Science and Civilisation in China

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Science and Civilisation in China
Science and Civilisation in China (Chinese translation)
Author Joseph Needham
Original title Science and Civilisation in China

Science and Civilisation in China (1954–[2016]) is a series of books initiated and edited by British biochemist, historian and sinologist Joseph Needham, Ph.D (1900–1995). Needham was a well-respected scientist before undertaking this encyclopedia and was even responsible for the "S" in UNESCO.[1] They deal with the history of science and technology in China. To date there have been seven volumes in twenty-seven books. The series was on the Modern Library Board's 100 Best Nonfiction books of the 20th century.[2] Needham's work was the first of its kind to praise Chinese scientific contributions and provide their history and connection to global knowledge in contrast to eurocentric historiography.[3]

In 1954, Needham—along with an international team of collaborators—initiated the project to study the science, technology, and civilisation of ancient China. This project produced a series of volumes published by Cambridge University Press. The project is still continuing under the guidance of the Publications Board of the Needham Research Institute (NRI), chaired by Christopher Cullen.[4]

Volume 3 of the encyclopedia was the first body of work to describe Chinese improvements to cartography, geology, seismology and mineralogy. It also includes descriptions of nautical technology, sailing charts, and wheel-maps.[5]

Needham's transliteration of Chinese characters uses the Wade-Giles system, though the aspirate apostrophe (e.g., ch'i) was rendered 'h' (viz. chhi; traditional Chinese: 氣; Mandarin Pinyin: ). However, it was abandoned in favor of the pinyin system by the NRI board in April 2004, with Volume 5, Part 11 becoming the first to use the new system.[6]


Joseph Needham, in 1988, surrounded by Chinese History and Sciences scholars.


Joseph Needham’s interest in the history of Chinese science developed while he worked as an Embryologist at Cambridge University.[7] At the time, Needham had already published works relating to the history of science, including his 1934 book titled A History of Embryology, and was open to expanding his historical scientific knowledge.[8] Needham’s first encounter with Chinese culture occurred in 1937 when three Chinese medical students arrived to work with him at the Cambridge Biochemical Laboratory.[9] Needham’s interest in Chinese civilization and scientific progress grew as a result and led him to learn Chinese from his students.[9] Two of those students,Wang Ling, and Lu Gwei-djen, would later become his collaborators on Science and Civilisation in China.[10]

In 1941, China’s eastern universities were forced to relocate to the west as a result of the Second Sino-Japanese War.[11] Chinese academics sought the help of the British government in an effort to preserve their intellectual life.[11] In 1942, Needham was selected and appointed as a diplomat by the British government and tasked with traveling to China and assessing the situation.[12] During his three years there, Needham discovered that the Chinese had developed techniques and mechanisms which were centuries older than their European counterparts.[11] Needham became concerned with the exclusion of China in the history of science and began to question why the Chinese ceased to develop new techniques after the 16th century.[11]


Armed with his new-found knowledge, Needham returned to Cambridge in 1948 and began working on a book with one of the Chinese medical students he met in Cambridge, Wang Ling, who was now a professor at a university.[13] Initially, he planned on releasing only one volume of his findings through the Cambridge University Press, but later changed his mind and proposed up to eleven volumes.[11] In 1954, Needham published the first volume of Science and Civilisation in China, which was well received and was followed by other volumes which focused on specific scientific fields and topics.[14] Needham, along with his collaborators, was personally involved in all of the volumes of Science and Civilization, up until Needham’s death in 1995.[11] After Needham’s death, Cambridge University established an institution named after Needham, The Needham Research Institute.[15] Scholars of the institution continue Needham’s work and have published 8 additional volumes of Science and Civilisation in China, since his death.[15]


Vol. Title Contributors Date Notes
Vol. 1 Introductory Orientations Wang Ling (research assistant) 1954
Vol. 2 History of Scientific Thought Wang Ling (research assistant) 1956 OCLC
Vol. 3 Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and Earth Wang Ling (research assistant) 1959 OCLC
Vol. 4,
Part 1
Physics Wang Ling (research assistant), with cooperation of Kenneth Robinson 1962 OCLC
Vol. 4
Part 2
Mechanical Engineering Wang Ling (collaborator) 1965  
Vol. 4,
Part 3
Civil Engineering and Nautics Wang Ling and Lu Gwei-djen (collaborators) 1971  
Vol. 5,
Part 1
Paper and Printing Tsien Tsuen-Hsuin 1985  
Vol. 5,
Part 2
Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Magisteries of Gold and Immortality Lu Gwei-djen (collaborator) 1974  
Vol. 5,
Part 3
Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Historical Survey, from Cinnabar Elixirs to Synthetic Insulin Ho Ping-Yu and Lu Gwei-djen (collaborators) 1976  
Vol. 5,
Part 4
Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Apparatus and Theory Lu Gwei-djen (collaborator), with contributions by Nathan Sivin 1980  
Vol. 5,
Part 5
Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Physiological Alchemy Lu Gwei-djen (collaborator) 1983  
Vol. 5,
Part 6
Military Technology: Missiles and Sieges Robin D.S. Yates, Krzysztof Gawlikowski, Edward McEwen, Wang Ling (collaborators) 1994  
Vol. 5,
Part 7
Military Technology: The Gunpowder Epic Ho Ping-Yu, Lu Gwei-djen, Wang Ling (collaborators) 1987  
Vol. 5,
Part 8
"Military Technology: Shock Weapons and Cavalry" Lu Gwei-djen (collaborator) 2011[16]
Vol. 5,
Part 9
Textile Technology: Spinning and Reeling Dieter Kuhn 1988  
Vol. 5,
Part 10
"Work in progress"
Vol. 5,
Part 11
Ferrous Metallurgy Donald B. Wagner 2008  
Vol. 5,
Part 12
Ceramic Technology Rose Kerr, Nigel Wood, contributions by Ts'ai Mei-fen and Zhang Fukang 2004  
Vol. 5,
Part 13
Mining Peter Golas 1999  
Vol. 6,
Part 1
Botany Lu Gwei-djen (collaborator), with contributions by Huang Hsing-Tsung 1986  
Vol. 6,
Part 2
Agriculture Francesca Bray 1984  
Vol. 6,
Part 3
Agroindustries and Forestry Christian A. Daniels and Nicholas K. Menzies 1996  
Vol. 6,
Part 4
Biology and Biological Technologies: Traditional Botany: an ethnobotanical approach Georges Métailie 2015  
Vol. 6,
Part 5
Fermentations and Food Science Huang Hsing-Tsung 2000  
Vol. 6,
Part 6
Medicine Lu Gwei-djen, Nathan Sivin (editor) 2000  
Vol. 7,
Part 1
Language and Logic Christoph Harbsmeier 1998  
Vol. 7,
Part 2
General Conclusions and Reflections Kenneth Girdwood Robinson (editor), Ray Huang (collaborator), introduction by Mark Elvin 2004 OCLC


There have been two summaries or condensations of the vast amount of material found in Science and Civilisation. The first, a one-volume popular history book by Robert Temple entitled The Genius of China, was completed in a little over 12 months to be available in 1986 for the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to China. This addressed only the contributions made by China and had a "warm welcome" from Joseph Needham in the introduction, though in the Beijing Review he criticized that it had "some mistakes ... and various statements that I would like to have seen expressed rather differently".[17] A second was made by Colin Ronan, a writer on the history of science, who produced a five volume condensation The Shorter Science and Civilisation: An abridgement of Joseph Needham's original text, between 1980 and his death in 1995.[18] These volumes cover:

  1. China and Chinese science
  2. Mathematics, astronomy, meteorology and the earth sciences
  3. Magnetism, nautical technology, navigation, voyages
  4. Mechanical engineering, machines, clockwork, windmills, aeronautics
  5. Civil engineering, roads, bridges, hydraulic engineering


  • Needham, Joseph (1954), Science and Civilisation in China: Introductory Orientations, 1, Cambridge University Press 


Criticism from Scholars[edit]

Science and Civilisation in China is highly regarded among scholars because of its extensive comparative coverage of Chinese innovations.[19] Needham spent a large amount of time translating, and decoding primary sources for Science and Civilisation in China.[19] All of his efforts helped to confirm that scientific advancements, and analytical ingenuity were abundant in China in early modern times.[20] Yet, beginning with his first volume, some scholars in the scientific, history of science, and sinology fields criticized Needham’s work for being too comparative.[19] In his work, Needham wrote that numerous Chinese inventions ended up in the west, including the magnetic compass, and the mechanical clock.[19] Needham also wrote that once these inventions reached Europe, they had a great impact on social life, and helped to stimulate the economy, as well as usher in the Scientific Revolution.[19] Other scholars criticized his Marxist background, his understanding of Chinese culture, and his methodology.[19]

Dr. of History Roger Hart wrote "A Post-Needham Critique" in an East Asia journal accusing Needham of attributing scientific achievements to Chinese civilization in contrast to evidence by exaggerating claims.[21]

Editor of Volume 6, Nathan Sivin and Needham's research collaborator Lu Gwei-djen include updated research to support some of Needham's claims. However, Sivin is critical of Needham suggesting more research is required citing his assumptions of Taoisms' role in promoting scientific feats in China.[22]

Critical Acclaim[edit]

Needham's Science and Civilisation in China did not receive criticism from scholars in other fields of study.[19]

Groff Conklin of Galaxy Science Fiction in 1955 said that Vol. 1 "presents a richly patterned tapestry of the development of civilization in the Far East", and that "it is for everyone who is intrigued by the unknown, whether future (science fiction) or past (scientific history)".[23]

Jonathan Spence wrote in a 1982 New York Times article "this work is the most ambitious undertaking in Chinese studies during this century".[24]

The New York Times obituary for Needham stated that those educated in China hail Dr. Needham's encyclopedia and compare him to Charles Darwin in terms of importance regarding scientific knowledge.[25]

According to Dr. Arun Bala, the author of The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science, Needham postulates that scientific knowledge may evolve to more closely resemble Chinese philosophical views of nature; signifying his belief in Chinese inherent wisdom.[26]

The Needham Question[edit]


After his extensive research of Chinese innovations, Joseph Needham became concerned with the question: Why did modern science stop developing in China after the 16th century?[19] Needham believed this was due to China’s sociopolitical system which was not affected by Chinese inventions.[19] China did not have a structure in which merchants could profit off of their inventions, unlike the West.[19] Once Chinese inventions reached Europe, they revolutionized their sociopolitical system, which used the inventions to dominate political rivals.[19] According to Needham, Chinese innovations, such as gunpowder, the compass, paper, and printing, helped transform European Feudalism into Capitalism.[19] By the end of the 15th century, Europe was actively financing scientific discoveries, and nautical exploration.[19] The paradox of this conclusion was that Europe surpassed China in scientific innovations, using Chinese technologies.[19]


After several volumes of Science and Civilisation in China had been published, Needham was questioned about his theory of the origin of science in the West.[19] Needham, troubled by past criticism and dismissal of his work as Marxist theory, declined to publicly state his relationship to Marxism.[19] Later, in Needham’s work The Great Tritation, he re-framed his question as: “why, between the first century BC and the fifteenth century AD, Chinese civilization was much more efficient than occidental in applying human natural knowledge to practical human needs”[27] The reformulation of the question, changed the narrative of Science and Civilisation in China.[19] Initially, the question centered around China’s failure to develop scientifically after the 16th century.[19] The focus shifted towards an examination of China’s accomplishments prior to development in Europe, this focus was addressed throughout Science and Civilisation in China.[28]

Continued Debate[edit]

Needham's attempt to uncover the reasoning behind China's rise and fall as an elite scientific and technologically advanced nation has been expounded upon and debated for decades including Justin Yifu Lin's University of Chicago journal article "The Needham Puzzle".[29]



  1. ^ Boston, Richard. "Joseph Needham, the Real Thing". Retrieved 2018-07-27. 
  2. ^ Modern Library, 1999. 100 Best Nonfiction."
  3. ^ Jacobsen, Stefan Gaarsmand (2013). "Chinese Influences or Images?: Fluctuating Histories of How Enlightenment Europe Read China". Journal of World History. 24 (3): 623–660. doi:10.1353/jwh.2013.0076. ISSN 1527-8050. 
  4. ^ "Science and Civilisation in China". Needham Research Institute. Retrieved 2008-07-09. 
  5. ^ 1900-1995,, Needham, Joseph,. Science and civilisation in China. Wang, Ling, 1917-1994., Métailie, Georges., Huang, H. T. Cambridge [England]. ISBN 052105799X. OCLC 779676. 
  6. ^ volume 5, part 11, page xxxii
  7. ^ Multhauf, Robert (October 1996). "Joseph Needham (1900-1995)". Technology and Culture. 37: 880. 
  8. ^ Blue, Gregory (1997). "Joseph Needham-A Publication History" (PDF). Chinese Science (14): 92. Retrieved 20 July 2018. 
  9. ^ a b Winchester, Simon (2008). "The man who unveiled China". Nature. 454 (7203): 409. 
  10. ^ Brook, Timothy (1996). "The Sinology of Joseph Needham". Modern China. 22 (3): 341. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f Winchester, Simon (2008). "The man who unveiled China". Nature. 454 (7203): 410. 
  12. ^ Multhauf, Robert (October 1996). "Joseph Needham (1900-1995)". Technology and Culture. 37: 880. 
  13. ^ Multhauf, Robert (October 1996). "Joseph Needham (1900-1995)". Technology and Culture. 37: 883. 
  14. ^ Blue, Gregory (1997). "Joseph Needham-A Publication History" (PDF). Chinese Science (14): 93. Retrieved 20 July 2018. 
  15. ^ a b Winchester, Simon (2008). "The man who unveiled China". Nature. 454 (7203): 411. 
  16. ^ Joseph., Needham, (2011). Science and Civilization in China. Cambridge Univ Pr. ISBN 9780521327282. OCLC 779665433. 
  17. ^ Ling Yuan (Mar 23, 1987). "East-West: Bridging the Scientific Chasm" (PDF). Beijing Review. Retrieved 2011-02-06. 
  18. ^ Colin Ronan (1980–95). The Shorter Science and Civilisation. Cambridge University Press. 
  19. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Finlay, Robert. "China, the West, and World History in Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China." Journal of World History, vol. 11 no. 2, 2000, pp. 265-303. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jwh.2000.0035
  20. ^ Perdue, Peter C."Joseph Needham's Problematic Legacy." Technology and Culture, vol. 47 no. 1, 2006, pp. 175-178. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/tech.2006.0092
  21. ^ Hart, Roger (1999). "Beyond Science and Civilization: A Post-Needham Critique". East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine. 16: 88–114. JSTOR 43150558. 
  22. ^ Sivin, Nathan (2013-04-22). "The Needham Question". Oxford Bibliographies Online Datasets. Retrieved 2018-07-06. 
  23. ^ Conklin, Groff (March 1955). "Galaxy's 5 Star Shelf". Galaxy Science Fiction. pp. 95–99. 
  24. ^ Spence, Jonathan. "THE CHINA THE WEST KNEW NOTHING ABOUT". Retrieved 2018-07-06. 
  25. ^ Lyall, Sarah. "Joseph Needham, China Scholar From Britain, Dies at 94". Retrieved 2018-07-07. 
  26. ^ Bala, Arun (2006). "The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science". doi:10.1057/9780230601215. 
  27. ^ Needham, Joseph. “Science and Society in East and West.” In The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West. By Joseph Needham, 190–217. London: Allen & Unwin, 1969a.
  28. ^ Sivin, Nathan. "The Needham Question". Oxford Bibliographies. 
  29. ^ Lin, Justin Yifu (1995-01). "The Needham Puzzle: Why the Industrial Revolution Did Not Originate in China". Economic Development and Cultural Change. 43 (2): 269–292. doi:10.1086/452150. ISSN 0013-0079.  Check date values in: |date= (help)


  • Robert Finlay, "China, the West, and World History in Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China," Journal of World History 11 (Fall 2000): 265-303.
  • Justin. Lin, "The Needham Puzzle: Why the Industrial Revolution Did Not Originate in China," Economic development and cultural change 43.2 (1995): 269-292. JSTOR link

External links[edit]