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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Trajectories of Multilingualism and Translation in (Early) Modern East Asia
2: Islamicate Astronomy and the Politics of Translation in the Yuan-Ming Transition
Monday, March 22, 2021
10:00am – 11:30am EDT
Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Germany
This paper suggests looking at translation not only as an act of transferring knowledge across languages, but also as a tool for political and intellectual control, and for managing cultures of expertise. It focuses on the translation project of two Arabo-Persian astronomical/astrological works into Chinese, ordered by the Hongwu 洪武 Emperor (r. 1368-1398), the founder of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The translation was completed as a joint effort of Muslim astronomers and language experts who had previously served in the Mongol Yuan (1271-1368) court as well as Chinese Confucian scholars. The translated works generated interest in Islamicate astronomy among many Ming Chinese astronomers, who nevertheless encountered formidable difficulties in working with them. In parallel with the Chinese astronomers’ effort in studying the translated works, Muslim astronomers practiced Islamicate astronomy with Persian and Arabic texts in the Ming court.
Why, then, was the translation of Arabo-Persian astronomical texts considered necessary by policy-makers of the dynastic transition? This paper examines how the translation project was legitimized through a close reading of the translated works’ prefaces and the imperial edicts related to it. It argues that translation justified the practice of Islamicate astronomy in the service of the Hongwu emperor and contributed to establishing him as a legitimate successor of the pluralistic Mongols.