Joseph Needham (1900-1995) On Chinese Science, Culture and History

In a 1947 Conway Memorial Lecture in London, Joseph Needham, the physician and scholar of the history of Chinese science and technology,  changed the title of his talk from Science, Mysticism, and Ethics in Chinese Thought to the more bold and broader title Science and Society in Ancient China[1].  In addition to establishing his medical career and practice, Needham devoted much of his life in an undertaking of the study of ancient and pre-modern Chinese science and technology.  The result of that dedication have resulted in his now famous encyclopedic series that has grown into 9 or more volumes and that has been continued after his death.  The lecture is significant not only for its timing, for it was delivered only months before the Chinese Revolution thrust away the nationalist rule of Kuomintang government.  More importantly, Needham put forth the intriguing and major question facing scholars of Chinese and Western European civilizations:  why didn’t China invent modern science and technology?  After all, Needham noted, China had advanced far beyond its Western counterparts in most areas of science and technology from ancient times through the medieval periods.  Its advances in chemistry, agriculture and medicine held landmark advances and was credited with the key transfer of knowledge in numerous inventions and discoveries, including gunpowder, that led to the ultimate development of modern science, mathematics and technology in the early modern and industrial revolutions of Europe and the Americas.  Further, why was it that capitalism, the Renaissance, and industrial revolution was an invention of the West?

What Needham realized was that one needed to understand the underlying social structure and organization that fostered scientific and cultural development. Out of this social organization came the major products we associate with Chinese technology, including paper making, book making, block printing, the magnetic compass and navigation, and gunpowder. Indeed, the more Needham studied this phenomenon, the more he came to question why modern science and technology did not orginate in China.  To a certain extent the origins of Chinese civilization arose from its river basins and agriculture based around the Yellow River.  While this was not dissimilar to the river basin and delta societies of the Nile in Egypt, the Indus in India and the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia.  In China, the working of metal crafts and trades, particularly bronze gave a durable metal that could be poured and molded into vessels of ceremonial and utilitarian purpose, and could be used for weapons, both offensive and defensive.  Yet was seemed unique in China was the relative insularity of the Yellow Basin from its Middle Eastern and Western counterparts.  While some Western diplomatic and very limited commercial diplomacy and tentative trade contacts were made with China, for the most part China developed in relative isolation.

In this early period we find some of the earliest poems of Shih Ching, and ancient folk songs that attribute qualities of peasant life and dances at agricultural festival seasons in the Spring and Fall.  These poems and songs enabled mating between young men and women.  It out of this milieu that we find a literature of wise sayings of wondering or semi-reclusive Taoist hermits, that are encountered by the wise sage and philosopher Confucius. Needham notes these were Taoist hermits who withdrew from society to contemplate nature, that are found in the collected writings of Tao Teh Ching, The Classic of the Virtue of the Way.  Needham rightly notes that this forms one of the earliest attempts at scientific enquiry that would become more systematic as it meets the more bureaucratic organization and rationale of the Confucian elite society.

By the 2nd century BCE we find references to philosophers and alchemists who promise the elusive elixir of the philosopher’s stone and the ability of changing or making precious gold vessels that yield a drink of immortality.  It is about this time as well that the ascendance of the power of the feminine takes prominence, for nature is in Taoist thought has a feminine mystique and quality. This Taoist strain is in marked juxtaposition to the emphatic masculine emphasis of Confucian thought and society that is organized around the rise of the bureaucratic state and order.

The stories of Chuangtze on nature and the King of Wei who encounters a butcher who has solved how to cut up a bullock in merely three strokes of his cleaver, when others require fifteen.  The butcher claims it is his knowledge of The Way, and the lifelong study of nature that allows him this insight.  What we find Needham argues is a disputation between the Taoist Way and the Confucian system.  The former is the more philosophical and contemplative on the nature world, the latter is more systematic and based on rationale and codification of rules. There is a class difference emerging in the two systems of thought.  The Confucians write and rule without performing manual labor, while Taoism appealed to the artisan and workman whose knowledge of manual labor and the natural and material world required a markedly different philosophy.  Hence in some Taoist decrees, we find the admonition “Banish wisdom, discard knowledge,” as an attack on Confucianism. Needham then offers an original insight that suggests the Taoists sought a return to a traditional society that preempted the rise of the feudal order and state, with its military aristocracy of warriors and lords and Confucian bureaucratic elite. Over time, Needham suggests Taoism became the basis of oppositional philosophies that opposed the state.  Those in exile or out of favor could turn to Taoist practice and doctrine as a way of countering the official stance of the state.

What is also unique in Chinese society and history is the nearly complete absence of slaves, particularly captives of war or peoples of conquered nations.  What may have contributed to that choice may also have been the efficiency of Chinese agriculture and manual labor techniques.  These included the invention of the breast harness for horses that was superior to the Mesopotamian and ancient and medieval European throat and girth harness that restricted the animal’s pulling power and maneuverability.  By contrast the Chinese breast-strap harness with its curved side harness allowed greater mobility and pulling power for the horse and was invented at the beginning of the Han Dynasty in the 2nd century BCE, some 600 to 800 years before its arrival in Europe, where it shows up between 600 and 1000 CE.

Needham concluded his lecture by noting the need for more comparative and in-depth studies of Chinese and other civilizations.  In 1947, Needham was still compiling his great project and over the next half-century and more this encyclopedic endeavor has grown into separate volumes on chemistry, medicine, the manual arts, biology and pharmacy, among other fields.

Over the next half century, Needham’s project expanded and grew from his personal initiative and dedication into a major collaborative international project between 1954 with the publication of his first volume up through the final volume on medicine Volume 6.3 that appeared shortly after his death, and subsequent volumes that have begun and appeared posthumously in an ongoing endeavor that is a tribute to his life and scholarship.  In one of these volumes on medicine, Volume 6.6, the editor Nate Silvin noted that Lu and Needham had discovered records of the existence of modern immunology for small pox emerged in China between 1500 and 1600 CE, some 100-200 years before its arrival in Turkey and Europe[2].  Thus Needham and his colleagues were extending their project and more importantly the continuing development toward modern medicine and science itself into the early modern period.  This suggest how much Needham had changed and expanded beyond the ancient and medieval periodization of this his initial lecture in 1947.   Certainly points of fusion between Western science and Chinese science occurred at various points and especially in areas of mathematics, astronomy, botany and medicine, including the role of hygiene and sanitation.


Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilization in China:  Biology and Biological Technology.  Vol. 6 Biology and Biological Technology; Part VI Medicine, Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

———. Science and Society in Ancient China. Conway Memorial Lecture.  London: Watts & Co., 1947.

[1] Joseph Needham, Science and Society in Ancient China, Conway Memorial Lecture (London: Watts & Co., 1947).

[2] Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China:  Biology and Biological Technology, vol. 6 Biology and Biological Technology; Part VI Medicine (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

The Rise of Literary and Aesthetic Criticism in Asian History 250-600 CE

Chinese Classical Literature and the Social Position of Criticism

In this part of my World History blog I am moving away from early modern history to highlight more examples of how the Rise of the West and Western Civilization are given too much credit for the invention of culture, philosophy, science and so on. Now it is certainly true that Roman literature and history became intertextual by the Augustinian period of the late 1st c. BCE to early 1st c. CE.  This means that history writing and literature were intertwined, written histories took on rhetorical styles just as Ovid’s epic The Aenid, commissioned by the emperor Augustus, referenced Roman historical myths and legends (Conte 1999).  Comparisons of early classical Chinese and Greek literature is also worth considering as introduced in this video lecture by Professor Robert Oxnam and Stephen Owen on the Book of Songs.

Chinese literature provides a number of the earliest works of literary criticism.  A principal example is Liu Xie (Hsieh) The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons, written in the early 6th century CE (Hsieh 2015).  Liu Hsieh (465-522 CE) was a Chinese monk and literary critic who wrote from the Ting-lin Monastery in Southern China during the Liang Dynasty (Hsieh, XXXV).  Liu’s preference for classical forms arose from his intensive scholarship of an earlier body of literary criticism produced in the 3rd century Han Dynasty as well as the chronicles of Sima Qian (145-80 BCE) (Department of Asian Art 2000).

Liu Xie (Hsieh) compiled his works on literary criticism during a prosperous period for the Southern Chinese Liang Dynasty.  Some of his writing appeared for the court of  the Emperor Wudi (r. 502–49), who was a scholar and Buddhist and sent an emissary monk Song Yuan to India to collect texts on the origins of Buddhism (Metropolitan Museum of Art 2001). More recent studies on Lieu Xie offer appreciations of the depths of literary technique and analysis (Cai 2010).

Indian Literature and Historical Epics

Among the most developed in length of narrative and in chronological literature are the literary epics from the Indian subcontinent.  Sheldon Pollock’s study of the origins and development of Sanskrit literature as both an administrative language and as an ideology is a pioneering work (Pollock 2006). The rise of the Veda and Vedic literature dates to the end of the BCE period and among its successors, is the Mahābharāta historical epic of conquest and battle and the later Rāmāyana literature and other texts based on the Sanskrit language and writing system introduced by the landowning elite and their court society who dominated power (Pollock, 78).

Several studies note that before the codification of laws, the warrior class or caste developed their sense of ideology and ethics from stories and epics (McGrath 2004).

Early and Middle Persian Literature and History

A third source of early literary criticism is found in Western Asia and particularly in Iranian literature where a pre-Islamic secular literature arose in the late Sassanid period that flourished in the interim period of the breakup of the Roman Empire into a Greek dominated Byzantine dynasty and its Western based Latin dynasty and empire.  In around the year 600 CE we find the Kārnāmak-I Artakshēr-I Pāpakān (Book of the Deeds of Aradashir, son of Pāpak (Klíma 1968, 44).  The history informs us of the origins of the Sassanians, for it begins with the story of the son of a common shepherd Sāsān who rises from the ranks of a common soldier to become the future Sassanian king and founder of the Sassanid Dynasty. This early literature is symptomatic of a landlord and pastoral based court society that demands epics of loyalty and a privileged monopoly of knowledge held by the court.

The monopoly of the court begins to change with the rise of the merchant trade tales that surround the court but which through their hero’s adventure encounters a wider swath of society and geography.  In this genre a number of interesting literary forms of lasting value were either derived from India and passed through Iranian storytelling and eventually into the Arabic A Thousand and One Nights and the tales of Sheherezade.  The origin may have come from stories known as Hazār Afsāna (a thousand tales) that tell the story of a vizier and his servant girl (Klíma, 54). A number of other old Persian/Iranian/Sassanid literary works survive only through their translation and adaption into later Arabic literature and chronicles, including the 10th century Iranian poet Firdausi, who came from the dehqan class of Iranian landowners that likely descended from the same class that dominated the Sassanid dynasty.  Firdausi’s classic text the Shāh-nāma thus collects oral histories that date back to the landowning class’ tales and sagas from the Sassanid Dynasty and attempts to provide a dynastic interpretation that was deemed relevant to a 10th century Samanid Muslim dynasty (Dabashi 2012).  Other texts from Central Asia attest to the fusion of Buddhist and Christian Manichean traditions and texts, that include fragmentary epics of the Bodhisatva legend (Klíma 1968).



Cai, Zong-Qi. 2010. “Evolving Practices of Guan and Liu Xie’s Theory of Literary Interpretation.” In Interpretation and Literature in Early Medieval China, by Yuet-Keung Lo and Alan K. L. Chan, edited by edited by Yuet-Keung Lo, and Alan K. L. Chan, State University of New York Press, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central,, 103-132. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Conte, Gian Biaggio. 1999. Latin Literature: A History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Dabashi, Hamid. 2012. The World of Persian Literary Humanism. Harvard University Press. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Department of Asian Art. 2000. Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.)”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. Accessed November 26, 2016. (October 2000).

Hsieh, Liu. 2015. The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons. Translated by Vincent Yu-Chung Shih. New York: New York Review of Books.

Klíma, Otakar. 1968. “Avesta, Ancient Persian and Middle Persian.” In History of Iranian Literature, by Jan Rypka, 34-65. Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company.

McGrath, Kevin. 2004. Sanskrit Hero: Karna in Epic Mahabharata. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers.

Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2001. China, 500–1000 A.D. October. Accessed November 26, 2016.

Pollock, Sheldon. 2006. The Language of the Gods in the World of Men. Berkeley: University of California Press.




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