In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Needham Question

  • Introduction
  • Basic Works by Needham
  • The Science and Civilisation in China Project
  • Biographies of Needham
  • Needham’s Thought
  • Precursors
  • Early Attacks on Needham’s Work
  • Politically Impartial Responses
  • Comprehensive Critiques
  • Broad Analyses of the Question
  • Historiographic Critiques of the Question
  • Other General Critiques of the Question
  • Critiques of the Question by Philologists
  • Outcomes of the Question
  • Aftermath

Chinese Studies The Needham Question
Nathan Sivin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0006


The “Needham Question” or “Needham Problem,” also misleadingly called “the Needham Paradox,” refers to the guiding question behind Joseph Needham’s (b. 1900–d. 1995) massive Science and Civilisation in China, as well as his many other publications. As he phrased it, “the essential problem [is] why modern science had not developed in Chinese civilization (or Indian) but only in Europe.” He went on to consider another quite different question, equally important, and centered his historical research on it: “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” (p. 190 of The Grand Titration [Needham 1969], cited under Basic Works by Needham). To seek answers, he compiled what Europeans had learned over three hundred years about science, medicine, and technology in China. Substantial original investigations by Needham and his several collaborators, of whom the best known were Lu Gwei-djen (Guizhen), Wang Ling, and Ho Peng Yoke (Bingyu), expanded and added depth to the picture, and Needham’s interpretations of the results gave it coherence.

Basic Works by Needham

The basis of Needham’s work is the massive Science and Civilisation in China (Needham 1954–; twenty-five volumes published since 1954). Increasingly, from the mid-1980s, the volumes, organized by topic, were written by specialist colleagues. Needham also developed his ideas on the Needham Question for a broader readership in a series of other publications, especially Needham 1969a; Needham 1969b; Needham 1970; Needham 1981; and Huang and Needham 1974 (for a complete list, see Blue 1997, cited under Biographies of Needham). Huang and Needham 1974 is an attempt to specify material and social factors that impeded the development of capitalism and thus, in the authors’ opinion, of modern science in China (see Needham 1969a). This idea was to some extent derived from the writings of Edgar Zilsel, gathered in Zilsel 2000.

  • Huang, Ray, and Joseph Needham. “The Nature of Chinese Society: A Technical Interpretation.” East and West n.s. 24.3–4 (1974): 381–401.

    Emphasizes failure to fully develop a money economy (although paper money was first used in China).

  • Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilisation in China. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1954–.

    A project of great scope that still continues after sixty-plus years.

  • 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.

    Paper first published in 1964. The most mature of several essays on the determinants of Chinese technical history, comparative as always. Republished as recently as 2005 (London: Routledge).

  • Needham, Joseph. The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West. London: Allen & Unwin, 1969b.

    Needham’s collected arguments for the primacy of social and economic factors in the conditioning of Chinese scientific achievement. One can follow in this collection of papers, published from 1944 onward, the development and modification of the author’s views. See the book review by Nathan Sivin in Journal of Asian Studies 30.4 (1971): 870–873.

  • Needham, Joseph. Clerks and Craftsmen in China and the West: Lectures and Addresses on the History of Science and Technology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

    Another gathering of contributions, published from 1946 onward, dealing with a spectrum of themes from the most general to articles on snow crystal observations. Includes a group of essays on medicine.

  • Needham, Joseph. Science in Traditional China: A Comparative Perspective. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

    Four informal lectures, of which only one is based on previously unpublished research.

  • Zilsel, Edgar. The Social Origins of Modern Science. Edited by Diederick Raven, Wolfgang Krohn, and Robert S. Cohen. Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science 200. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-011-4142-0

    Zilsel was one of the very few social historians of science in the United States c. 1940. He argued that under capitalism artisans and scholars interacted, giving rise to new technical ideas, an idea that has been fruitful since. His studies were generally ignored by mainstream historians of scientific thought, who exclusively depended on intellectual history. The essays in this collection were published mostly between 1940 and 1945, but a couple first appear here.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.