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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