The Constraints of Language on Chinese Scientific Development


China has historically been a place of great scientific advancement and is well known for having beaten Europe to a great many innovations and discoveries. From antiquity through to the early second millennium China was noticeably ahead of Europe in almost all scientific fields. However, by at least the sixteenth century China’s scientific and technological advancement had entered a period of prolonged stagnation, one which allowed Europe to overtake China in the sciences.

The Needham question asks why China suddenly fell behind Europe in the sciences. Joseph Needham himself argued that it was the rising negative political and cultural impact of Confucianism and Taoism which stifled advancement, perhaps similar to the European Dark Ages. While perhaps partially accurate, this argument seems insufficient on its own to fully explain the phenomenon.

One interesting theory that’s been put forward is that the Chinese language itself played a prohibitive role in terms of scientific advancement beyond a certain point. While the Chinese were advanced enough to invent the printing press many years ahead of the Europeans, the Chinese language lacked an alphabet or system of writing which could be easily codified into a mass-producible typeset. As a result, printing remained an exclusive and expensive practice in China.

This contrasts dramatically with the European case, where the easy availability of printing for the emerging educated middle classes after the renaissance period allowed for the rapid spread of ideas and knowledge, and was essential for the move towards a modern scientific community and the widening of education programmes.

This idea reminded me of a similar but seemingly unrelated problem encountered by the Chinese relating to their written language: the difficulty of learning to read and write it with any fluency. The problem was seen as so severe that in efforts to boost literacy the young People’s Republic took the drastic step of changing their written character system to the Simplified Chinese we students of the language are thankful for today.

So I’m going to ask you, do you think that the added difficulties in learning to read and write (which probably restricted literacy on class lines more dramatically than in Europe post-Reformation) is a potential significant contributing factor to the Chinese scientific and technological stagnation of the last few centuries?

Which explanations of the Needham paradox do posters favour? Do you feel there are other significant contributing factors which are routinely ignored?

2 Responses to “The Constraints of Language on Chinese Scientific Development”

  1. Jon Says:

    Your view tends to adhere to the cliche Western opinion that late imperial China was “stagnant” and had not changed for centuries. An analysis of China during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) actually reveals a number of significant socio-economic changes meaning that China in the early Qing was very different to China in the late Qing. These differences began to develop in the 18th century before foreign imperialism had made any significant inroads into China.

    In terms of technology we see developing agricultural methods (e.g. rice transplantation) designed to improve crop yields and reduce necessary labour input. In regards to literature we also see the rise of vernacular material and the expansion of a popular culture. Contrary to popular belief most people could read around 200 characters (ultimately not that difficult as you only need to remember a symbol, not phonetic components). While becoming fully literate in Chinese is a time-consuming process, it does not require inherent ability. While simplified characters did help improve literacy rates in the early PRC, contemporary literacy rates in Hong Kong and Taiwan where traditional characters were retained are still high.

    What we have to remember about late imperial China is that the Qing were very keen on controlling people’s actions. Literally meaning “pure”, the Qing set their mandate for rule on countering the perceived lack of morals of the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Thus they were keen for people to be able to read in order to be able to read Qing propaganda (e.g. Kangxi’s sacred edict). At the same time, we also see the Qing (particularly the Qianlong emperor) taking a very draconian approach towards private libraries with book hunts and burnings of prohibited texts.

    Although I have not read Needham, you say he blames Confucianism for the stagnation (I would assume he means Neo-Confucinaism which emerged during the Song dynasty (960-1279)). Although Neo-Confucianism is not a strong area of mine, I am pretty sure it advocates the education of the people (education being very important in Confucianism). As for Daoism, I’m just not sure it would have had such an impact on society.

    Overall, I think we have to look at the measures of the Qing state as contributing towards any stifling of technological development, but that development did occur nonetheless and that to see late imperial China as “stagnant” is a gross misrepresentation.

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