Joseph Needham

For the cricketer, see Joseph Needham (cricketer). For the politician, see Joseph Needham (politician).
Joseph Needham
Born Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham
6 December 1900 (1900-12-06)
London, England, UK
Died 24 March 1995 (1995-03-25) (aged 94)
Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England, UK
Alma mater Oundle School
Gonville and Caius College
Cambridge University
Occupation Historian, biochemist
Spouse(s) Dorothy Moyle Needham (m. 1924; d. 1987)
Lu Gwei-djen (m. 1989; d. 1991)
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 李約瑟
Simplified Chinese 李约瑟

Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham CH FRS FBA[1] (/ˈndəm/; 9 December 1900 – 24 March 1995) was a British scientist, historian and sinologist known for his scientific research and writing on the history of Chinese science. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1941,[2] and a fellow of the British Academy in 1971.[3] In 1992, the Queen conferred on him the Companionship of Honour, and the Royal Society noted he was the only living person to hold these three titles.[4]


Early years

Needham was the only child of a London family. His father was a doctor, and his mother, Alicia Adelaïde, née Montgomery (1863–1945), was a music composer from Oldcastle, Co. Meath, Ireland. Needham was educated at Oundle School (founded in 1556 in Northamptonshire) before going up to the University of Cambridge, where he earned all his degrees: bachelor's in 1921, master's in January 1925, and doctorate in October 1925. He had intended to study medicine but came under the influence of Frederick Gowland Hopkins and switched to Biochemistry.


After graduation, he was elected to a fellowship at Gonville and Caius College and worked in Hopkins' laboratory at the University Department of Biochemistry, specialising in embryology and morphogenesis. His three-volume work Chemical Embryology, published in 1931, includes a history of embryology from Egyptian times up to the early 19th century, including quotations in most European languages. His Terry Lecture of 1936 was published by Cambridge University Press in association with Yale University Press under the title of Order and Life.[5] In 1939 he produced a massive work on morphogenesis that a Harvard reviewer claimed "will go down in the history of science as Joseph Needham's magnum opus", little knowing what would come later.[6]

Although his career as biochemist and an academic was well established, his career developed in unanticipated directions during and after World War II.

Three Chinese scientists came to Cambridge for graduate study in 1937: Lu Gwei-djen (Chinese: 鲁桂珍; pinyin: Lu Gui-zhen), Wang Ying-lai (王應睞) and Shen Shih-Chang (沈詩章, the only one under Needham's tutelage). Lu (1904–91), daughter of a Nanjingese pharmacist, taught Needham Chinese, igniting his interest in China's ancient technological and scientific past. He then pursued, and mastered, the study of Classical Chinese privately with Gustav Haloun.[7]

Under the Royal Society's direction, Needham was the director of the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office in Chongqing from 1942 to 1946. During this time he made several long journeys through war-torn China and many smaller ones, visiting scientific and educational establishments and obtaining for them much needed supplies. His longest trip in late 1943 ended in far west in Gansu at the caves in Dunhuang[8] at the end of the Great Wall where the earliest dated printed book - a copy of the Diamond Sutra - was found.[9] The other long trip reached Fuzhou on the east coast, returning across the Xiang River just two days before the Japanese blew up the bridge at Hengyang and cut off that part of China. In 1944 he visited Yunnan in an attempt to reach the Burmese border. Everywhere he went he purchased and was given old historical and scientific books which he shipped back to Britain through diplomatic channels. They were to form the foundation of his later research. He got to know Zhou Enlai and met numerous Chinese scholars, including the painter Wu Zuoren (吳作人),[10] and the meteorologist Zhu Kezhen, who later sent crates of books to him in Cambridge, including the 2,000 volumes of the Gujin Tushu Jicheng encyclopaedia, a comprehensive record of China's past.[11]

On his return to Europe, he was asked by Julian Huxley to become the first head of the Natural Sciences Section of UNESCO in Paris, France. In fact it was Needham who insisted that science should be included in the organisation's mandate at an earlier planning meeting. After two years in which the suspicions of the Americans over scientific co-operation with communists intensified, Needham resigned in 1948 and returned to Gonville and Caius College, where he resumed his fellowship and his rooms, which were soon filled with his books. He devoted his energy to the history of Chinese science until his retirement in 1990, even though he continued to teach some biochemistry until 1966.

Needham's reputation recovered from the Korean affair (see below) such that by 1959 he was elected as president of the fellows of Caius College and in 1965 he became Master (head) of the College, a post which he held until he was 76.

Science and Civilisation in China

In 1948, Needham proposed a project to the Cambridge University Press for a book on Science and Civilisation in China. Within weeks of being accepted, the project had grown to seven volumes, and it has expanded ever since. His initial collaborator was the historian Wang Ling (王玲), whom he had met in Lizhuang and obtained a position for at Trinity. The first years were devoted to compiling a list of every mechanical invention and abstract idea that had been made and conceived in China. These included cast iron, the ploughshare, the stirrup, gunpowder, printing, the magnetic compass and clockwork escapements, most of which were thought at the time to be western inventions. The first volume eventually appeared in 1954.

The publication received widespread acclaim, which increased to the lyrical as further volumes appeared. He wrote fifteen volumes himself, and the regular production of further volumes continued after his death in 1995. Later, Volume III was divided, so that 27 volumes have now been published. Successive volumes are published as they are completed, which means that they do not appeared in the order originally contemplated in the project's prospectus.

Needham's final organising schema was:

See Science and Civilisation in China for a full list.

The project is still proceeding under the guidance of the Publications Board of the Needham Research Institute, chaired by Christopher Cullen.[12]

Needham Question

"Needham's Grand Question", also known as "The Needham Question", is this: why had China and India been overtaken by the West in science and technology, despite their earlier successes? In Needham's words, “Why did modern science, the mathematization of hypotheses about Nature, with all its implications for advanced technology, take its meteoric rise only in the West at the time of Galileo [but] had not developed in Chinese civilisation or Indian civilisation?”[13] [14]

"Gunpowder, the magnetic compass, and paper and printing, which Francis Bacon considered as the three most important inventions facilitating the West's transformation from the Dark Ages to the modern world, were invented in China".[15] Needham's works attribute significant weight to the impact of Confucianism and Taoism on the pace of Chinese scientific discovery, and emphasises the "diffusionist" approach of Chinese science as opposed to a perceived independent inventiveness in the western world. Needham thought the notion that the Chinese script had inhibited scientific thought was "grossly overrated".[16]

His own research revealed a steady accumulation of scientific results throughout Chinese history. In the final volume he suggests "A continuing general and scientific progress manifested itself in traditional Chinese society but this was violently overtaken by the exponential growth of modern science after the Renaissance in Europe. China was homeostatic, but never stagnant."[14]

Nathan Sivin, one of Needham's collaborators, while agreeing that Needham's achievement was monumental, suggested that the "Needham question", as a counterfactual hypothesis, was not conducive to a useful answer: "It is striking that this question – Why didn't the Chinese beat Europeans to the Scientific Revolution? – happens to be one of the few questions that people often ask in public places about why something didn't happen in history. It is analogous to the question of why your name did not appear on page 3 of today's newspaper."[17]

There are several hypotheses attempting to explain the Needham Question. Yingqui Liu and Chunjiang Liu[18] argued that the issue rested on the lack of property rights and that those rights were only obtainable through favour of the emperor. Protection was incomplete as the emperor could rescind those rights at any time. Science and technology were subjugated to the needs of the feudal royal family, and any new discoveries were sequestered by the government for its use. The government took steps to control and interfere with private enterprises by manipulating prices and engaging in bribery. Each revolution in China redistributed property rights under the same feudal system. Land and property were reallocated first and foremost to the royal family of the new dynasty up until the late Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) when fiefdom land was taken over by warlords and merchants. These limited property rights constrained potential scientific innovations.

The Chinese Empire enacted totalitarian control and was able to do so because of its great size. There were smaller independent states that had no choice but to comply with this control. They could not afford to isolate themselves. The Chinese believed in the well being of the state as their primary motive for economic activity, and individual initiatives were shunned. There were regulations on the press, clothing, construction, music, birth rates, and trade. The Chinese state controlled all aspects of life, severely limiting any incentives to innovate and to better one's self. "The ingenuity and inventiveness of the Chinese would no doubt have enriched China further and probably brought it to the threshold of modern industry, had it not been for this stifling state control. It is the State that kills technological progress in China".[19]

According to Justin Lin,[15] China did not make the shift from an experience-based technological invention process to an experiment-based innovation process. The experience-based process depended on the size of a population, and while new technologies have come about through the trials and errors of the peasants and artisans, experiment-based processes surpasses experience-based processes in yielding new technology. Progress from experimentation following the logic of a scientific method can occur at a much faster rate because the inventor can perform many trials during the same production period under a controlled environment. Results from experimentation is dependent on the stock of scientific knowledge while results from experience-based processes is tied directly to the size of a population; hence, experiment-based innovation processes have a higher likelihood of producing better technology as human capital grows. China had about twice the population of Europe until the 13th Century and so had a higher probability of creating new technologies. After the 14th Century, China's population grew exponentially, but progress in innovation saw diminishing returns. Europe had a smaller population but began to integrate science and technology that arose from the scientific revolution in the 17th Century. This scientific revolution gave Europe a comparative advantage in developing technology in modern times.

Lin blamed the institutions in China for preventing the adoption of the experiment-based methodology. Its sociopolitical institution inhibited intellectual creativity, but more importantly, it diverted this creativity away from scientific endeavours. Totalitarian control by the state in the Chinese Empire inhibited public dispute, competition, and the growth of modern science, while the clusters of independent European nations were more favourable to competition and scientific development. In addition, the Chinese did not have the incentives to acquire human capital necessary for modern scientific experimentation. Civil service was deemed the most rewarding and honourable work in pre-modern China. The gifted had more incentives to pursue this route to move up the social status ladder as opposed to pursuing scientific endeavours.

Evaluations and critiques

Needham's work has been criticised by some scholars who assert that it has a strong inclination to exaggerate Chinese technological achievements and has an excessive propensity to assume a Chinese origin for the wide range of objects his work covered. Pierre-Yves Manguin writes, for instance:

"J Needham's (1971) monumental work on Chinese nautics offers by far the most scholarly synthesis on the subjects of Chinese shipbuilding and navigation. His propensity to view the Chinese as the initiators of all things and his constant references to the superiority of Chinese over the rest of the world's techniques does at times detract from his argument.[20]"

In another vein of criticism, Andre Gunder Frank's Re-Orient argues that despite Needham's contributions in the field of Chinese technological history, he still struggled to break free from his preconceived notions of European exceptionalism. Re-Orient criticizes Needham for his Eurocentric assumptions borrowed from Marx and the presupposition of Needham's famous Grand Question that science was a uniquely Western phenomenon. Frank observes:

"Alas, it was also originally Needham's Marxist and Weberian point of departure. As Needham found more and more evidence about science and technology in China, he struggled to liberate himself from his Eurocentric original sin, which he had inherited directly from Marx, as Cohen also observes. But Needham never quite succeeded, perhaps because his concentration on China prevented him from sufficiently revising his still ethnocentric view of Europe itself."[21]

T. H. Barrett asserts in The Woman Who Discovered Printing that Needham was unduly critical of Buddhism, describing it as having 'tragically played a part in strangling the growth of Chinese science,' to which Needham readily conceded to in a conversation a few years later.[22] Barrett also criticizes Needham's favoritism and uncritical evaluation of Taoism in Chinese technological history:

"He had a tendency — not entirely justified in the light of more recent research — to think well of Taoism, because he saw it as playing a part that could not be found elsewhere in Chinese civilization. The mainstream school of thinking of the bureaucratic Chinese elite, or 'Confucianism' (another problematic term) in his vocabulary, seemed to him to be less interested in science and technology, and to have 'turned its face away from Nature.' Ironically, the dynasty that apparently turned away from printing from 706 till its demise in 907 was as Taoist as any in Chinese history, though perhaps its 'state Taoism' would have seemed a corrupt and inauthentic business to Needham."[23]

Referring to Needham's work as a sinologist, Daiwie Fu, in the essay "On Mengxi bitan's World of Marginalities and 'South-pointing Needles': Fragment Translation vs. Contextual Tradition", argues for contextual translations instead of fragmented ones, criticising the faults of Needham in particular.[24]

Political involvement

Needham's political views were unorthodox and his lifestyle controversial. His left-wing stance was based in an idiosyncratic form of Christian socialism and after 1949 his sympathy with Chinese culture was extended to the new government. During his stay in China, Needham was asked to analyse some cattle-cakes which the Communists claimed had been scattered by American aircraft in the south of China at the end of World War II, and found they were impregnated with anthrax.[25] During the Korean War further accusations were made that the Americans had used biological warfare. Zhou Enlai coordinated an international campaign to enlist Needham for a study commission, tacitly offering access to materials and contacts in China needed for his then early research. Needham agreed to be an inspector in North Korea and his report supported the allegations. After post-Cold War revelations that the Soviets had assisted the Chinese in setting up false scenarios, Needham's biographer Simon Winchester commented that "Needham was intellectually in love with communism; and yet communist spymasters and agents, it turned out, had pitilessly duped him." Needham was blacklisted by the US government until well into the 1970s.[26]

In 1965, with Derek Bryan, a retired diplomat whom he first met in China, Needham established the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding, which for some years provided the only way for the British to visit the People's Republic of China. On a visit to China in 1964 he was met by Zhou Enlai, but on a visit in 1972 he was deeply depressed by the changes under the Cultural Revolution.

Personal life

Needham was married to the biochemist Dorothy Moyle (1896–1987) in 1924 and they became the first husband and wife both to be elected as Fellows of the Royal Society.[5] Simon Winchester notes that, in his younger days, Needham was an avid gymnosophist and he was always attracted by pretty women.[27] When he and Lu Gwei-djen met in 1937, they fell deeply in love, which Dorothy accepted. The three of them eventually lived contentedly on the same road in Cambridge for many years. In 1989, two years after Dorothy's death, Needham married Lu, who died two years later. He suffered from Parkinson's disease from 1982, and died at the age of 94 at his Cambridge home. In 2008 the Chair of Chinese in the University of Cambridge, a post never awarded to Needham, was endowed in his honour as the Joseph Needham Professorship of Chinese History, Science and Civilisation.[28]

Needham was a high church Anglo-Catholic who worshipped regularly at Ely Cathedral and in the College chapel, but he also described himself as an "honorary Taoist".[29]

Honours and awards

In 1961, Needham was awarded the George Sarton Medal by the History of Science Society and in 1966 he became Master of Gonville and Caius College. In 1984, Needham became the fourth recipient of the J.D. Bernal Award, awarded by the Society for Social Studies of Science. In 1990, he was awarded the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize by Fukuoka City.

The Needham Research Institute, devoted to the study of China's scientific history, was opened in 1985 by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

Offices held

Academic offices
Preceded by
Sir Nevill Francis Mott
Master of Gonville and Caius College
Succeeded by
Sir William Wade


See also


  1. Gurdon, J. B.; Rodbard, B. (2000). "Joseph Needham, C.H. 9 December 1900 -- 24 March 1995: Elected F.R.S. 1941". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 46: 365. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1999.0091.
  2. 1 2 Winchester 2008, pp. 28–29
  3. 1 2 Winchester 2008, p. 238
  4. 1 2 Winchester 2008, p. 250
  5. 1 2 Mansel Davies (27 March 2005). "Obituary: Joseph Needham". The Independent. Retrieved 19 July 2010.
  6. Winchester 2008, p. 50
  7. Gregory, 'Joseph Needham,' in Peter Harman, Simon Mitton, (eds.) Cambridge scientific minds,Cambridge University Press, 2002 pp.299–312, p.305.
  8. Needham, Joseph. "Joseph Needham's sketchbook from his visit to the Buddhist grottoes at Chienfodong 千佛洞 (Qianfodong), Dunhuang, Gansu Province,... (NRI2/5/12/4)". Cambridge Digital Library. Retrieved 12 July 2016.
  9. For images and a transcription of his diary of this journey see
  10. Needham, Joseph. "Joseph Needham's journal of his tour in North-West China, Aug.7-Dec.14, 1943 (NRI2/5/12/1)". Cambridge Digital Library. Cambridge Digital Library. Retrieved 12 July 2016.
  11. Winchester 2008, pp. 84–157,175
  12. "Science and Civilisation in China". Needham Research Institute. Retrieved 9 July 2008.
  13. Joseph Needham (1969). The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West.
  14. 1 2 Joseph Needham (2004). Science and Civilisation in China. 7 part 2.
  15. 1 2 Lin, Justin (January 1995). "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.
  16. Grosswiler, Paul (2004). "Dispelling the Alphabet Effect". Canadian Journal of Communication. 29 (2). Retrieved 22 January 2011.
  17. Sivin (1995).
  18. Liu, Yingqui; Chunjiang Liu (2007). "Diagnosing The Cause of Scientific Standstill, Unravelling The Needham Puzzle". China Economist. 10: 83–96.
  19. Balazs, Etienne (1968). "La bureaucratie celeste: recherches sur l'economie et la societe de la Chine traditionnelle". Presentation de Paul Demieville.
  20. Pierre-Yves Manguin: "Trading Ships of the South China Sea. Shipbuilding Techniques and Their Role in the History of the Development of Asian Trade Networks", Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 36, No. 3. (1993), pp. 253–280 (268, Fn.26; 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.
  21. Frank 1998, p. 189.
  22. Barrett 2008, p. 134.
  23. Barrett 2008, p. 135.
  24. Fogel, p. 161, "Daiwie Fu [...] is specifically critical of Joseph Needham here". Fu's essay is published in De l'un au multiple: Traductions du chinois vers les langues européennes
  25. Robinson's reminiscences of Needham, in p. 235 of Needham, Joseph; Robinson, Kenneth G.; Huang, Jen-Yü (2004), Science and Civilisation in China, 7, part II General Conclusions and Reflections, Cambridge University Press
  26. Winchester 2008, p. 212 The incident has been further explored in Shiwei Chen, "History of Three Mobilisations: A Re-examination of the Chinese Biological Warfare Allegations against the United States in the Korean War," Journal of American-East Asian Relations 16.3 (2009): 213–247.
  27. Winchester 2008, p. 23
  28. Sterckx, Roel, In the Fields of Shennong: An inaugural lecture delivered before the University of Cambridge on 30 September 2008 to mark the establishment of the Joseph Needham Professorship of Chinese History, Science and Civilisation. Cambridge: Needham Research Institute, 2008 (ISBN 0-9546771-1-0).
  29. A Selection from the Writings of Joseph Needham ed Mansel Davies, The Book Guild 1990


The "Needham Question"

Further reading

External links



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