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?

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