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Why integration of science in the East and West is needed more than ever?

By An Yingzhao | Ecns.cn | Updated: 2023-04-10 13:39

A visitor views exhibition boards at the exhibition area of pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca during the fifth China International Import Expo in Shanghai on Nov 7. [Photo/China Daily]

Since the middle of the 20th century, global sinologists seem to be unable to get around a "question from the soul" – the "Needham Puzzle". For more than half a century, many scholars have tried to answer it from the perspectives of political system, economic model, social culture, population geography and other disciplines. Even to this day, there hasn't been a precise answer yet, even the expression of this puzzle itself remains controversial.

Mr. Liu Dun, a board member of The Needham Research Institute, Distinguished Professor of the Department of the History of Science, Tsinghua University and former Director of the Institute for the History of Natural Sciences, CAS, had an exclusive interview with the "W.E. Talk" of China News Service. He said that the "Needham Puzzle" is actually a theme, by which Joseph Needham made a grand narrative about ancient Chinese science, technology and society. In the face of the ebb of globalization, the prevalence of the Clash of Civilizations, the rampant hegemonism, and the threats to the human living environment today, Joseph Needham's intellectual heritage can be used as a preservative and freshener.

Professor Liu pointed out that in a time of unprecedented global changes today, we don't have to decide "who is the big boss", but expect a more prosperous and fairer world instead. "All rivers run into the sea" is a metaphor Joseph Needham liked to use a lot to describe the course of science. It is also suitable for describing the entire human civilization.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

CNS: Dr. Joseph Needham published Science and Civilization in China (SCC) in the 1950s, in which he put forward a series of questions about China and science. Since then, scholars from China and other countries have made their own conclusions and interpretations, many versions of the "Needham Puzzle" have been derived. How do you summarize this famous puzzle? What is its core?

Liu Dun: The so-called "puzzle" is an expression by some western scholars, which means something puzzling. In fact, it is not a question that has a definite solution, multiple solutions or no solution like mathematical problems do. Although we sometimes say "Needham Question", we should remember that it is just a theme, which includes two levels. One is the expression "why not" used a lot by Chinese people, that is, "why modern science had not developed in Chinese civilization but only in Europe”. The other is "why", that is, "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". With this theme, Joseph Needham made a grand narrative about ancient Chinese science, technology and society.

CNS: As early as the 1920s, Chinese historian Feng Youlan believed that China had no science, and he argued that it was not because of the material conditions such as geography, climate, and economy, but because of Chinese people's values and philosophy. Needham's SCC is, to some extent, a refutation of Feng's view. What do you think of the history of ancient Chinese science?

Liu Dun: First of all, Feng Youlan was a scholar of the humanities focusing on ancient Chinese philosophy. His focus was on the ideological level. Second, "science" he referred to means "modern science". On the contrary, Joseph Needham was a materialistic scientist. He had been engaged in scientific practice and had a full understanding of the historical and cultural environment in which modern science developed in the West, as well as modern science & ancient science, science & pre-science, and science & technology.

He did not deliberately refute Feng Youlan. It is meaningful to discuss ancient China's understanding of the knowledge of nature from the perspectives of values and philosophy. Joseph Needham appreciated Confucius's academic attitude of "not talking of supernatural phenomena; of extraordinary feats of strength; of crime of unnatural depravity of men; or of supernatural beings.", and Taoism's organic view of nature. But he considered more about the social (such as the imperial ruling based on the Confucian scholar selection system, the ethical norms based on benevolence, righteousness, loyalty and filial piety, and the social status of merchants, etc.) and economic (such as agriculture and water conservancy, including geographical and climatic factors, as well as the inhibition of business) aspects. The "Needham Puzzle" is not a mathematical problem. The best response to this is the positive and negative expressions from a historical perspective. It is best and most comprehensively embodied in Joseph Needham's masterpiece Science and Civilization in China.

CNS: Some scholars hold that the "Needham Puzzle" in itself has limitations, and its tacit consent to the “advanced” western science and the "backward" Chinese science in the same period was still based on the assumption of the superiority of western civilization and the theory of scientific progress. What do you think are the main reasons that led China and the West to embark on different paths to modernization?

Liu Dun: This is a specious criticism. Joseph Needham never spoke about the superiority of Western civilization. On the contrary, he was a powerful refuter of the "West centrism". Of course he was a successor of "scientific progress" advocated by the European enlightenment scholars in the 18th century. Deeply influenced by Marxism, he also believed that society evolved from a lower form to a higher form, and the key to social progress was economy. When the economy developed to a certain extent, a cultural form that adapted to it would emerge. Therefore, the question he was looking into was why the Chinese society, whose economy had been far ahead of the West for a long period, lacked the cultural form of modern science. This is the historical root of the "Needham Puzzle", which has a strong ideological color.

To say that the "Needham Puzzle" has limitations is not as good as to say that "historicism" is interpreted too simply by some people. This needs to be supplemented by the research results of different approaches, such as the Chinese time view, the comparison between the ancient Chinese thought of "harmony between humanity and nature" and the western "natural law". All these are included in Joseph Needham's grand narrative. As for the process of western modernization, it was the logical result of a series of historical events: the Age of Exploration, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the most important is the scientific revolution from the 16th to the 17th century. The reasons why these events did not happen in China were what Joseph Needham tried to analyze based on the different social and economic structures in China and the West. China's modernization was passively introduced in the environment of domestic turmoil and foreign aggression after the Western scientific revolution and industrial revolution, and some aspects have not been completed yet.

Being "advanced" or "backward" are objective facts, and their definitions are not absolute. Whether being "advanced" or not is related to time and specific events. "Advancement" and "backwardness" coexist. In terms of modern science since the 17th century, the West is far more advanced than China in the same period; while in the Middle Ages (the period from the 1st century BC to the 15th century AD which Joseph Needham referred to), China was ahead of the West in many fields.

CNS: Joseph Needham spoke highly of the "Four Great Inventions" in ancient China. In what ways did ancient Chinese science and technology, represented by these four great inventions, influence the development of modern Western science?

Liu Dun: Early in the middle of the 16th century, some westerners held that the magnetic compass, gunpowder and printing were unparalleled inventions in the whole ancient world. Later, Francis Bacon and Marx reiterated and put to good use of this assertion, but did not clearly point out where it was quoted. In 1930, Chinese historian Xiang Da added papermaking, thus constituting the well-known "Four Great Inventions". On January 1, 1951, the New Year's Day editorial of People's Daily clearly stated that "The compass was invented very early in China. Papermaking was invented as early as 1,700 years ago. Block printing was invented as early as 1,200 years ago. Movable-type printing was invented as early as 800 years ago. Chinese people began using gunpowder earlier than the Europeans too." This statement was carried forward by Joseph Needham, making China's "Four Great Inventions" widely accepted.

As for the significance of the "Four Great Inventions", Joseph Needham basically inherited Marx's viewpoint, that is, they facilitated the decline of feudalism in Europe. Of course, there were more inventions in ancient China than these four. Joseph Needham once listed 26 items (numbered from A to Z) of machines and related technologies that were spread from China to the West, such as porcelain, piston bellow, jacquard machine, silk reeling machine, chest and neck harnesses, cast iron, cable suspension bridge, floating gimbals, etc. He also said that there were numerous other ancient Chinese inventions equal to or greater than those he listed, but he had used up all the 26 letters in the alphabet.

In recent years, experts from the Institute for the History of Natural Sciences, CAS and other institutions have re-examined this topic in terms of originality and world influence, and proposed "Thirty Great Inventions" in ancient China, including both technical inventions and objects involving scientific ideas and methods, such as the decimal numeration and counting, abacus, equatorial astrometry instruments, canal ship locks, deep-well drilling, rockets, TCM diagnosis and treatment, millet and rice farming, ecological agronomy, etc.

CNS: As Professor H. Floris Cohen puts it, "It is safe to say that rarely in the academic history of twentieth-century has such a plain question yielded such impressive results." Are there other inspirations of the "Needham Puzzle" in the 21st century as once-in-a-century changes of the times combine with the pandemic?

Liu Dun: Floris Cohen is one of the most influential historians of science today. This sentence comes from his famous book The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry. It affirms the significance of the "Needham Puzzle". The "Needham Puzzle" is a very extensible theme, including West & non-West, science & technology, ancient & modern times, scientific unity & cultural diversity, etc. The more extensible a theme is, the richer its connotation is, and the more outstanding the achievements are. Specifically, its "impressive results" are reflected in the following aspects: it contains the theme of scientific revolution and modernization, it is one of the first cross-cultural studies, it helps to promote the study of the "big history", it highlights the contemporary value of traditional culture, and it provides a new historical basis for reflecting on the Chinese path to modernization. In the face of the ebb of globalization, the prevalence of the Clash of Civilizations, the rampant hegemonism, and the threats to the human living environment today, Joseph Needham's intellectual heritage can be used as a preservative and freshener.

The biodiversity is the material basis for the lives and breeds of the Earth, while the cultural diversity is the support for the prosperity of human civilization. Similarly, in international relations, a multipolar world is more rational and fairer than a unipolar one, and multilateralism is more conducive to counterbalancing hegemonism and maintaining world stability than unilateralism.

As a late comer for industrialization, China could not follow the path of Western countries established hundreds of years ago in its modernization. At such a moment, people should go into the "why not" form of the "Needham Puzzle", and try to find out what factors have hindered the development of science in China, what is beneficial to modern science but absent in our traditional culture, and what aspects we need to make up in, such as the enlightenment of rationalistic approaches and the pursuit of pure academic research. On the other hand, the "why" form of the "Needham Puzzle" can enhance the self-confidence. We don't need to belittle ourselves as a late comer.

In a time of unprecedented global changes today, we don't have to decide "who is the big boss", but expect a more prosperous and fairer world instead. "All rivers run into the sea" is a metaphor used a lot by Joseph Needham. It can be used to describe not only the course of science, but also the entire human civilization.

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