Benjamin A. Elman

Gordon Wu '58 Professor of Chinese Studies, emeritus; Professor of East Asian Studies and History, emeritus

Benjamin Elman is Professor of East Asian Studies and History, emeritus, with his primary department in East Asian Studies. His teaching and research fields include: 1) Chinese intellectual and cultural history, 1000-1900; 2) history of science in China, 1600-1930; 3) history of education in late imperial China; 4) Sino-Japanese cultural history, 1600-1850. He received his Ph.D. in Oriental Studies from the University of Pennsylvania (1980) and came to Princeton in 2002 from the University of California, Los Angeles. From 1999 to 2001 he was the Mellon Visiting Professor in Traditional Chinese Civilization at the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton, NJ). His publications include: From Philosophy To Philology (1984, 1990, 2001); Classicism, Politics, and Kinship (1990); A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China (2000). He has recently completed two book projects: On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550-1900 (2005), and A Cultural History of Modern Science in Late Imperial China (2006). He is currently working on a project entitled "The Intellectual Impact of Late Imperial Chinese Classicism, Medicine, and Science in Tokugawa Japan, 1700-1850".

Current Project

Initiated over the last several years, a number of projects he has been working on are nearing completion since he became chair of East Asian Studies in 2011. They were underwritten by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS) and the East Asian Studies Program (EAP). The projects were also sponsored by the Davis Center for Historical Studies, the Gardner “Magic” Fund in the Princeton Humanities Council, and the Princeton-Oxford World Philology Project. A Mellon Foundation Career Achievement Award will support these projects to their completion. I have spent a good deal of the current year editing and completing the following three conference volumes:

Rethinking East Asian Languages, Vernaculars, and Literacies, 1000-1919. This is based on a “Research Cluster” supported by PIIRS and the EAP, 2009-2012, with a publishing subvention provided by the Mellon Foundation. The project overall challenges the premise of a stark dichotomy between “the classical” and “the vernacular” in Chinese linguistic development. Influenced by European models, which mechanically explained the transition from Latin as a classical language to indigenous vernaculars, scholars of East Asian cultural history have viewed classical/literary/Sinitic Chinese, on the one hand, and spoken/written vernaculars, on the other, as different languages that did not interact and developed along separate tracks. This linguistic assumption overlooks the variety of interactions between the vernacular and the classical in imperial China, which in reality represented different social registers of the “Chinese” language.

Also based on the PIIRS “Research Cluster” support, a volume called Early Modern Asian Medical Classics and Medical Philology is in the final stages of editing. The "Medical Philology" workshops allowed us to discuss the debates and issues about Chinese, Japanese, and Korean editions of traditional medical texts in early modern East Asia. The workshops also focused on another ongoing project addressing “medical culture and medical commodities,” which seeks to unravel the cultural patterns in the production, distribution and consumption of medicines in early modern East Asia.

Science and Technology in Republican China. This conference volume results from a two-day symposium that convened in New Haven, Connecticut, in January 2010, and was co-sponsored by the Yale University East Asian Studies Institute. The conference brought together junior and senior scholars of Chinese history, history of science, and literature in an attempt to reevaluate the meaning and practice of “scientism” in nineteenth- and twentieth-century China. We revisited the foundations of modern Chinese intellectual history as well, thereby charting new directions in the study of science and technology during China’s Republican period, 1911-1937.

He has also continued his involvement with the still ongoing “Comparative Project on China and India.” which has met in May 2012, September 2012, and June 2013. Sponsored by PIIRS and a Mellon Award the goal is to prepare a coherent collection of essays that would inform non-specialist readers about the comparative genealogies of contemporary India and China as re-emergent powers. We aim to make big arguments about big questions: ecology, polity, gender relations, religion, literature, science and technology, and so on. Our goal is to produce a scholarly book for the general reader that embodies a new, large-scale comparative experiment.

Teaching Interests

Professor Elman taught undergraduate courses on the cultural and social history of China and on perceptions of China and Asia in the West, as well as a document-based course for sophomores in History addressing various topics in Chinese history, including the travels of Marco Polo, the Sino-Japanese War, and the Jesuits in China. He taught graduate-level courses on the classical historiography of China, the history of education in China, the history of science in China, and (with Professor Susan Naquin) material culture and technology in China.

Area of Interest
(In alphabetical order)
Cultural History
Imperial History
Intellectual History
Medicine & Health
Home Department & Other Affiliations
East Asian Studies
15th & 16th Centuries
17th & 18th Centuries
19th Century