History of Chinese science at Cambridge

9 February 2008

The rapid economic and political 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 it not have a scientific tradition of its own? Questions such as these gave rise to the establishment of research in the history of Chinese science, technology and medicine, both traditional and, to a lesser extent, contemporary. This field of research was largely born at Cambridge, which remains 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 generally 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.

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. Needham’s work and research direction inspired many people in the East and West – including me some 9 years ago. I have since pursued research on various aspects of history of Chinese science and technology, ranging from history of iron metallurgy and artificial waterways, to my current research interest: Chinese mathematics. Perhaps the ongoing research at the Needham Research Institute will eventually answer Needham’s question and allow us to understand rapid development of modern science in China.