The earliest extant Chinese mathematical writings include two types of components of particular interest for our discussion on manuals and handbooks. On the one hand, there are mathematical problems that often evoke tasks carried out by officials working in the imperial bureaucracy. On the other hand, there are mathematical “procedures,” or “algorithms” in today’s parlance, to solve such problems. This description fits most of the mathematical books composed in China until the seventh century.
When I told my colleagues in Germany and the United States where I was heading for archival research two years ago, people looked at me completely baffled, or even in compassion. Some also laughed. Historians of science, they seemed to imply, travel to Ivy League universities for archival research, to Oxbridge, Paris, or Berlin. What could there be of interest in the library of an agricultural school in corn country?
Circa 1835, following a survey of recent Dutch publications in shogunal collections, the Japanese physician Koseki San’ei (1787–1839) concluded that among the strengths of new European approaches to education, a proactive attitude toward the power of cheap pedagogical print was paramount. European countries, Koseki declared, “produce affordable and easy-to-understand books on all arts and sciences, give them to impoverished scholars, and by doing so verse them in the arts and sciences.” “It is through this,” he maintained, “that they foster talent.”1