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Mathematical Treasure: Translation of Euclid's Elements in 19th Century China

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University)

The first attempts to introduce Euclid’s Elements into China were in 1614 and 1671. These translations made by Jesuit scholars were limited to the first six books and made little impact on the Chinese mathematics community. See the Convergence article, “Mathematical Treasure: Euclid in China,” for details about and images of both of these translations.

Western intrusions into the Celestial Empire in the nineteenth century prompted the Chinese to seek western knowledge, particularly in science and mathematics, as a method of self-defense. At this time, the British missionary Alexander Wylie and the Chinese mathematician Li Shanlan (1811-1882) collaborated to complete the translation of Euclid’s Elements. Their eight-volume work, Jihe yuan ben, appeared in 1865. The title page of this historic publication is shown above.  

The page above discusses the area of a circle as obtained from the sum of circular sectors; the page below considers the properties of a triangle.

For discussion and images of Li Shanlan’s and Alexander Wylie’s arithmetic and algebra texts, see the Convergence article, “Mathematical Treasure: A New Mathematics Curriculum for China.”


Frank Swetz, “The Introduction of Mathematics in Higher Education in China, 1865-1887,” Historia Mathematica, Vol. I (May 1974), pp. 167-179.

The images above were obtained through the courtesy of the Asian Library, Columbia University.

Index to Mathematical Treasures

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University), "Mathematical Treasure: Translation of Euclid's Elements in 19th Century China," Convergence (August 2017)