The Brain Scientists of the Qing Dynasty

On April 16, 1618, the Jesuit scientists Adam Schall and Johann Schreck (a friend and colleague of Galileo) set sail from Lisbon, Portugal, bound for China1. In Schall’s possession was a book about the human body, and it championed the radical idea that the mind is created by the brain.

This book, authored by the Swiss biologist Casper Bauhin, would set the stage for the rise and fall of brain science in the Qing dynasty2.

This story begins in 1621, just two years after Schall and Schreck landed on the south shore of China – a nation that had traditionally associated the mind with the heart. It was then that Johann Schreck, by now proficient in Chinese, took Schall’s anatomy book and set off for the northeast, to the city of Hangzhou. 

He was bound for the home of a man named Li Zhizao2.

Li, a retired government official then aged 56, had spent decades translating Jesuit books on mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy into Chinese3. So it’s no surprise that as soon as Schreck arrived in his home in Hangzhou, the two of them set about translating Schall’s anatomy book – which championed the brain-centric view of the mind – into Chinese. (I should note, for the sake of accuracy, that as far as I can tell, historians don’t know for sure if Li himself was the one translating – only that this was happening in his house). 

Sadly, neither Schreck nor Li lived to see the completion of their translation. In 1630, nine years after he arrived in Li’s home, Schreck died (possibly from a medical self-experiment gone wrong4) and Li passed away six months later. Their work-in-progress, titled Renshen Shuo, or A Treatise on the Human Body, was put into storage2

And it stayed there for four more years, before Adam Schall – the Jesuit who had accompanied Schreck on the voyage from Portugal, and who had brought with him the anatomy book that Schreck and Li were translating – pulled their work-in-progress out of storage and brought it with him to Beijing2.

It was there that Schall met the scholars Fang Yizhi and Bi Gongchen, who would in time become the bridges across which the brain-centric view would enter the currents of Chinese thought. Fang, a philosopher and scientist, sought Schall out to further his own research in anatomy and astronomy5,6. Bi, a highly regarded scholar, agreed to finish the translation that Schreck and Li had started; his translation, titled Taixi renshen shuogai or Western Views of the Human Body, was finished nine years later, and it championed the hypothesis that the mind is created by the brain2

A page from Bi Gongchen and Adam Schall’s Taixi renshen shuogai or Western Views of the Human Body. Image via World Digital Library.

Unfortunately, Bi’s part in the story of Chinese brain science now draws to a close, since revolution was brewing. 

In the north, peasants were staging a revolt against the Ming dynasty, angry at its failure to deal with famine, drought, and disease. And on April 24th, 1644, only one year after Bi finished his translation, an army of peasant rebels – commanded by the former government official Li Zicheng, the “Dashing King” – breached the walls of Beijing and took the capital. The Chongzhen Emperor hanged himself from a pagoda tree, just outside the Forbidden City; Bi was murdered by the invading troops7; Fang Yizhi (a Ming loyalist) fled to Nanjing, changed his name, shaved off his hair, and went into hiding as a Buddhist monk5,6; Adam Schall was summoned by the Shunzhi Emperor, ruler of the ascendant Qing dynasty, to serve him as a court astronomer2,8.

As new head of the Beijing Ancient Observatory, Schall now had little time for brain science. But, his views about the brain had left a lasting impression on Fang Yizhi.

Fang, who was then in hiding in Nanjing as a Buddhist monk, began gathering a group of scholars around him in the surrounding Jiangsu province. One of their creeds was a rejection of the Jesuits’ Christian ideology, but an appreciation for their science9. In particular, these scholars were fascinated by the Jesuits’ brain-based view of the mind: in his 1650 treatise Wuli xiaozhi, or Preliminary Records on the Principles of Things, Fang not only defended the Jesuits’ brain-centric view, but also argued (correctly) that there must be channels transmitting information from the sense organs to the brain and from the brain to the muscles10.

Fang’s work was probably a crucial bridge between European and Chinese brain science, because the Jesuits wouldn’t have much more success promoting the brain-centric view. After very narrowly avoiding execution (after a court conflict involving the miscalculation of a proper burial date for the emperor’s son), the Jesuits were expelled from Beijing. When they were eventually invited back (after publicly demonstrating the accuracy of their astronomy), the Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest tried to convince the Kangxi Emperor to publish Adam Schall and Bi Gongchen’s Western Views of the Human Body (Schall was by now dead from injuries sustained in prison). Verbiest tried to capitalize on the Emperor’s admiration for European astronomy, and argued that Chinese astronomers would need to study European anatomy, as well as religion, in order to master European astronomy. So, Verbiest threw parts of Schall and Bi’s Western Views of the Human Body into a compendium of texts on European religion and science, and tried to get the Emperor to publish that compendium as a sort of “manual” for Chinese astronomers11,12.

But the Emperor didn’t buy it. He rejected publication of Verbiest’s compendium, both for its obviously Christian slant and for its placing the mind in the brain, which contradicted the dominant heart-centric view in China. As the Emperor’s Grand Secretary Mingzhu charged Verbiest: “Saying that man’s knowledge and memory belong to his brain completely contradicts the reality of the principle.” 2,11

This rejection severed the meeting between Chinese and European brain science. As far as I can tell (from the English-language surveys of this period that I’ve been able to find), there were no more major attempts by the Jesuits to introduce a brain-centric view to China. And, thirty-eight years later, the Kangxi Emperor expelled all Jesuits from China in response to a Papal decree forbidding converts from practicing Confucian rituals8

But the brain-centric view of the mind was spreading. 

It is unclear how, but either Schall and Gongchen’s Western Views of the Human Body, or perhaps Fang Yizhi’s Preliminary Records on the Principles of Things, or perhaps simple word of mouth made its way to the Muslim philosopher-scientist Liu Zhi, in Nanjing – the same city where scholars formerly led by Fang Yizhi (who’d been hiding there as a Buddhist monk) were integrating Western science and secular Chinese philosophy9. This encounter with the brain-centered view of the mind would inspire Liu Zhi to envision some profoundly prescient ideas about the brain.

In 1704, twenty-one years after the Emperor rejected publication of Verbiest’s compendium, Liu Zhi published a treatise titled Tianfang xingli, or Nature and Principle in the Direction of Heaven. In that treatise, Liu not only accepted the Jesuits’ brain-centric view, but also went on to suggest that the brain must somehow store abstract representations of the information it receives from the sensory organs. More remarkably, Liu Zhi suggested that different psychological functions might be performed by different parts of the brain – that there could be one brain region for memory, another for vision, and another for thought10,11. This was thirty years before the Swedish philosopher-scientist Emanuel Swedenborg would become the first European to propose the same idea (which he never published), and a century before the idea would again be proposed and tested in Europe13. Unfortunately, Liu Zhi’s hypotheses about the brain didn’t seem to catch the attention of other Chinese scholars, perhaps because of his Muslim faith8,9

The tomb of Liu Zhi, a Muslim-Chinese scholar who may have been the first person to suggest that different parts of the brain control different parts of the mind. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

But the brain-centric view was still proliferating; and, about a century later, the physician Wang Qing-ren got his hands on what was probably an indirect adaptation of Schall and Bi Gongchen’s Western Views of the Human Body. And this gave him a flash of insight. 

Wang had already performed hundreds of human autopsies in secret. He had noticed that in all of the bodies he examined, the nerves running into the brain always got criss-crossed. As he noted in his 1830 Yi Lin Gai Cuo, or Corrections of Errors in the Forest of Medicine10,11: “A person’s channels and network vessels of the left half of the body ascend to the head and face and move through the right, while the channels and network vessels of the right half of the body ascend to the head and face and move through the left. This means that left and right cross each other.” Wang drew a connection between this, the brain-based view of the mind introduced by the Jesuits, and another strange phenomenon he had observed: that all of his patients with paralysis on the left side of their face had a stroke on the right side of their brain, and vice versa. Wang concluded (correctly) that the left hemisphere of the brain must control the muscles on the right side of the body, and that the left hemisphere of the brain must control the muscles on the right side of the body. This was a radical hypothesis, and Wang knew it, which is why he stressed that it needed to be tested through further experiment: “I do not dare to consider this as a fixed theory,” he wrote in his Corrections. “It will take waiting for wise and careful examination for further amendments.”14

The physician Wang Qing-ren discovered that the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body, and vice versa. Image via Beijing Digital Museum of TCM

But Wang’s hypotheses didn’t fall on receptive ears. When his Corrections of Errors in the Forest of Medicine was reprinted in the mid-1800s, it was criticized by other Chinese scholars for its similarity to the brain-based views then being preached by Protestant medical missionaries15,16. And from that point forward, brain-centric ideas about the mind seem to largely disappear from Chinese texts until the early 20th century, when the brain-centric view made its way back into China via Japan2.

I don’t have the expertise to speculate as to why brain science in the Qing dynasty didn’t flourish, despite the discoveries and remarkably far-sighted hypotheses of Qing dynasty brain scientists. But I do think it’s clear that Li Zhizao, Bi Gongchen, Fang Yizhi, Liu Zhi, and Wang Qing-ren all deserve a place in our histories of neuroscience.


1. Udías, A. Jesuit Contribution to Science: A History. (Springer, Cham, 2015).

2. Shapiro, H. How Different are Western and Chinese Medicine? The Case of Nerves. in Medicine Across Cultures: History and Practice of Medicine in Non-Western Cultures (ed. Selin, H.) 351–372 (Springer Netherlands, 2003).

3. Liu, Y. U. The Spiritual Journey of an Independent Thinker: The Conversion of Li Zhizao to Catholicism. J. World Hist. 22, 433–453 (2011).

4. Zettl, E. Johannes Schreck-Terrentius. (2008).

5. Peterson, W. J. From Interest to Indifference: Fang I-chih and Western Learning. Ch’ing-shih wen-t’i 3, 72–85 (1976).

6. Engelfriet, P. M. Euclid in China: The Genesis of the First Chinese Translation of Euclid’s Elements, Books I-VI (Jihe Yuanben, Beijing, 1607) and Its Reception Up to 1723. (BRILL, 1998).

7. Boying, M., Xi, G. & Zongli, H. Zhongwai Yixue Wenhua Jiaoliu Shi (History of Sino-Foreign Intercultural Medical Exchange). Shanghai: Wenhui chubanshe (1993).

8. Elman, B. A. On Their Own Terms. (2005).

9. Jongtae, L. Restoring the Unity of the World: Fang Yizhi and Jie Xuan’s Responses to Aristotelian Natural Philosophy. in History of Mathematical Sciences 139–160 (WORLD SCIENTIFIC, 2008).

10. Baker, D. B. The Oxford Handbook of the History of Psychology: Global Perspectives. (OUP USA, 2012).

11. Elman, B. A. On Their Own Terms. (2005).

12. Golvers, N. Verbiest’s introduction of Aristoteles Latinus (Coimbra) in China: new western evidence. (1999).

13. Origins of Neuroscience: A History of Explorations into Brain Function. Stanley Finger. Isis vol. 86 88–89 (1995).

14. Wang, Q. Yi Lin Gai Cuo: Correcting the Errors in the Forest of Medicine. (Blue Poppy Enterprises, Inc., 2007).

15. Andrews, B. J. Wang Qingren and the history of Chinese anatomy. J. Chin. Med. Res. 35, 30–36 (1991).

16. Wu, Y.-L. Introducing the Uterus to Chinese Gynecology: Benjamin Hobson and His Treatise on Midwifery and Diseases of Children (Fuying xinshuo), 1858. in Representing ‘Western Medicine’ in Qing and Republican China.

2 thoughts on “The Brain Scientists of the Qing Dynasty

  1. Yet the brain-centric view has proven far too limited and, in a sense, false. In evolutionary terms, the neurons in the gut are the original and primary brain. There are three main links between the gut-brain and skull-brain, one of which is direct. The heart too has been shown to be closely related to the brain.

    We are increasingly understanding how the human mind operates throughout the human body, not only in the brain. It turns out humans are entire systems, closer to the view of traditional Chinese medicine.

    1. That’s definitely true, though we can also say with confidence that the brain (and not the heart) is at the center of the distributed systems that contribute to the mind.

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