China: a scientific super power?

Jiri Hudecek 9 February 2008

The rapid rise of China in recent decades has joined the longer-lasting progress of science and technology as one of the most significant forces transforming our world. But have you ever wondered why China needed to adopt modern science and technology from the West? Did she not have a scientific tradition of its own? Questions such as these gave rise to the establishment of the history of Chinese science, technology and medicine, both traditional and, to a lesser extent, contemporary, as dedicated research fields. And as in so many other cases, Cambridge was at the birth of this discipline and still is one of the best places in the world to pursue such studies.

Popular histories of many aspects of our civilisation often begin with the phrase “Already the ancient Greeks…”. Chinese achievements are mentioned much less frequently, and only among contributions to technology or material culture, such as paper-making and silk-weaving, gunpowder, mariner’s compass or printing. Until the 1940s, it was possible and usual to claim that China did not have anything resembling theoretical science, only techniques and technologies applied in practice. Existence of systems of mathematical, astronomical and medical knowledge in traditional China was known to a few specialists but not taken very seriously.

This changed with Joseph Needham’s project ‘Science and Civilisation in China’ (SCC). Needham (1900 – 1995), originally a Cambridge-based biochemist, set out to map the entire scope of natural-scientific knowledge and related technologies in the history of the Chinese civilisation. The work had, however, a higher ambition than a plain description: Needham wanted to investigate the causes of Chinese science developing as it did and, especially, not as the Western science did, i.e. towards the ‘Modern science’. This is the famous ‘Needham question’: Why did China not produce distinctively modern science despite having been in many ways ahead of Europe for some fourteen previous centuries? Needham, a heavily Marxist-leaning historian, suggested some answers based on the structure of traditional Chinese society, but the question remains open and controversial – many scholars expressed doubts if it makes sense to ask it at all.

Nonetheless, Needham’s work and research direction inspired many people in the East and West – including me some 9 years ago. An older colleague from my Chinese class lent me an abridgement of the first 2 volumes of SCC, and I can now say it changed my life. I gradually realised that I will never write good essays on Chinese literature or linguistics, found political history too dull and historical sociology too difficult, but history of Chinese science and technology retained its initial charm, becoming a welcome repository of research topics. I tried several, including history of iron metallurgy or artificial waterways, but eventually Chinese mathematics became my greatest interest.

Mathematics is one of the few branches of science that really existed in China as a separate discipline, with its textual tradition, conceptual framework, and even a place in the traditional curriculum. It is also one of the key components of modern natural science (pre-modern natural philosophy, technology and other forms of knowledge were much less quantitative, in China as elsewhere). Unlike in medicine, the underlying reality described in the mathematical texts can almost always be understood, yet it is still distinctly different from our or Greek tradition (one must sometimes try hard to understand the texts without our familiar concepts and symbols which are alien to it).

I wrote my dissertation in sinology at Charles University, Prague, on the foundational text of the traditional Chinese mathematics, Jiuzhang suanshu or ‘Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art’. While working on the topic, I learned about an interesting contemporary Chinese mathematician Wu Wenjun, who in late 1970s created a breakthrough method of automated theorem-proving, using algebraic techniques from a 14th century Chinese book, Siyuan Yujian or ‘Jade Mirror of the Four Bases’ (i.e. solutions of systems of polynomial equations with up to four unknowns). This was really exciting – a direct incorporation of Chinese mathematics into modern theory and practice! In fact, Wu Wenjun himself claimed that Chinese mathematical tradition, ‘algorithmic’ and with a tendency to ‘mechanise the calculation’, is an important contribution to mathematics predominantly based on the deductive and axiomatic Greek tradition, and that it will play a great role in future development of mathematical science.

I never thought I would go any deeper into Wu Wenjun’s spectacular discovery and bold claims, but once again Needham changed the course of my career. Although he died in 1995, his legacy is carried on by the Needham Research Institute – a library and educational charity affiliated to the Cambridge University. The institute houses and keeps on expanding J. Needham’s unique collection of publications about East Asian science; it also provides funding for visiting scholars to work with this collection. In 2005, it advertised a studentship for one PhD candidate to pursue a project in modern East Asian science, technology or medicine at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science in Cambridge. A condition of the offer was to propose a project from recent (post 1850) history, and Wu Wenjun’s synthesis of traditional and modern mathematics was the most obvious choice for me.I have not yet succeeded in disentangling the plethora of influences that inspired and shaped Wu Wenjun’s discovery – he drew heavily on Western mathematicians such as Hilbert and Tarski, and his inspiration in the ancient Chinese mathematics was partly a question of limited access to contemporary research. He worked in computer design in a factory during the infamous ‘Cultural Revolution’ of early 1970s, forced to leave his post at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, when his method was designed. But whatever the outcome, I feel this topic is a wonderful probe into the specificity of Chinese mathematics, both ancient and modern, and might put the persistent question of Chinese achievements in the sciences, or the lack thereof, in a new perspective.