  
Blogger Mikkel said...

The Chinese invented EVERYTHING - at least if you ask them.

In other news, a piece pre-dating the first known Indian piece by over a thousand years now gives credit for the invention of chess to the Roman Empire. But who's counting?

May 16, 2007 6:07 pm  

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