If you look at the history of China, especially pre-Renaissance, you see an amazing amount of scientific and technological developments that far exceeded similar developments in the European West. During the Renaissance and into modern times, the reverse occurred, with Europe, and then America, taking a leading role in scientific discovery and invention, while China stagnated. There have been numerous scholars that have attempted to answer why this occurred, and how Europe went from little in the way of scientific progress to eventually leading the charge of scientific development. No one is better known for asking why this occurred than Joseph Needham, who evolved what is now known as Needham’s Grand Question.
Needham’s Grand Question is the following: Why was China overshot by the West in science and technology? Needham’s Grand Question engenders other questions, such as: What happened in the history of China that made developing science and technology less important? What happened in Europe that made developing science and technology more important? What are the cultural, religious, economic, political and historical factors that caused China to be overshot?
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There are numerous attempts at answering Needham’s Grand Question. For Joseph Needham, who devoted half of his life to trying to answer this question and understand the history of Chinese science, the answer had to do most with the way Confucianism and Taoism promoted a way of life incompatible with huge scientific advances. Emphasis on wholeness in community thinking and respect to elders meant that children and even college students could not question teachers. A desire to maintain strong cultural identity discouraged new developments in favor of keeping a traditional way of doing things. To Needham, China’s culture and its philosophy and religion just was not interested in the high paced dramatic age of discovery in the West.
Needham’s theory is still noted by people from the West who teach in China. One of the difficulties noted is the challenge of teaching critical thinking to Chinese college students. Though these students are gifted, bright and as fully capable of intelligence as their Western counterparts, questioning a teacher is still frowned upon. Arguing with a teacher is a sign of disrespect.
Moreover, Needham’s Grand Question is often cited when people discuss the birth of individuality and the self that occurred during the European Renaissance. Few scientific developments are the result of a collective mindset, but instead, are progressions that were anti-status quo. Early scientific thought from Renaissance thinkers often railed against the establishment, resulting in punishment from authorities (particularly church authorities) who wanted to make certain that only church teaching was acceptable. Had the church been successful in completely squelching these individuals, we might have remained in a collective mindset, but gradually, the church lost the power to do this, especially as thought on the individual and the individual’s importance became more prominent.
China was much more effective in maintaining a society that preferenced the community over the individual, making it much less possible for individuals to reach forth and establish new scientific discoveries and technology. Though China has caught up in great degree due to Communist desire to compete with the Western world, there are still pockets of China in especially rural areas where the old ways prevail. A simple example in modern day is the way that modern medicine is practiced in China. It is considered extremely disrespectful to offer second opinions that differ from the primary physician in charge of a case. So while new solutions might be found, they may not be offered, and those who live in the rural areas of China are unlikely to question the opinion of a medical expert.
There are alternate theories to answer Needham’s Grand Question. One interesting one is the idea of how learning an alphabet, called the alphabet theory, may promote higher ordered thinking in young children. Others say it is impossible to answer Needham’s Grand Question without a full analysis of the history of both the west and China, which includes consideration of religion, culture, and geography. Needham’s Grand Question certainly prompted Needham to try to produce this kind of historical background, and he published numerous works on the history of science in China, in addition to working collaboratively with Chinese scientists to understand how and why the science and technology boom of the modern era belonged to the West.