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清華學報 Tsing Hua Journal of Chinese Studies
清華學報 Tsing Hua Journal of Chinese Studies


The Evolution and Decline of the Theory of “Watching for the Ethers”

Vol. 23 No. 2   6/1993   


The Evolution and Decline of the Theory of “Watching for the Ethers” 


Yi-Long Huang & Chi-Ch’eng Chang 









Key words



    Specific descriptions concerning the procedures for “watching for the ethers” first appeared in the book, Yiieh-ling chang-chii, by Ts’ai Yung of the Later Han Dynasty. By the Northern Dynasties, Hsintu Fang’s promotion of ether responses, supported by counterfeit evidence, was being accepted by the general public. This theory was one of the most astonishing frauds in the history of Chinese science. Even thought later generations tried to experimentally verify the theory of “watching for the ethers,” virtually every test failed. However, because the theory was so seamlessly articulated few people dared to express serious doubts about it. Ti explain the repeated failures of tests for the responses of the ethers, since they were not inclined to abandon the theory, ancient intellectuals attributed the failures to the loss of traditional procedures. They also claimed that the lack of ether responses was an indication of the political situation. In the worst cases they outright faked ether responses

     It was not until the Ming Dynasty that a scathing skepticism regarding the whole theory arose in academic circles. Among the skeptics, Chu Tsaiyü criticized the theory most intensely. His comments were all based on the results of actual experiments, which later generations were not able to probe in more detail. However, the motivation for “watching for the ethers” in order to ensure continuing harmony between the natural and human worlds was so deeply rooted in Chinese thinking that Chu’s criticism did not have a great influence. 

    Finally in 1669, as a result of being attacked by the Jesuit missionary Ferdinand Verbiest, the theory was discarded by the government. However, it was not totally abandoned by the broader Chinese society until the late Ch’ing Dynasty. The episode of the theory, which lasted for almost two thousand years, is truly a rare and special case in the history of Chinese science.



Author : Yi-Long Huang & Chi-Ch’eng Chang
Genre : Artilce