> Features > Special Coverage

“The Needham Problem”: still an open question

By Xie Yonggang | 2013-09-02
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
Joseph Needham
In a speech delivered at the Chinese Agricultural Conference in Chongqing in February, 1944, Joseph Needham remarked that although numerous technological discoveries have been made in China, they are all the products of “science based on experience,” rather than the experiment driven “modern science” of the West. Needham suggested that exploration of the geographic, climatic, societal and economic discrepancies between China and the West may help provide answers to the question why modern science was born in the West rather than in China.
In April that same year, Needham addressed this question in a discussion with the Chinese economist Allan Wang at Sun Yat-Sen University. Reflecting on the exchange later, Wang said: “I met him [Needham] in the hotel, and we had two long conversations before we had to part company. He suddenly put forth this question and asked me to give a concise explanation from a historical and social perspective. Ever since then I’ve felt pressed to resolve this issue.” Wang published The Politics of Chinese Bureaucracy, the first book to address the “Needham Question” in 1948. To date, I believe this offers the most comprehensive, authoritative and in-depth exploration of this question.
After Wang’s book, however, this question quickly faded from the Chinese intellectual scene. Nevertheless, it remained an important topic in western academia; in 1976, the American economist Kenneth Boulding dubbed it “the Needham Problem.” Shortly thereafter, Chinese scholars began exploring the topic with a renewed enthusiasm, generating several different lines of thinking on the subject. 
Some have pointed to the Confucian tradition’s emphasis on ethics over science as stifling the development of an indigenous naturalistic research regime. As such, scientific innovation was confined to solving immediate engineering problems rather than establishing an independent and self-sustaining system of rational thought. Others attribute the infecundity of natural science to cultural self-conceit and seclusion, while still others observe that the best minds in China were dedicated to the strenuous imperial exam system based on memorization and interpretation of Confucian classics. Although these explanations do not necessarily offer a solution to this issue, they do shed light on some of our culturally ingrained shortcomings. After 1990 however, some began to express skepticism about the validity of the question in the first place, analogizing it to comparing apples to oranges.
In another article, Cheng Guangyun, chair of the philosophy department at Capital Normal University, stressed: “These days, with China’s peaceful rise, some have even proclaimed the ‘Needham Problem’ over, citing continuous economic growth as proof of Chinese superiority. This sort of thinking is incredibly dangerous.” In fact, we do not realize the extent to which Chinese scholar’s contemplation of this question has had broad ranging effects throughout the decades, extending far beyond the bounds of academia and even affecting national development.
At the present time, as long as we are patient, further research into “The Needham Question” can still have profound significance both in theoretical and concrete progress.   We should keep asking why China still lags behind the developed nations of the west in terms of scientific and technological progress and capabilities. Additionally, how did they diverge at different historical periods and what were the reasons for this divergence? Thanks to Needham’s inquiry from a Western perspective, we are able to examine the cultural discrepancies, and by comparing our science and technology we can continue to make progress and learn from our observations. In turn, as we are in a period of transition, we will be able to avoid or mitigate the mistakes made by countries that have preceded us in development. So long as there are still cultural differences, “The Needham Problem” will not come to an end, and research into this question will continue to bear fruit.
Looking at the “Needham Problem” from the perspective of development, it is perpetually more difficult to address, especially compared to previous issues in historical development. These preceding inquiries have merely been domestic questions, but the “Needham Problem” is international in scope and persists into the future. As the late Chinese physicist Qian Linzhao asserted, “The Needham Problem is not something we can ignore; rather, it requires deep reflection and research.” However, most of the research that has been done before is the product of impulsive interest rather than studied, long-term commitment. China has never fallen short of thinkers, so what we really need now is to review our past research thoroughly and meticulously, while continuing to advance our research paradigm; we must avoid impatience and the single-minded pursuit of short-term material gains. This, I believe, is the attitude we should adopt towards “The Needham Problem”.
Xie Yonggang is from Heilongjiang University.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today,No. 209,Jul 28, 2011.
(Translated by Jiang Hong)