Chinese Science and Technology

The English scholar Joseph Needham assembled a massive compendium of the history of Chinese science and technology. It comprises five volumes and represents a thorough study of the huge mass of ancient Chinese literature. No, I haven’t read it, but I did read a short summary of the work by Needham: Science in Traditional China. The book’s primary thesis is that Westerners have parochially dismissed the achievements of Chinese science. Needham presents a gigantic parade of Chinese technological triumphs, demonstrating a mind-numbing avalanche of examples. There can be no question that, right up until about the sixteenth century, Chinese technological achievement trumped the West.

But Needham makes a profound mistake in equating technology with science. The two are profoundly different. China did indeed lead the West in technology – but not in science. China never really developed any science.

Let’s take a good example: gunpowder. How did the Chinese invent it? There is no record of any Chinese alchemist patiently pursuing the science of combustibility until finally reaching the rapid combustibility of gunpowder. Our best guess is that somebody discovered it serendipitously (well, maybe not so serendipitous for the initial discoverers, who were probably screwing around with something and blew themselves up.)

What’s really telling, however, is the way the initial discovery was improved upon. The Chinese apparently carried out a lot of random variation of the amounts of the various ingredients, and tried a number of additions to the mixture, but they weren’t developing gunpowder scientifically, they were just improving it empirically. No Chinese scientist ever analyzed the ingredients and determined the optimal combination; the development of gunpowder was a matter of pure trial and error. The Westerners at first used the same trial and error methods to improve gunpowder, and when those methods failed to produce further advances, gave up. But then, in the nineteenth century, Westerners started to develop chemistry as a science, which in turn enabled them to understand the principles that make gunpowder explode. This in turn permitted them to improve the ingredients of gunpowder, so that when the Western gunboats steamed up the Chinese rivers, they completely outgunned their Chinese opponents.

The same thing happened with all Chinese technology. Over and over, what we see is serendipity followed by trial and error development. There is no Chinese science to speak of; specifically, there is no Chinese mathematical expression of the behavior of the universe. The closest the Chinese come to real science is phenomenology: they have massive catalogs of observations of the behavior of the physical world. The only abstract generalizations they draw from their observations are primitive and patent.

Here’s another example: there is no record of formal experimentation as practiced in the West. No Chinese scientist ever set up a ramp with balls rolling down, timing how long it took for balls to reach the bottom at different angles. No Chinese scientist ever carried out Galileo’s famous experiment dropping two balls from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Indeed, there is little evidence that Chinese scholars ever wondered about the fundamentals of motion.

It is true that China led the way in alchemy, but again, they appeared to have done little more than screw around with chemicals. I know of no records of Chinese alchemists carrying out quantitative experiments with their chemicals. Of course, neither did the Arab or European alchemists. But in Europe, alchemy was eventually replaced with chemistry; no such transition occurred in China.

This is best exemplified with one area of Chinese technology that is still in use: acupuncture. It is now established that acupuncture really does work, sometimes. But even today, nobody can say why it works. Nobody understands acupuncture in the scientific sense. There is no General Theory of Acupuncture that permits us to predict new treatments or reject erroneous treatments; it’s all based on trial and error.

Although Chinese scholars flirted with rationalism several times (most notably as part of the Mohist school of thought), they never embraced rationalism. Without rationalism, they of course could not figure out logic, which in turn denied them access to science.

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