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The Needham Question:An inspiring conundrum

By Zhu Jing | 2013-09-02
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
Nanjing Jinling Arsenal built by Li Hongzhang during the Self-Strengthening Movement in the late Qing Dynasty to learn western science and technologies
In 1969, Joseph Needham brought up a classical question about scientific revolution: Why was modern science born in the West rather than in China? While the knowledge of nature applied for human needs much more effectively in China than in the West between the 1st century and 15th century? Many have tried to shed some light on this question but a better understanding of the question itself is required before answers could be offered.
Among those who have tried to give their answers to this question, some have confused the concepts of science and technology by either expanding or narrowing what is meant by science. In fact, the knowledge of nature applied for human needs does not refer to Chinese science but technology. Even if we could expand the notion of science to mean human’s knowledge and interpretation of nature before the scientific revolution and discuss Chinese science in this term, it cannot be expanded to cover what is meant by technology. In China, distinct differences exist between craftsmen who are masters of technologies and those educated who could talk about science. The exploration of technological inventions and engineering in China is not sufficient for us to obtain complete information of science. Therefore, despite the technological achievements prior to the West, it is worth questioning whether China is advanced in science as well.
According to N. Sivin, why scientific revolution failed to take place in China is a question which cannot be solved by historical research. Indeed, since it did not happen in history, we should not be so demanding of historical interpretation. The Needham Question, however, is useful in inspiring comprehensive exploration so that deeper perception of ancient Chinese science, technology and society may be obtained.
Focus could be put on Europe, on what has already happened to shed light on the tremendous shift in European civilization that took place around 1500, rather than highlight the backwardness of Europe in technologies compared with China. R. K. Merton, Steven Shapin, Edgar Zilsel and A. C. Crombie have made inquisition into how and why modern science was born in the West. Although in ancient civilization did not exist what we call modern science, similar activities did exist; for example, perception, interpretation and prediction of various phenomena. It is incumbent upon researchers to discuss how these activities were carried out and how the ancient researchers evaluated their own work as well as their awareness of their work status and goals.
Joseph Needham approached ancient Chinese science and technology from a broad perspective, trying to answer his question by a comparative study. While by comparison we could obtain more information, it is not enough to make simple comparison of who came first in time and amount in terms of scientific and technological achievements. What we are expecting and really need is a comparison of scientific traditions based on the cultural concepts and social structures of different civilizations so that we may understand the relations between science and culture, science and society, science and politics as well as science and individuals through historical study.
Sir Geoffrey Lloyd and N. Sivin have provided excellent example for how to do comparative study. We may expand our research into the aspects of perception, organizational structure, culture and psychology to carry out intercultural study. We could not only compare the same phenomena in the two divergent cultures, but also the construction of knowledge and concepts in the same culture in different historical periods and places. By comparing the scientific and technological activities in various fields within the same civilization, we may shed light on more phenomena since it is in the modern time that different fields seem to become more closely related. By retrospections of the social and cultural contexts in ancient civilization, we may better perceive the different civilizations and the characteristics of natural sciences produced in them.
Zhu Jing is from East China Normal University.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 272, Feb. 27, 2012.
(Translated by Jiang Hong)