The life of Joseph Needham (李约瑟)

June 14, 2009, 10:40 AM posted in General Discussion

The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom  
when I was in the US on one of my numerous trips recently, I picked up the book The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom. This is about the extraordinary life of Joseph Needham (李约瑟), author of the encyclopedic 'Science and Civilization in China'.

Quite worth reading, you might also want to check the 1-hour book presentation by author, and quite entertaining narrator Simon Winchester on YouTube Authors@Google: Simon (61 minutes)

also see Needham Research Institute

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June 14, 2009, 10:54 AM

below is a description of Needham's question : why has China been overtaken by the West in science and technology, despite its earlier successes.


李约瑟对中国科技发展的独特见解,打破了国际社会以为中国只重农业和艺术的观感,其工作更令中国科技史成为当今世界的研究课题。不得不提的还有着名的「李约瑟难题」(Needham's Grand Question)﹕「尽管中国古代对人类科技发展做出很多重要贡献,为什么科学和工业革命没有在近代中国发生?」李约瑟不但详细分析了中国制度、地理等多方面对中国科技发展的影响,更引发国际社会的兴趣,诱发中西交流不断。

also see this wiki entry

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June 14, 2009, 02:58 PM

Very interesting. I haven't yet taken the time to study and extract the meaning from your long section in Chinese characters above, (sorry), but I cannot resist remarking at once that the 'Grand Question' is in fact surely a meaningless one.

For about 200 or so years, we westerners have fervently believed in the myth of 'progress', and we have successfully spread this belief around the planet, it now permeates our modern global civilization which exists (very nearly) wherever there are people. This belief was defined by the historian Sidney Pollard in 1968 as "the assumption that a pattern of change exists in the history of mankind... that it consists of irreversible changes in one direction only, and that this direction is towards improvement."

Our technological culture measures human progress by technology: the club is better than the fist, the arrow better than the club, the bullet better than the arrow.

Pollard noted that the idea of material progress is quite recent, and that we no longer give much thought to moral progress, (which was a prime concern of earlier times.)

This belief in 'progress' has hardened into an idealogy in the west, a secular religion which like the religions that 'progress' has challenged, is blind to certain flaws in its credentials.

My point therefore is that it is actually absurd and erroneous to see scientific advance as some kind of race that the west won and China lost. In any case the world of techno-marvels powered by fossil fuel that we currently live in is unsustainable, it will be gone in one or two generations. If there are historians in 100 to 200 years time they will view the 'Industrial Revolution' and its aftermath as a 'flash in the pan', a blip on the 10,000 year history of civilization, (which is itself only a small percentage of the 100,000 or so years since our species first appeared on Earth.)

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June 14, 2009, 05:22 PM

You can also catch the Simon Winchester video on over here:  The quality is better, and is a nicer place to hang out than YouTube (I can't be doing with YouTube comments). And if you want to find out more about the Needham question, then there's a good discussion (about 45 minutes) on Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time over here:

Whilst on the subject, there are a few other episodes of In Our Time that deal with China as well; and it's usually a wonderful programme, going from history to science to philosophy and everywhere in between, getting a bunch of scholars together and getting them to discuss fascinating subjects with the kind of measured courtesy that is far too uncommon in the media.

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June 15, 2009, 03:27 AM

If you are interested on reading Justin Yifu Lin's  take on the Needham Puzzle from an Economist's perspective, follow this link and download the pdf.

Here is a very simplistic review I did on this article a few years ago. Please know that I am not an economics student, although I played at being one for a semester:

The Needham puzzle comprises of two parts: Why had China been so far in advance of other civilizations; and, why isn't China now ahead of the rest of the world? (Lin: 1995: pp 202) Although he deals with both questions, the focus is upon the latter, moreover, addressing the issue as to why the industrial revolution didn't originate in China despite most elements considered to be essential for said revolution to occur existing in China in the 14th Century. (Lin: 1995: pp 200) He first refutes Elvin's 'high level equilibrium trap', categorised as a 'failure for demand' viewpoint, then postulates his own 'lack of supply' explanation. Whilst neither explanation is perfect, Lin's is the more convincing one. It would be prudent to critique both explanations in order to elucidate why one is better than the other, and what embellishments could be made to Lin's worthy attempt.  

Elvin's 'equilibrium trap' suggests that despite being the world leader both economically and scientifically, cultural factors caused China's population to explode, resulting in an increased man-to-land ratio and oversupply of labour (cheaper),  reducing demand for labour saving tool innovation. (Lin: 1995: pp 202) Lin counters that the potential of agriculture is a function of technology, providing the development of technology isn't inhibited - the equilibrium trap doesn't exist. (Lin: 1995: pp 203) Lin also draws upon Buck to state that despite the oversupply of labour, high demand for agricultural labour was still present in the early 1900's. (Lin: 1995: pp 205) Elvin’s postulation that a lack of agricultural surplus resulting from adverse man-to-land ratio is refuted by Lin. He states that resulting from social factors, advanced technology and political stability in the late 1300's, surplus per capita in the 14th and 15th centuries should have been higher, and that Elvin's postulation cannot be supported empirically. (Lin: 1995: 206)

Lin's explanation, is based on the following factors; China's lack of experimentation based innovation resulting from the absence of Western scientific methodology and abstract mathematics, most likely resulting from the establishment of a meritocracy in which imperial examinations were the key to success. These examinations were centred on memorizing vast tomes of Confucian and other classical literature, thus rendering the study of science and maths superfluous. This is rationalised further by comparing China to Europe during the 1600's and 1700's; the best minds in Europe were at work discovering the mysteries of science and nature using scientific method under the patronage of various competing parties, whereas the best minds in China were studying hard for the examinations, later concerned with matters of officialdom, resulting in and from the lack of scientific patronage and relative importance given to the field. (Lin: 1995: 207-216)

Lin's explanation doesn't address the spiritual and philosophical factors restricting the advance of modern science in China. According to Daoist based thought, nature and the universe are far too subtle and complex for earthly beings to define using their inferior languages and techniques ( : note 37 : Needham) thus the Chinese were less inclined to attempt to pursue that which they believed to be fundamentally futile - having discovered acupuncture and medicinal techniques based on non-empirical belief systems, there wouldn't have been great reason to doubt proven philosophy.

Despite its imperfections, Lin has made the best attempt so far at explaining the Needham puzzle.

Referenced works:

“The Needham Puzzle: Why the Industrial Revolution Did Not Originate in China”, by Lin. J., 1995, in Chai, J.C.H., (ed.), 2000, The Economic Development of Modern China, Volume 1, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, U.K, pp.200-223 : note 37 : Needham

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June 15, 2009, 05:47 AM

For pe0ole looking for the Winchester book it was also published as 'Book Bomb and Compass' - we didn't see that other title here in Oz. [Could also be called 'The Man who loved Chinese Women'?  :-) Winchester is an entertaining author (and speaker - I went to one of his 'shows' at the local hall on the Map That Changed the World) * I enjoyed the book he wrote on the Yangtze but it did not reach the heights of his most famous books - The Surgeon of Crowthorne and The Map that Changed the World.  


I don't think the definition of progress is a product of the West - the Chinese are just as obsessed with this question as the West. While your point is taken Needham was just interested in the 'science' questions.  


I will have a look at your link - lots of fascinating questions.  Needham certainly was an intriguing, fascinating character - I was particularly taken by his method for learning Chinese (a. get Chinese girlfriend, b. write own dictionary) and wondered how good it really was when he arrived in China - there are lots of confused accounts of how good it was initially.  Clarity on this point is not helped by the fact that Winchester himself doesn't speak Chinese, and doesn't seem to understand the contradictions in his own account. Mainly i was taken in by Needham the Obsessed - China does get a few people this way and it is interesting to read about more severe cases than one's own.



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June 15, 2009, 08:13 AM

Perhaps you have not fully understood my meaning. I was trying to state that the 'myth' of progress (which surely underlies Needham's 'Great Question') is a product of the west, or at least the incarnation of western civilization which has existed since about 1780, and has now been exported around the world. The Chinese were not 'obsessed' with this idea in the past, nor were the Indians, the Polynesians, The Inca, The Maya, or indeed any human civilization save ours. I am also interested in the science questions, including anthropological aspects. Could be your archetypes need a breath of fresh air blowing over them.

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June 21, 2009, 09:37 PM

I read the Simon Winchester book last week, and have read a little of Joseph Needham's writings on Science and Civilization in China.  It is a fascinating topic, and his work raises many questions related to modern China, and science and technology in general.  But his initial question about science was "why modern science originated only in Europe".  By 'modern science', he was referring to  "the application of mathematical hypotheses to Nature, and the full understanding and use of the experimental method, the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, and the systematic accumulation of openly published scientific data."

His approach was to try to discover everything known about the development of science and technology in China.  Alternatively, one might try to understand what was present in Europe that allowed a Newton and a Galileo to emerge.

(I am quoting from Needham's slim book, Science in Traditional China, which came out in 1981.  Someday I hope to read some of his larger volumes.)

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June 22, 2009, 02:22 AM

I agree that it is a fascinating topic, and like any educated westerner feel a certain pride and delight in the view of nature that "modern science" has given to us.

I still feel however, that underlying Needham's question (however it is phrased) and our own conceit that western civilization was the one that "allowed a Newton and a Galileo to emerge", is our collectively deeply ingrained belief that "modern science" embodies and represents "progress", and that such progress is a natural and inevitable process for human beings. (This belief is the "myth of progress", as defined in my previous post by Sidney Pollard.)

It seems to me that this "myth of progress" is so much a part of the way we think today, that we just can't see past it, we simply cannot accept that for 99.99% of the history of human beings, such a mode of thinking was unknown, and if known would have been considered absurd.

Let me be clear that by 'myth' I do not mean a belief that is flimsy or untrue. Successful myths are powerful and often partly true. "Myth is an arrangement of the past, whether real or imagined, in patterns that reinforce a culture's deepest values and aspirations... Myths are so fraught with meaning that we live and die by them. They are the maps by which cultures navigate through time." (Stolen Continents: Conquest and Resistance in the Americas, Ronald Wright 1992, page 5).

The myth of progress has sometimes served us well - those of us seated at the best tables anyway (lol) - but I believe that it is erroneous to regard it as some kind of 'natural progression', and misleading to view cultures that have not been so obsessively focused on mapping nature or 'reading the mind of god' as somehow 'behind' the grand advances of the (very recently established) western scientific tradition.