Ian Gow – The Scottish Sinologist Alexander Wylie 1815-1887: Missionary, Man of Letters, Mathemetician

Event Date: 11 December 2018
Royal Asiatic Society
14 Stephenson Way
London NW1 2HD


The Royal Asiatic Society presents:

Professor Ian Gow (Edinburgh) – The Scottish Sinologist Alexander Wylie 1815-1887: Missionary, Man of Letters, Mathemetician

Alexander Wylie was one of the leading members of a unique concentration of Missionary Scholars and who lived and worked in Shanghai in the second half of the 19th Century. He was one of the founders of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (NCBRAS), later a Vice President and finally an Honorary Member. An avid bibliophile and bibliographer Wylie’s donations of books to the NCBRAS was the basis for one of the finest libraries in Asia. In addition Wylie also provided a large number of books that doubled the Bodleian Library’s China Collection at Oxford.

Originally hired in 1847 as a Superintendent of Printing for the London Missionary Society Press in Shanghai, Wylie developed into a major Missionary-scholar and one of the founding fathers of British sinology. He is still extensively cited today especially his major annotated bibliographic works on the history of Protestant Missionaries in China and on Chinese Literature. His seminal work Jottings ON Chinese arithmetic He also, by a series of remarkable articles, showed, that the conventional wisdom that China had no significant achievement in mathematics until after the Jesuits, was wrong and that pre-modern Chinese mathematics was on a par and even developed certain mathematical techniques which preceded Europe by hundreds of years. These works qualify him as a Sinologist who made a major contribution to knowledge transfer from China to the West.

Wylie also a major contribution to knowledge transfer to China from the West. He translated the first textbooks on symbolic algebra and calculus into Chinese as well as the first textbook on modern astronomy. He was also the first translator of the last nine volumes of Euclid’s Elements that had been left luntranslated by the Jesuits. He was also the first to translate parts of Newton’s Principia Mathematica into Chinese.

Despite his considerable achievements Gow’s paper for the RAS China journal was the first academic study essay of Wylie in English of this pioneer British sinologist.There is however, a significant and growing literature in Chinese where he is rightly regarded as one of the fathers of modern Chinese mathematics and the history of indigenous Chinese mathematics.

Introduction by Professor Anthony Stockwell (RAS):


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