Science Across Regions in Asia

This group engages questions regarding the deconstruction of imperial visions and definitions of the sciences in Asia, and explores how new work can contribute to the diversification of perspectives in the history of science.

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Upcoming Meetings

There are no currently scheduled upcoming events.

Past Meetings

  • June 23, 2023

    Siddhartha Mukherjee (Jawaharlal Nehru University), "Controlling the Currents: Wartime Crises, State Response, and Electricity Consumption in Delhi (1942-44)"
    Discussant: Victor Seow (Harvard University)

    This paper explores the history of electricity in Delhi during the Second World War by looking at the results of three intersecting crises. The crises were related to the availability of coal, capacity of electricity generating power station, and the problems in importing electrical machineries. The essay demonstrates the resultant attempts by the colonial state to impose restrictions on the uses of electricity. In so doing, it reveals how the colonial state instructed the inhabitants of Delhi to use less electricity and the results of the imposition of its restrictions on the street, in the pumping stations and broadly, on the lives of the people of Delhi. The paper argues that focusing on the history of electricity in Delhi in the 1940s brings out the state’s attempt to influence the habits of its subjects and shows the limits of its control on infrastructures at a time of crises. 


  • May 26, 2023

    Shireen Hamza (Harvard) and Eric Moses Gurevitch (Vanderbilt), "The Promise of Medieval Sciences, the Perils of Global History."

  • April 28, 2023

    Paper Discussion: 'Revolutionary Vision: Myopia, Socialist Youth and Public Health Campaigns in China (1960-1976)’
    Yixue Yang (University of California, San Diego)
    Discussant: Dora Vargha (Humboldt University Berlin)
    Yixue's paper may be downloaded from the website here. Please do not circulate the paper, as it is a work in progress.
    Abstract: My paper starts with a set of eye massaging exercises that all students in China’s primary schools and high schools must do at class intervals today. Upon hearing the eye-exercise music from classroom loudspeakers, students close their eyes and follow the steps to self-massage certain acupoints on their faces with their hands for around ten minutes. Those who keep their eyes open are punished by inspectors on patrol. Based on Traditional Chinese Medicine, these eye exercises purport that myopia can be prevented and even cured by regular practice.
    I trace this ongoing nationwide practice to its origin in the early 1960s at the height of China’s socialist construction. While urging people to work on increasing productivity in the heavy industry, the Communist leadership also mobilized all imaginable members of the socieety to join public health work by preventing myopia among students, who have been exalted as the “successors to socialism” in Communist rhetoric. In the year 1960, the central government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) launched the Protecting Students’ Eyesight Campaign which quickly swept across the whole country. State agents at various administrative levels mandated hygienic guidelines to improve schools’ built environment for better lighting. Meanwhile, students’ personal habits of seeing, reading, and resting in the classroom and at home fell under close government scrutiny. Parents, especially mothers, were also mobilized as indispensable partners in carrying out the state’s goal at home. In addition, medical experts collaborated with state agents in popularizing ophthalmological knowledge and devising Chinese-medicine-based eye exercises.
    Complementing state directives with ample grassroots visual and textual propaganda materials from the Campaign, this study finds that in the 1960s and 1970s the PRC state continued to pursue what historian Ruth Rogaski calls “hygienic modernity.” Rogaski shows that in the shadow of imperialism, Chinese elites in treatyport Tianjin during the first half of the twentieth century pursued nationalist goals through modern biomedical approaches under the all-encompassing rubric of public health to “improve” the indigenous body and the built environment. While no imperialist power remained in China in 1960, the notion of indigenous bodily vulnerability lingered and was reactivated by new Communist elites during the Campaign.
    Also, the Campaign transcended the immediate public health goal of reducing myopic cases among Chinese students. More fundamentally, it aimed at disciplining youth who were both the hope for and the danger to the Communist Revolution. Unlike the mechanism of other public health campaigns during the Mao era (1949-76), myopia neither had visible carriers for people to kill nor was it an infectious disease that could be bioengineered away with vaccines. As the Campaign developed, the state increasingly blamed the students for how they “misused” their eyes and their lack of political consciousness. In other words, promotors of the Campaign regarded the students as the carries of pathogen of myopia, which jeopardized socialist construction. From the perspective of the PRC leadership, young people’s dangerous propensities of using their eyes had to be suppressed and even preempted for them to be qualified “successors to socialism.”

  • March 24, 2023

    Alexander Statman (UCLA), “Canal: Cross-Cultural Encounters and the Control of Water"
    Duygu Yildirim (University of Tennessee), "Coffee: Of Melancholic Turkish Bodies and Sensory Experiences"
    Discussant: Ahmed Ragab (Johns Hopkins University)
    Historians have traced roots of Enlightenment environmentalism to the encounter with supposedly conservationist approaches to nature in Asia; this chapter excavates the cross-cultural exchange of knowledge about canals during the eighteenth century in order to
    explore a competing vision in which nature was to be remade for human ends. Built in Europe and throughout the Indo-Pacific world, canals are constructed natural things whose purpose is to manage, control, and direct other natural things. Canals put both natural things and
    knowledge about them in motion. The French traveler Pierre Poivre admired the irrigation techniques that watered the Mekong Delta, while the statesman Henri Bertin took China’s Grand Canal as a model for French transportation engineering. Their advocacy of an interventionist approach to the natural environment resulted from encounters with Asian contemporaries, including the Sino-Vietnamese prince Mạc Thiên Tứ and the Chinese priest Aloys Kô, as well as efforts to understand their natural knowledge. The Enlightenment discovered not only natural utopias in Asia, but also others that were man-made.
    What is knowledge’s affect? Is it bitter like coffee or melancholic like the bodies that consume it? This essay examines the paradoxical relationship between sense and scientific sensibility in the making of knowledge about coffee. As an iconic beverage of early modern globalization, coffee belied easy categorization. Baffled drinkers of coffee— from naturalists and physicians to merchants—tried to come up with a sufficiently expansive definition of this new and ambiguous plant from the Ottoman lands. Europeans had to rely on their senses, particularly gustatory, while creating an embodied knowledge of coffee. This sensational encounter with the Turkish drink, however, brought new anxieties to occlude the fellow feeling among coffee drinkers across religions, resulting in a differentiation of the innately melancholic Turkish body. Inter-cultural encounters of the senses around coffee thus embodied the tension between alienating the self from the object of inquiry and peering into sensations as an epistemic practice.

  • February 24, 2023

    Histories of Science in Latin America and Asia: A Conversation Across Regions
    Organizers: Karin Rosemblatt (University of Maryland), Elisa Sevilla (Universidad San Francisco de Quito), Gabriela Soto Laveaga (Harvard University), Wendy Fu (Emory University and Academia Sinica), Charu Singh (University of Cambridge)
    This session brings together historians and anthropologists of science, medicine, and technology in Latin America and Asia to initiate a dialogue for future collaboration. Building on developments in the global history of science in the past two decades, the organizers invite scholars to explore and establish themes of mutual interest across these regions.

    Scholars interested in similar themes across regions could potentially collaborate on panels at the annual HSS and SHOT meetings. These meetings are scheduled for October (SHOT, Long Beach, CA) and November 2023 (HSS, Portland, OR), and proposals will be due in spring 2023.
    We will kick off the discussion by asking, which objects of study, units and scales of analysis, and scholarly methods have been used by STM scholars of the Iberian empires, postcolonial Latin America, and the Caribbean, and by scholars of East Asia, South Asia, South-east Asia, and the Middle East? The readings below will provide a starting point for discussion, but our main aim is to invite ideas for collaboration from participants.
    Ralph Bauer & Marcy Norton (2017), ‘Introduction: entangled trajectories: indigenous and European histories,’ Colonial Latin American Review, 26:1, 1-17, DOI:
    Marwa Elshakry (2010), ‘When Science Became Western: Historiographical Reflections,’ Isis, 101:1, 98-109, DOI:
    Gabriela Soto Laveaga (2018), ‘Largo dislocare: connecting microhistories to remap and recenter histories of science,’ History and Technology, 34:1, 21-30, DOI:

  • January 27, 2023

    Marjan Wardaki (Yale), "The Birth of Modern ‘ilm : Between Indo-German Theosophy and Islamicate Philosophy"
    Discussant: Marwa Elshakry (Columbia)
    This paper traces the birth of modern educational institutions in Afghanistan from 1901 to 1945, focusing on the case study of the German-educated Afghan pedagogue, ‘Ali Ahmad Fofolzay. Among various state reforms was also the birth of the Afghan Ministry of Education (f. 1924), which was responsible for a wide range of duties that included developing new disciplines, overseeing the translations of foreign scientific book, and inspecting museum artifacts. The paper follows Fofolzay’s life at different periods of his life and at across these new educational institutions, including at the University of Jena in Germany. Through a microhistorical analysis of his writings, the paper seeks to analyze the dialogue between the Afghan thinker and his intellectual interlocutors, who were also thinking about similar relationships between knowledge and the practice of making knowledge applicable. The goal of the paper is to show why Afghanistan’s experimentation with ‘ilm provides both a broader lens into interregional exchanges, but also shows local variances that help us reshape our thinking about Islam and science. 
    If you plan to attend the event and would like to read the paper in advance, please email Marjan Wardaki (

  • October 28, 2022

    Book Discussion: Buddhism and Medicine Across Asia
    Pierce Salguero, A Global History of Buddhism and Medicine (Columbia University Press, 2021).
    Discussant: Anthony Cerulli (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

  • June 24, 2022

    Elise Burton (University of Toronto), "A Lexicon of Science"

  • May 27, 2022

    Sayori Ghoshal (Columbia University), "Experts of Identities: Race, Religion and Caste in Nationalist Science, India 1920-50"
    Discussant: Sandra Widmer (York University)
    How did the fluid, local and contingent identities in precolonial India become fixed, naturalized and pan-Indian in colonial India? What was the role of colonial knowledge and anticolonial nationalism in this history of identities? How did the religious, caste-based and ethnic identities become the site for decolonising scientific knowledge? Introducing anthropometry and race science in late 19th century India, the British colonial state mapped India’s various caste and religious communities as disparate races, civilizationally inferior to Europeans. As an anticolonial response, Indian scientists rejected the claim that Europeans were racially superior to Indians. However, they did not dismiss race itself as a scientific object. In this paper, I demonstrate how, in reconfiguring physical anthropology, serology and statistics as nationalist sciences, Indian intellectuals produced biological histories of religious and ethnic identities. They measured physical features and blood composition of Indian Muslims, to determine their religious and racial origin. The question of origin was as useful in developing the sciences as for evaluating claims and self- identities of Indian Muslims and Christians. The racial and religious pasts of communities were fundamental to building the nation and determining which communities would be included in the nation. Since these studies involved scientific measurements of anthropometric features and statistical calculations, the truth of the racial, religious identity came to be the domain of trained experts. This implied that self-identity of people as Hindus or Muslims were construed as only a part of one’s identity. The truth of the entire identity – whether Muslims and ‘low-castes’ had the same racial origin or whether Muslims originated outside the subcontinent – would be henceforth accessible only to trained experts. I argue that race, caste and religion, thus, contributed to the production of nationalist scientific expertise in India.

  • April 29, 2022

    Energy History in Asia: Book Discussion

    Victor Seow, Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia (University of Chicago Press, 2021)

    On Barak, Powering Empire: How Coal Made the Middle East and Sparked Global Carbonization (University of California Press, 2020)