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. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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