Science in Traditional China

by Joseph Needham

Joseph Needham is easily the pre-eminent Western scholar of Chinese scientific and technical progress through history. He wrote a monster five-volume tome on the subject, which is almost impossible to obtain these days. This guy has gone over all the ancient Chinese manuscripts, assembling a forest-and-trees perception of the entirety of Chinese achievements. This book is a synopsis of that monster tome, a breezy 131 pages long.

Needham’s main point is that we in the West have wrongly dismissed Chinese achievements. He maintains that, right up until about 1500 CE, China was well ahead of the West in everything scientific and technical. Point by point, invention by invention, he lists in detail the magnificent achievements of Sinic civilization. Most people know that gunpowder and the magnetic compass were invented in China. But in a wide array of technologies, the Chinese were well ahead of the West. Chinese astronomical measurements of the length of the year were superior to Western measurements. The Chinese built superior clocks. Chinese pharmacology was another area of excellence, and Chinese alchemists had a larger stock of information at their disposal than their Western counterparts. Over and over, Needham shows that the Chinese led the West in just about every intellectual enterprise right up until 1500 CE.

But Needham is wrong in claiming that Chinese scientific achievement exceeded Western scientific achievement. China never developed science or engineering; instead, it accumulated mountains of data and masses of accurate folklore.

The difference between Western science and Chinese phenomenology is logic: Westerners had it and Sinic civilization didn’t. The Chinese classics confuse Westerners brought up in a tradition of rationalism: much Chinese thinking revels in cleverly phrased oxymoronic admonishments that Chinese readers think profound and Western readers think illogical. Where Western thinkers were seeking truth through rationalism, Chinese thinkers sought balance in a universe that they perceived to be constantly torn between opposing forces.

There is absolutely nothing in Chinese thinking comparable to Aristotle. Indeed, the rationalism of the Socratic dialogs, flawed as it is, still surpasses anything in Chinese thought. No Sinic thinker ever conceived of the syllogism as an iron law of thinking. Where Westerners developed taxonomies, Chinese developed lists. Chinese society has always had a taste for numbered groups: The Three Emperors, The Gang of Four, The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, the Six Dynasties, The Seven Scholars of Jian-an, the Eight Immortals, and the Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art (a classic Chinese text)... I don’t know how far up they go. Actually, there are bunches of “The Four...” and “The Five...” sets. In Western parlance, these sets are rarely orthogonal are only occasionally span the vector space of their subject.

Western rationalism led to true science in the sense of a discipline of thought that could make detailed predictions of the future. Yes, Chinese astronomers could predict eclipses, but they were only following the Saros cycle. They never understood WHY eclipses followed the Saros cycle. And what Copernicus did in 1543 was totally beyond the ken of Chinese thought. The idea of using mathematics to understand the physical universe was simply alien to Chinese thinking. By the beginning of the Current Era, the ultimate superiority of Western science was already sealed. It took more than a millennium for that superiority to begin manifesting itself, but by the time of Galileo, the Chinese were hopelessly outclassed in science.

What Sinic civilization did was institutionalize the recognition and utilization of serendipity. With the largest population on the planet, it was inevitable that mistakes would lead to welcome discoveries, and the Chinese deserve credit for seizing upon those discoveries and exploiting them to the fullest. But in the final analysis, what Mr. Needham calls “Chinese science” was little more than a vast compendium of serendipitous discoveries, not a logically derived structure of thought about the physical universe.