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).

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