Proposal preview

The Interplay of Trade, Religion and Technology in China and Europe in the 16th-19th centuries

Since the beginning of the 20th century, economic history has paid special attention to the part played by religion in innovation and in technological dissemination, in the wake of Max Weber and Warren C. Scoville. Europe has been at the fore-front of these studies, at least for the early modern period (1). Our focus is twofold: broadening the perspective by bringing China on stage and questioning the interplay of trade, religion and technology.

Religion took a part in recent bibliographical corpus respectively on trade and technology in China, while these three topics are rarely connected together. Scholars have enhanced the impact of monotheist religions on knowledge, on the use of nature and on the search for profit. They also used religion in order to explain a so-called decline of Chinese science and technology featured in the famous “Needham question”. Needham made a distinction between Daoism and Confucianism regarding attitudes towards scientific and technological innovations (2). Although these approaches were quite forgotten in the debates on the « Great Divergence », they are now coming on the fore front. Karel Davids has recently proposed to pay attention to religious institutions in their promotion of technological culture and « human capital » and to patterns of circulation of knowledge, as explaining the divergence between China and Europe (Davids, 2013). In the meantime, other researchers used different approaches, by focusing for instance on the history of Taoist technology (Sheng, Weixia, 2002-2010) or dealing with the meaning of innovation in the Chinese cosmological context (Schafer, 2011). Recent studies also questioned the religious character of Confusianism and its impact on trade and technology, as Confusianism was the framework of religious syncretism in China that evolved from the concept of Three Teachings (Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism), the so-called Sanjiao heyi 三教合一 (Ledderose, 2000) .

The relationships between trade, technology and religion are also studied by taking into consideration the technological transfers between East and West. The technological and religious interplays are suggestive in the European history as well. Koen Vermeir has stressed after Peter Harrison that « early modern religion was closely intertwined with objects, artifacts, techniques and technologies, in a way we may find difficult to imagine today » (3). Until now, exchanges initiated and maintained by Jesuit missionaries drew attention of a large number of modern historians of sciences, technology and medicine. However, little attention was paid to several questions connecting Christian missionaries, trading companies, Chinese merchants, etc. in a religious and technological point of view. As some studies recently showed, trade and transmission of technological expertise were accompanied by the dissemination of religions via the Silk Road. The interplay of propagation of religions (including Buddhism and Christianity) and trade in the circulation and exchanges of technological expertise still await for a thorough investigation. What was the impact of trading exchanges between Europe and China on religious and technological aspects?

This panel will gather scholars from different subject areas to discuss and compare their views on the complex interactions of trade, religion and technology between East and West. We expect to have 8 to 10 presenters and two discussants. Each panelist will have about 15 minutes for presentation and 15-20 minutes for discussion. We will especially focus on the following aspects:
– The role of merchants, artisans, engineers belonging to religious groups as well as missionaries in the introduction and circulation of technological expertise, in the enhancement of trade and in the propagation of religion.
– The negotiations, concessions and assimilations among practitioners belonging to different religious communities.
– Comparative historical framework: comparisons of the parts played by religion in technological development in East and West.
– Anthropological dimensions: how different needs of artifacts for ceremonial display and religious interdictions influenced the adaptation and development of fabrication processes? What part played technology in the representations and identities of religious communities and actors?
– Historiographical issues: why some religions remain out of the focus? It is the case of Jews whose relationship with technology is still unquestioned.

(1) For more recent times, a major reference is Daniel Chirot, Essential Outsiders: Chinese and Jews in the Modern Transformation of Southeast Asia and Central Europe, 1997.

(2) Joseph Needham stressed the fact that the latter had played a part in the decline that supposedly took place after the Song period: « Wealth as such was not valued. It had no spiritual power. It could give comfort but not wisdom, and in China affluence carried comparatively little prestige » (Joseph Needham, « Science and Society in East and West », Centaurus, 1964, vol. 10, p. 174-197, p. 181).

(3) Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion, 2015 ; Koen Vermeir, « Techniques, rites, religion », in Guillaume Carnino, Liliane Hilaire-Pérez, A. Kobiljski eds., Histoire des techniques. Mondes, sociétés, cultures (XVIe-XVIIIe siècle), Paris, PUF (coll. Nouvelle Clio), 2016, p. 397-414.


  • Liliane HILAIRE-PEREZ, University Paris Diderot-7/EHESS,, France
  • Chuan-Hui MAU, National Tsing-Hua University,, Taiwan
  • Sébastien PAUTET, University Paris Diderot-7,, France

Session members

  • Weichung CHENG , Academia Sinica ,
  • Karel C.A. DAVIDS , Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam,
  • Anne GERRITSEN , University of Warwick,
  • François GIPOULOUX , EHESS,
  • Hui-min LAI, Academia Sinica ,
  • Evelyne OLIEL-GRAUSZ, Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne,
  • Manuel PEREZ GARCIA , Renmin University ,
  • Ching-Fei SHIH , National Taiwan University ,
  • Michèle VIROL, Université de Rouen,

Proposed discussant(s)

  • , ,