Joseph Needham 's Impact On The Historiography Of Chinese Science And Technology

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This paper examines Joseph Needham’s impact on the historiography of Chinese Science and Technology (S&T), arguing that his great achievements were marred by an East/West comparative approach, and that subsequent historians have only partly overcome these restrictions. His multi-volume Science and Civilization in China (1954-ongoing) single handedly thrust China into the Western-dominated historiography. Organized along the disciplinary lines of modern science, Needham sought to document every scientific concept and technology invented in China, which he saw as the origin of most knowledge before Europe’s Scientific Revolution. For Needham, science in China (and India, and the Middle East) was like the river that flowed into the sea of…show more content…
Reviewing Needham’s life’s work in 1984, famed historian Lynn White, Jr. wrote that Needham seemed to be doing penance for the Opium War, but that “One respects the exaggerations of a lover. For forty five years Joseph Needham has been in intellectual love with China and the Chinese.” Needham took it as his task to document millennia of Chinese science and technology. Bringing forth thousands of unknown primary and ignored secondary documents, he created a portrait of imperial China as a stable and inventive civilization, morally superior the later Western empires. Until the sixteenth century, he demonstrated, the flow of knowledge and technology had mainly gone from East to West. The European Enlightenment, Scientific Revolution and Industrial Revolution all stood on the shoulders of Chinese contributions. It was time, Needham argued, to recognize that the West did not have a monopoly on science:
“Surely it would be better to give more attention to the history and values of these non-European civilization, in actual fact no less exalted and inspiring than our own. Then let us give up that intellectual pride which boasts that ‘we are the people, and that wisdom was born with us’. Let us take pride enough in the undeniable historical fact that modern science was born in Europe
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