Knowledge can be gained through faith

Leibniz Prize winner Dagmar Schäfer : What we think we know about China

An internship in a Chinese silk factory? When the German student of Sinology and Japanology made her way to China from Würzburg in the early 1990s, it sounded pretty crazy. But Dagmar Schäfer actually managed to get a place. She actually wants to be a journalist and plans to write an article about work in the factory.

But then the young scientist begins to delve into the topic theoretically and historically. “I discovered that it is very exciting to see how techniques are preserved or changed.” In the end, a whole doctoral thesis emerges: the book “The emperor's silk dresses. State silk manufacturers in the Ming period (1368-1644) ”appears in 1998. It is the beginning of a brilliant scientific career.

Schäfer spends two years in China right from the start of her studies - by no means an academic matter of course. She literally “fell in love” with the local culture, she says. At the time, your doctoral supervisor was of the opinion that you first had to understand a technology before you could study its history. That suits Schäfer: "I was always a practical person."

Technological history of Asia operated separately from that of Europe

Dealing with the concrete - with old sources, images, objects - not only shapes her beginnings as a researcher. The history of technology in China will remain a major topic in the following years, although at that time it was still far removed from the mainstream research.

Since December 2019 at the latest, Dagmar Schäfer has known that she did everything right: The Berlin sinologist was honored with this year's Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize. It is the most prestigious research award in Germany; it is awarded annually to ten researchers. Dagmar Schäfer, who has been working at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG) in Dahlem since 2013, is one of two women who were honored in 2020.

In fact, the China expert has been in a small niche within her field for many years. The history of technology and science in Asia was completely separate from that of Europe 20 years ago, recalls Schäfer. And: “The history of science was one of the most Eurocentric subjects of all.” Because in Europe, according to the basic assumption of historians, the modern sciences were invented. A Leonardo da Vinci, a Galileo Galilei, lived and worked here. “At the end of the 20th century, people in Europe had a very narrow view of what knowledge and science was. That has changed in the meantime, ”says Schäfer.

But this self-confident discourse was more and more piddled with questions: What is actually called “knowledge”? What is a "fact" anyway? China has "a completely different understanding of its science and scientific culture," explains the Executive Director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. In Europe too, the sciences have become more self-reflective in the 21st century. They are increasingly critical of their own requirements, working conditions and implicit assumptions.

Schäfer examines how technology developments are judged

This is also evident in the current situation, says Schäfer. Scientists from different disciplines have been the focus of media attention since the corona crisis. But unlike 30 or 40 years ago, they rarely appear as unassailable luminaries. “Today we speak much more consciously about the variety of possibilities and the different scientific perspectives.” Schäfer thinks it is positive that “the relativity of the sciences” becomes visible in this way. That scientists naturally address the limits of their own knowledge and expertise. This is an important merit of the humanities, which have pushed this attitude in recent years and carried it into other subjects.

Schäfer's China research has made an important contribution to this. The 51-year-old has been concerned with how different knowledge can be recorded and passed on for many years. For example, it examines how technological developments are talked about and judged. She also looks at materials, processes and structures. What role do texts, textiles or other artifacts play in the dissemination of technological knowledge? In 2011 Schäfer's book “The Crafting of the 10,000 Things: Knowledge and Technology in 17th-Century China” was published, which has won several awards. The study is "of fundamental importance for global history," praised the jury of the Leibniz Prize, as it relates Chinese and European developments in the 17th century to one another in a more balanced way.

Incidentally, there has not yet been a festive award ceremony. It should have taken place in mid-March, but was canceled at short notice due to Corona. The interview for this text cannot take place in person, in Schäfer's office on Boltzmannstrasse, but only by telephone. But Dagmar Schäfer does not mind the fact that her moment of great scientific fame falls precisely during the period of contact and event bans. “Congratulations came from all over the world,” she says, saying that the German prize is being very well received internationally.

Millions of sources on ancient China - and all of them digitized

The researcher is currently working on a book on various forms of knowledge, for which she has brought together historians, sociologists and anthropologists. In China, Schäfer and her team have a large number of digitized sources available for this purpose: whereas in Europe you might find a few hundred medieval sources on a topic - scattered across various archives - there are millions in China. "That is a completely different dimension."

On the one hand, significantly more cultural heritage has been preserved in the Middle Kingdom, and on the other hand, an extremely large amount of digitalization has been achieved in recent years. There is of course a state interest behind this, says Schäfer. Nevertheless, this changes the conditions for historical research massively. Scientists can access huge data pools and search through them digitally.

With the Leibniz prize money - 2.5 million euros - Dagmar Schäfer wants to continue on her previous path. The history of science is still too oriented towards modernity. You will therefore invest in projects that deal with antiquity, the Middle Ages or the premodern. "I would also like to continue thinking about the diversity of knowledge." Schäfer does not believe that the corona crisis will permanently hinder your research in the future. She hopes to be able to travel to China again in September 2020.

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