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Shen Kuo

Category: Genius

Shen Kuo (Chinese: 沈括; 1031–1095) or Shen Gua, Sheng Gua, Shen Kua and pseudonym Mengqi (now usually given as Mengxi) Weng (夢溪翁), was a Han Chinese polymathic scientist and statesman of the Song dynasty (960–1279).  He also wrote commentary on ancient Daoist and Confucian texts.  Shen Kuo was born in Qiantang (modern-day Hangzhou) in the year 1031. 

Excelling in many fields of study and statecraft, he was a mathematician, astronomer, meteorologist, geologist, zoologist, botanist, pharmacologist, agronomist, archaeologist, ethnographer, cartographer, encyclopaedist, general, diplomat, hydraulic engineer, inventor, academy chancellor, finance minister, governmental state inspector, poet, and musician.  Shen was frequently ill as a child, and also developed an interest in medicinal cures.  He was also the head official for the Bureau of Astronomy in the Song court, as well as an Assistant Minister of Imperial Hospitality.

Shen Kuo wrote extensively on a wide range of different subjects. His written work included two geographical atlases, a treatise on music with mathematical harmonics, governmental administration, mathematical astronomy, astronomical instruments, martial defensive tactics and fortifications, painting, tea, medicine, and much poetry.  Perhaps his best known is the Dream Pool Essays, yet much of the writing in his other books has not survived. Some of Shen's poetry was preserved in posthumous written works.

Shen's reputation as a polymath has been well recognised. The British sinologist, historian, and biochemist Joseph Needham (1900–1995) stated that Shen Kuo was "one of the greatest scientific minds in Chinese history."

Another reason he is on the site is that in his Dream Pool Essays or Dream Torrent Essays (夢溪筆談; Mengxi Bitan) of 1088, Shen appears to have witnessed a UFO. 

Daoism and the I Ching

Behind the veil

Shen Kuo supported the Daoist ideas which challenged the authority of empirical science. Although he agreed that much could be discerned through empirical observation and recorded study, Daoism asserted that the real secrets of the universe can only be experienced via spiritual experience – behind the veil.  As such, scientific investigation would merely express its investigations in fragments and partial understanding.

Using as an example, an event where lightning had struck a house but the wooden walls did not burn (but simply turned black) where the lacquer-ware inside was undamaged, yet metal objects had melted into liquid, Shen Kuo wrote:

Most people can only judge of things by the experiences of ordinary life, but phenomena outside the scope of this are really quite numerous. How insecure and unwise it is to investigate natural principles using only the light of common knowledge, and subjective ideas.

Shen Kuo referred to the ancient Daoist I Ching in explaining the spiritual processes and attainment of foreknowledge that cannot be attained through "crude traces”.

Chinese paintings were used to represent this 'realm’ behind the veil and Shen In his "Song on Painting" and in his Dream Pool Essays, praised the creative artworks of the Tang painter Wang Wei (701–761); Shen noted that Wang was unique in that he "penetrated into the mysterious reason and depth of creative activity," but was criticized by others for not conforming his paintings to reality, such as his painting with a banana tree growing in a snowy, wintry landscape.

Fate and destiny

Shen was also a firm believer in fate, destiny and prophecy, and provided rational explanations for the relation between them.  Although he understood fate he warned against the tendency for some to believe that all matters in life were preordained.

In his commentary on the ancient Confucian philosopher Mencius (372–289 BC), Shen wrote of the importance of choosing to follow what one knew to be a true path, but warned that the heart and mind could not attain full knowledge of truth through mere sensory experience.

Higher spirit

In his own unique way, but using terms influenced by the ideas of Mencius, Shen wrote of an ‘autonomous inner authority’ that formed the basis for one's inclination towards moral choices, as well as being the source of spiritual inspiration.

The Dream Pool Essays

The Dream Pool Essays or Dream Torrent Essays (Pinyin: Mèng Xī Bǐ Tán; Wade-Giles: Meng Hsi Pi-t'an; Chinese: 夢溪筆談/梦溪笔谈) contains his vivid description of unidentified flying objects from eyewitness testimony. Although Shen had been 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". Shen Kuo's Dream Pool Essays consists of some 507 separate essays exploring a wide range of subjects. It was Shen's ultimate attempt to comprehend and describe a multitude of various aspects of nature, science, and reality, and all the practical and profound curiosities found in the world.

It is the passage called "Strange Happenings" that contains the account of an unidentified flying object.  Shen wrote that, during the reign of Emperor Renzong (1022–1063), an object as bright as a pearl occasionally hovered over the city of Yangzhou at night, but it was described first by local inhabitants of eastern Anhui and then in Jiangsu. Shen wrote that a man near Xingkai Lake observed this curious object; it:

...opened its door and a flood of intense light like sunbeams darted out of it, then the outer shell opened up, appearing as large as a bed with a big pearl the size of a fist illuminating the interior in silvery white. The intense silver-white light, shot from the interior, was too strong for human eyes to behold; it cast shadows of every tree within a radius of ten miles. The spectacle was like the rising Sun, lighting up the distant sky and woods in red. Then all of a sudden, the object took off at a tremendous speed and descended upon the lake like the Sun setting.

Shen went on to say that Yibo, a poet of Gaoyou, wrote a poem about this "pearl" after witnessing it. Since the "pearl" often made an appearance around Fanliang in Yangzhou, the people there had erected a "Pearl Pavilion" on a wayside, where people came by boat in hopes to see the mysterious flying object.

Although the one actual account we have used as an observation comes from this book , other writers have quoted this startling passage.

Shi Bo in  La Chine et les Extraterrestres, op.cit., 26 describes it. The case is also mentioned by Paul Dong in China's Major Mysteries: Paranormal Phenomena and the Unexplained in the People's Republic of China (China Books, 2000), 69-71.

And Dong quotes from an article in Peking's Guang Ming Daily of February 18th 1979, "Could It Be That a Visitor from Outer Space Visited China Long Long Ago?" written by Professor Zhang Longqiao of the Chinese department of Peking Teachers College, who cites the original account as it was quoted.  As such a number of people appear to have verified the account and seem to be in agreement, it looks very like a UFO visit.

Achievements in brief

For all the details of his extensive and very impressive list of inventions and achievements, the Wikipedia entry is very good and there is no point in our repeating it here.  Instead we will provide only a summary.

The compass - Shen was the first to describe the magnetic needle compass, which would be used for navigation (first described in Europe by Alexander Neckam in 1187) and discovered the concept of true north in terms of magnetic declination towards the north pole, with experimentation of suspended magnetic needles and "the improved meridian determined by Shen's [astronomical] measurement of the distance between the pole star and true north". This was the decisive step in human history to make compasses more useful for navigation, and may have been a concept unknown in Europe for another four hundred years (evidence of German sundials made circa 1450 show markings similar to Chinese geomancer compasses in regard to declination).

Astronomy and calendars - By 1072, Shen was appointed as the head official of the Bureau of Astronomy. He was responsible for projects in improving calendrical science, and proposed many reforms to the Chinese calendar alongside the work of his colleague Wei Pu. To aid his work in astronomy, Shen Kuo made improved designs of the armillary sphere, gnomon, sighting tube, and invented a new type of inflow water clock.  In 1075, Shen Kuo wrote the Xining Fengyuan Li (熙寧奉元曆; The Oblatory Epoch astronomical system of the Splendid Peace reign period), which was lost, but listed in a 7th chapter of a Song Dynasty bibliography. This was the official report of Shen Kuo on his reforms of the Chinese calendar.

Good medicinal formulas - During his years of retirement from governmental service, Shen Kuo compiled a formulary known as the Liang Fang (良方; Good medicinal formulas). Around the year 1126 it was combined with a similar collection by the famous Su Shi (1037–1101), - Shen Kuo and Su Shi were friends and associates.

Shen’s medicine was cause and not symptom based.  He even wrote of the difficulties of adequate diagnosis.  His cures were plant based and he went to great lengths to ensure the detail helped in philological accuracy in identification and use.  The cultivation of different types of medicinal herbs was also described in great detail; such as in which months medicinal plants should be gathered, their exact ripening times, which parts should be used for therapy; for domesticated herbs he wrote about planting times, fertilization, and other matters of horticulture.

Poetry – little of Shen’s poetry survives , but in the 1950s the author Hu Daojing attempted to bring together various scattered poems written by Shen, in the  Collection of Shen Kua's Extant Poetry (Shanghai: Shang-hai Shu-tian, 1958).

Geological surveys and hypotheses - Shen Kuo devised a geological hypothesis for land formation (geomorphology), based upon findings of inland marine fossils, knowledge of soil erosion, and the deposition of silt.  Shen's description of soil erosion and weathering predated that of Georgius Agricola in his book of 1546, De veteribus et novis metallis. Furthermore, Shen's theory of sedimentary deposition predated that of James Hutton, who published his groundbreaking work in 1802 (considered the foundation of modern geology).

Archaeology -  Shen investigated archeological finds to find out how they were originally manufactured and what their functionality would have been. Fraser and Haber write that Shen Kuo "advocated the use of an interdisciplinary approach to archaeology and practiced such an approach himself through his work in metallurgy, optics, and geometry in the study of ancient measures."

After unearthing an ancient crossbow device from a house's garden in Haichow, Jiangsu, Shen discovered that the cross-wire grid sighting device, marked in graduated measurements on the stock, could be used to calculate the height of a distant mountain in the same way that mathematicians could apply right-angle triangles to measure height. Needham asserts Shen had discovered the survey device known as Jacob's staff, which was not described elsewhere until the Provençal Jewish mathematician Levi ben Gerson (1288–1344) wrote of it in 1321.

Climate change -  He also proposed a hypothesis of gradual climate change, after observing ancient petrified bamboos that were preserved underground in a dry northern habitat that would not support bamboo growth in his time.

Locks and docks - In 1072, Shen was sent to supervise Wang's program of surveying the building of silt deposits in the Bian Canal outside the capital city. Using an original technique, Shen successfully dredged the canal and demonstrated the formidable value of the silt gathered as a fertilizer.  Shen was the first literary figure in China to mention the use of the drydock to repair boats suspended out of water, and also wrote of the effectiveness of the relatively new invention of the canal pound lock.

Camera obscura - Shen Kuo experimented with the pinhole camera and burning mirror as the ancient Chinese Mohists had done in the 4th century BC. Although the Iraqi Muslim scientist Ibn al-Haytham (965–1039) was the first to experiment with camera obscura, Shen Kuo was the first to attribute geometrical and quantitative properties to the camera obscura, just several decades after Ibn al-Haytham's death.

Movable type printing - Shen wrote extensively about movable type printing invented by Bi Sheng (990–1051), and because of his written works the legacy of Bi Sheng and the modern understanding of the earliest movable type has been handed down to later generations.
There are a few surviving examples of books printed in the late Song Dynasty using movable type printing. This includes Zhou Bida's Notes of The Jade Hall (玉堂雜記) printed in 1193 using the method of baked-clay movable type characters outlined in the Dream Pool Essays. Yao Shu (1201–1278), an advisor to Kublai Khan, once persuaded a disciple Yang Gu to print philological primers and Neo-Confucian texts by using what he termed the "movable type of Shen Kuo".

Civil Engineering projects – Shen had a natural ability to plan, organize, and design major engineering projects.  His design and supervision of the hydraulic drainage of an embankment system, for example, converted some one hundred thousand acres (400 km²) of swampland into prime farmland.

Architecture - If it were not for Shen Kuo's analysis and quoting in his Dream Pool Essays of the writings of the architect Yu Hao (fl. 970), the latter's work would have been lost to history. Yu designed a famous wooden pagoda that burned down in 1044 and was replaced in 1049 by a brick pagoda (the 'Iron Pagoda') of similar height, but not of his design. From Shen's quotation—or perhaps Shen's own paraphrasing of Yu Hao's Timberwork Manual (木經; Mujing), we know that already in the 10th century there was a graded system of building unit proportions.

Financial administration - In 1063 Shen Kuo successfully passed the Imperial examinations, the difficult national-level standard test that every high official was required to pass in order to enter the governmental system. He not only passed the exam however, but was placed into the higher category of the best and brightest students. While serving at Yangzhou, Shen's brilliance and dutiful character caught the attention of Zhang Chu (張蒭; 1015–1080), the Fiscal Intendant of the region. Shen made a lasting impression upon Zhang, who recommended Shen for a court appointment in the financial administration of the central court. Shen would also eventually marry Zhang's daughter, who became his second wife.

Military officer - A few years after Song Dynasty military forces had made victorious territorial gains against the Tanguts of the Western Xia, in 1080 Shen Kuo was entrusted as a military officer in defense of Yanzhou (modern-day Yan'an, Shaanxi province). During the autumn months of 1081, Shen was successful in defending Song Dynasty territory while capturing several fortified towns of the Western Xia.

Impeachment, later life and death

In a series of unpleasant political moves against Shen, the new Chancellor Cai Que (蔡確; 1036–1093) held Shen responsible for a military disaster and along with abandoning the territory which Shen Kuo had fought for, Cai ousted Shen from his seat of office.  Shen's life was now forever changed, as he lost his once reputable career and was put under probation in a fixed residence for the next six years.

However, as he was isolated from governance, he decided to pick up the ink brush and dedicate himself to intensive scholarly studies. After completing two geographical atlases for a state-sponsored program, Shen was rewarded by having his sentence of probation lifted, allowing him to live in a place of his choice. Shen was also pardoned by the court for any previous faults or crimes that were claimed against him.

As described in his Dream Pool Essays, Shen Kuo enjoyed the company of the "nine guests" (九客, jiuke), a figure of speech for the Chinese zither, the older 17x17 line variant of weiqi (known today as go), Zen Buddhist meditation, ink (calligraphy and painting), tea drinking, alchemy, chanting poetry, conversation, and drinking wine.

In the 1070s, Shen purchased "Dream Brook" ("Mengxi") after he visited it for the first time in 1086.   Shen Kuo permanently moved to the Dream Brook Estate in 1088, and in that same year he completed his life's written work of the Dream Pool Essays. It was there that Shen Kuo spent the last several years of his life in leisure, isolation, and illness, until his death in 1095.  Shen Kuo had two marriages; the second wife was the daughter of Zhang Chu (張蒭), who came from Huainan.  When Lady Zhang died, Shen Kuo fell into a deep depression and even attempted to jump into the Yangtze River to drown himself. Although this suicide attempt failed, he would die a year later.


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