The Needham Question

At the start of the nineteenth century China seemed certain to continue as the leading civilization on Earth. China had the largest population, an advanced system of administration, the largest trade and the greatest wealth. China had used her great inventions of paper, printing, the compass and gunpowder to great effect. No nation could seriously rival China’s armed services or navy. Angus Maddison has estimated that China in 1820 represented 1/3 of the whole world economy. And yet, somehow Europe quickly caught up and surpassed China in only a hundred years. The question as to why China did not remain pre-eminent is called the ‘Needham question’.

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Joseph Needham (Cambridge, UK) was the foremost scholar of China in the West. After the second world war he began working under a United Nation initiative in China; he was given access to books that had not been previously studied by Europeans. He met and conversed with many Chinese scholars about the development of science and technology. He started his career at Cambridge University as a biochemist but after he became entranced by a young Chinese laboratory assistant his great intellect turned to China and for the last fifty years of his long life he sought to create a systematic study of Chinese science and civilization. Needham jotted down his famous question in 1942 ‘Science in general in China - Why did not develop?’

Hong Kong, skyscraper, modern housing, view
The city of Hong Kong at night

There does not seem to be one single factor that answer the question. Many now take the view that as China has been pre-eminent for much of the last two thousand years and so the period 1800-1980 can be considered a minor blip rather than terminal decline.

In the mid 15th century China seemed to believe it had all the science it needed - everything of use was explained by the theories of five elements, yin-yang and the yi jing. When the Jesuits visited China (1601), they saw an enlightened, prosperous country that they judged for its superiority to Europe. The only areas where Europeans seemed to have the upper hand was mathematics and derived from that astronomy. When MacCartney visited China in 1794 his European gifts failed to impress, the perception in 1800 was that little had changed in China at the macro level since Marco Polo’s visit (1275-92) all society seemed static. It became a question of recording current knowledge and not looking for new theories. The Emperors had an unshakeable belief about Chinese supremacy and that there was no need for investigation into nature as everything was adequately explained by current thinking. This is rather like searching with Google and discovering that every conceivable thing had been studied many times before, so what is the point of repeating research that had already been done? China had at several points in time put all its knowledge into huge encyclopedias of several hundred volumes. Scholars referred to these vast accumulations of knowledge rather than studying nature afresh. So by 1920 Westerners were able to make the claim with some justification that China had ‘no science’. China did not have the pure science theory that was so crucial to Western technological development.

There are many factors that have been put forward as answers the Needham question:

1. Competition between states

European scientific development took place when there many states competing for supremacy and survival. Any engineering or scientific advance could give them the edge in conflict or trade. This is a form of ‘Darwinism’, as a competitive situation leads to rapid evolution. On the other hand China had no rivals and felt no need to adapt and change to keep ahead. This is the strategy of many living things, when they have developed to securely occupy a niche they stay unaltered for millions of years.




China has been the most populuos nation for much of the last few thousand years. The draconian 'One Child Policy' measure was introduced to curb the worrying recent growth.

2. Population pressures

China’s population was very high by 1800. Nearly all available suitable land was already being farmed and so there was a constant threat of famine. With so many people with little or no work to do there was no commercial benefit from mechanization - it was always cheaper to hire someone that to use a machine. This was a contrast to the case of Europe, there was still land to be developed and the cost of labor was significant, making machines economic. The first machines that tilled the soil and then produced textiles made many workers redundant. In China there was violent opposition to steamboats and railways as they removed employment from millions of already poorly paid people.

3. Central Imperial control

China’s culture was steeped in Confucian deference to ‘superiors’ particularly to the Emperor. To go away and do things differently would challenge accepted thinking and so seen as an unpatriotic and a subversive act. There was a general attitude of paternalism, people did not take action themselves they waited to be told what to do they did not innovate to solve problems. Only developments approved by the authorities would be used by the people. Study was centralized too, a mathematician who did well at the examinations would be given a court appointment. Sensitive subjects such as astronomy and mathematics could only be studied at court under Imperial auspices, independent study was not allowed. Matteo Ricci’s books on mathematics were confiscated on his arrival as no-one apart from the designated Imperial scholars could study this sensitive subject. Such a system did not provide a way for accepted opinion to be challenged. In Europe there was more freedom to study what you wanted and there were always places you could move to escape state interference.

4. No middle class

The Imperial structure had the Emperor micro-managing the whole nation. There was little local power and so there was a lack of a significant middle class. In Europe it was the educated middle classes that developed studies of nature and set up new businesses. The independently wealthy could research whatever they liked. A ground-breaker was the Royal Society in London where the well off came together to discuss ideas and observations. In China it was only the Imperial institutions that carried out research. The position of businessman was very low - merchants were considered of lower worth than farmers as they did not actually produce food. China considered agriculture the chief aim of all endeavor - producing enough food to feed the people. Commerce was restricted to a few areas: silk, porcelain, salt, foreign trade. It was indeed considered indecent to talk about wealth. There was no infrastructure to support independent industry and commerce - including the provision of banking facilities and legal corporate structures. China did not see commerce as an independent activity to ‘government’, everything was effectively under state control.

5. Stasis

After a long period of study an agreed opinion becomes established that is very hard to shift. Although for many centuries Europeans looked back to Greek and Roman science and technology as a golden age, the deference to ancient wisdom faded. Previously it was hard for anyone to challenge the science of Aristotle or the mathematics of Euclid , the theories were just treated as the unchallengeable last word. The relaxation in the rigid belief in ancient wisdom did not take place in China. For example the Qing court astronomers knew the facts but not theory behind them. They used mathematical formulas to predict orbits but they lost the understanding of the principles and just followed the rules. The Imperial Examination system rewarded students who could recall facts and so was geared to people good at rote learning. Creative people with new ideas did not do well in this system.

There was a general feeling that Chinese society had developed to a reasonable level and there was no great need for change, just a few minor adjustments. Agricultural productivity had reached the maximum attainable before modern fertilizers and pesticides. China was considered to have reached a Golden Age so why change? The latest innovations brought in from Europe were seen as interesting toys and of no practical value.

While it is true that Europe was leaping ahead in science and technology, to suggest China was standing still is a misconception. China continued to make fine inventions across all fields: drilling, gunpowder, ships, tunnels, cast iron and the spandrel arch bridge.

The Chinese Language

The Chinese Language


An introduction to get you started with spoken and written Chinese. Explains key concepts and starts with the most common and useful words and phrases in Chinese.

6. Second class science

China always valued the ‘humanities’ above the ‘sciences’. If you wanted to stand a chance of high office it was the classics rather than the sciences that you would study. In China it was the Daoists who studied nature but it was normally the Confucians who formed the ruling elite. Confucians regarded the Daoist teaching as something for the illiterate masses and this had a negative impact on scientific development. Even Daoist analysis was fairly superficial, involving observation and reflection rather than taking things apart and trying to answer the fundamental ‘why?’ questions. Many Daoist texts are full of wonderment at the structure of nature without seeking an answer as to how it all came to be. The primary concern of Chinese administrators was the health and welfare of people rather than increasing knowledge. Science for science’s sake was not considered a worthwhile occupation as it did not benefit anyone directly; surely it was more worthwhile to study ethics and politics which could enhance everyone’s well-being? In Europe the ancient Greek studies in sciences (nature, mathematics, physics) retained their high status into the Industrial Revolution.

Yangzi River, three gorges dam, river, lock
Locks on the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangzi River

7. Glass

Some have taken the view that the lack of Chinese scientific development after 1800 was down to just one thing - glass. Although China used a small amount of glass for decoration it did not use it for windows or drinking vessels (paper and porcelain was used instead) and so did not develop processes to produce quality glass. It is said that the European skill in making fine, clear glass made all the difference because with quality glass lenses could be made. Lenses are used in both microscopes and telescopes opening up new areas for scientific study not otherwise possible. Just as importantly glass lenses for spectacles allows scholars to study into their old age.

8. Coal

While glass may be one factor another is coal. Although China has plenty of coal, most of it has to be mined - it is not exposed at ground level. The new machines (weaving, locomotion) all needed fuel - in the form of wood or charcoal. Without access to coal, timber had to be used and China had a severe shortage of trees after centuries of deforestation. At Ironbridge , UK where the Industrial Revolution is said to have begun, there was coal, limestone and iron ore readily to hand, so that Abraham Darby could easily set up mass production of iron.

9. Colonies

At around 1800 the European nations had begun to establish overseas empires in Africa and the Americas as well as Australasia. The colonies had an invigorating effect on industrial revolution. The colonies provided new untapped resources: labor, food and raw materials that permitted the European states to develop rapidly. A professional standing army with superior weaponry was required to conquer and control these territories. Enterprising Europeans could move to the colonies and start up new businesses with little government interference. China had no official colonies and the standing army was only used to maintain internal order.

10. The Economy

For much of the Qing dynasty the government’s finances were in a poor state. There was just no surplus to plow into exploring new technologies. In Europe by contrast a virtuous economic cycle was in operation: technology and innovation fueled economic growth which provided the funds for technology to be further developed. Although China was initially able to amass wealth from selling tea the tables were turned when Europe, and Britain in particular, began to trade in opium. The scale of opium addiction in China destroyed any chances of scientific advances.

The Chinese Emperor

The Chinese Emperor


The institution of Emperor, as head of the Chinese family of people, lasted for thousands of years and to some extent lives on in the Presidency. In China there has been great respect for the Emperor/President who in turn is expected to rule wisely with the best interests of his subjects in mind. To early European visitors to China the structure was considered close to the ideal form of society.

11. Dynastic cycle

For thousands of years China has been ruled by different dynasties that went through a series of defined periods of change. On foundation a dynasty would re-invigorate the whole country with reforms, this would be followed by a period of consolidation and relative peace and prosperity. The final phase is of decadence, complacency and decline. Weakening central control led to revolt that allows a new dynasty to sweep to power.

There were opportunities for change in the failing days of the Qing dynasty. The Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) overran all of southern China and could easily have captured Beijing and kicked out the Manchu rulers had they chosen to do so. The ruinous death toll, expense, and damage of this rebellion took away any possibility of serious reform thereafter. Belated Qing attempts at reform : The Hundred Days Reform and Self Strengthening movement did not succeed.

train, railway
Modern Chinese train at Bengbu, Anhui Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

The answer

The early history of China from pre-history to 770BCE

The early history of China from pre-history to 770BCE


Most of the ancient traditions of China had become established 3,000 years ago. The institution of Emperor, the written scripts and the key technologies (including silk) all come from China's distant past. The longevity and continuity of Chinese culture are the two key principles to understanding China - even today.

All these suggested answers to the Needham question have some merit so it is likely that no single factor wins out, the true answer is some combination of them.

It should also be clear that China has in the last thirty years caught up again. It’s space exploration program is as ambitious as America’s and it boasts world class radio telescopes and particle accelerators.

What goes unchallenged in this debate is that China lost out to a superior set of ideas; but this must be questioned in the light of the current world situation. Economic and population growth can not go on forever, it is a finite world with finite resources. Surely it must be sustainability that is the key concern. China of the 1800s had reached a relatively static but sustainable level of development. It was population pressure that was limiting the sustainability of the Chinese system, otherwise China was self-sufficient and for many centuries relatively peaceful and prosperous. Only time will tell whether rapid industrial and technological development was the correct direction to take in the long term, may be China had the right idea after all.

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