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Oct 30, 2006 5:23 am

The Needham Question

Great Wall of China. Photo by Webel Photography.

If, like me, you don't know a lot about Asian history I suppose the question is:"What on earth is the Needham Question?" It's the other Needham Question that's the interesting one. It's something I'd hear every so often at school. It's well known that the Chinese invented masses of things before they were known of in the West. Not simply famous things like gunpowder and paper, but also other like harnesses for horses which had a huge effect on the west when they arrived. In the case of the horse collar in the ancient period the way an animal pulled a plough was to have a collar round its next so the harder it pulled the more it choked itself. By putting a harness around your horse you enable a lot more horsepower, and so you can do much more with the same number of animals. China seems to have been a hotbed of innovation in the ancient world, and this particularly impressed Joseph Needham, a biochemist at Cambridge University. So the question he asked was this:"Why, given China's amazing technological achievements, did the Chinese fail to develop modern science?"

I bring it up because it was the subject of a recent discussion on the BBC's In Our Time, which you can listen to if you have RealPlayer installed on your computer. I found it fascinating because it brought up two contradictory problems.

One is that I don't think it's helpful to to say China"failed" to develop modern science. I may have done a disservice to Needham using that exact word, but the basic assumption is that because modern science rests upon previous discoveries and that it's defined by interrogating the modern world, that it's an inevitable conclusion. No one on the panel took this line which means there is a very interesting discussion asking"What exactly is the relationship between science, technology and society in ancient China?"

The contradiction is that if, as I do, you don't see science as an inevitable course then how do you reconcile that with the observable fact that China was more technologically advanced? The reason the Needham Question arises at all is that it is plainly observable that the West lagged behind China in discovering or acquiring the same technologies. Again this would appear to be a question about how scientific knowledge interacts with society. One part of the discussion is upon the arrival of the Jesuit missionaries, who naturally felt they were superior to the Chinese as they had the word of God. How can you maintain this belief in your own superiority when you're surrounded by more advanced sciences? One possible answer is that the Jesuit position was they weren't inferior. They had Greek mathematics which the Chinese lacked, so while the Chinese may have had technology the West had understanding.

The discussion concludes with a look at how history is coloured by the present. In the nineteeth and twentieth centuries there was a need to discuss China's"failure". It was no longer a major power. The next couple of centuries and the expansion of China's economy may change the historical question to ask why the West could only briefly lead China in technology.

You can listen to people who know far more about ancient China than me talk about this at the BBC In Our Time website. The programme lasts about three-quarters of an hour. You can also visit the Needham Research Institute to see current research.

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More Comments:

Andrew D. Todd - 12/2/2006

Well, in the case of Europe, you have this figure of the "condottiore." The term is of course Italian, and properly applies to 15th-16th century Italy, but you find similar figures popping up here, there, and everywhere in Europe. It refers to a man who was simultaneously a petty prince, a mercenary captain, and a bandit chief, as the occasion dictated; for whom war was very definitely an entrepreneurial business. Some examples which come to mind are El Cid in 11th century Spain, the Hautevilles in Southern Italy at about the same time, various Imperial Knights at the time of the Reformation in Germany, Wallenstein in Bohemia in the early 17th century, and even "Black Jacques" Schramme in the Congo in the 1960's. Back in 16th century Italy, one might cite the Baglioni of Perugia, noted for the ferocity with which different branches of the family massacred each other by night, and sacked portions of their own town. Can you cite something similar in China?

Jonathan Dresner - 11/30/2006

I think Paul Kennedy (remember him?) was at least partially right when he cites the competitive European environment as a source of Europe's enduring world power. Perhaps the most obvious difference that I can think of between Europe and China in the early modern period (which begins a lot earlier in China, by the way) is that the Chinese state had little interest in technological advances, and so the scientific and technological progress that was made was made by individuals. In Europe, on the other hand, both for military and cultural reasons, there was a strongly competitive market for technologists and scientists, a desire for better methods fueled and rewarded by lucrative government payoffs.

Andrew D. Todd - 11/6/2006

Well, for practical purposes, western science was not available at the time that the west expanded. Chemistry cannot really be said to be on a scientific basis before Mendeleev, in, what, the 1880's or thereabouts. The first body of really scientific chemistry would have been in the 1920's or thereabouts, for example, Charles Kettering and Tetraethyl Lead at GM. As for Newton and Calculus, in the real world of engineering, most rate problems are actually differential equations, usually nonlinear, and those were basically unsolvable until computers became available, from about 1940 onwards.

The alleged superiority of western technology was in fact mostly a matter of military technology. And here, I think there is a case to be made that China was simply the kind of country where small differentials of military ability did not translate into political power. From the military historian's standpoint, the extraordinary thing about Chinese walls was that they were twenty to fifty feet thick. The Chinese used rammed earth, or what we would call adobe, which was shatterproof, and simply absorbed cannonballs. Outside the adobe, they put a stone facing. With a crude cannon you could knock down a European castle, and put a rebel duke out of business. The walls might only be a couple of feet thick. Most of the castles in England were "slighted" by Oliver Cromwell's siege train, circa 1651, in the course of mopping up after the English Civil War. Italy was one of the most notorious loci of military innovation in the sixteenth century, largely because it was fought over by the French and Spanish, and Italian princes were constantly changing sides between the two. What drove military innovation in Europe was the extent to which the surrounding community was prepared to acknowledge the victor of a small battle as a legitimate ruler of a small territory, and proceed on that basis. The Pope did not, and could not, issue orders for Polish troops to go and serve as peacekeepers in, say, Ulster or Estremadura. I am not an orientalist, and perhaps Jonathan Dresner could comment if he is around.