Clerks and Craftsmen in China and the West: Lectures and Addresses on the History of Science and Technology Review
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Needham's education was in science. His interest in the religion, philosophy, and history of China heightened during World War II when he served as the director of the Sin-British Science Co-operation Office in unoccupied China. The SCC is acclaimed as a factual synthesis of Chinese Civilization. Some critics argue that Needham's "diffusionist stand" toward inventions, such as with the escape mechanism in clockwork and the development of the steam engine, neglect the factor of independent invention. Needham's chapters on these subjects demonstrate a shared development.
Each chapter is a published lecture. Utilizing newly discovered or translated material, Needham shows the "slow but massive" migration of technical inventions from the east to west during the Christian era. His focus goes beyond the inventions of paper, printing, gunpowder, and the magnetic compas (already well attributed to the Chinese) to the discussion of other Chinese inventions such as iron-casting (-1 in China/+14 in Europe) deep drilling, the development of the paddle-wheel for a ship's propulsion, and many others. China, he argues, was greatly advanced technologically over Europe until +15.
Ideas traveled from China and Europe through Central Asia, along the silk trade routes. The Chinese government financed cultural expeditions to East Africa by sea. The Chinese navigated by the stars and magnetic compass. The ships hulls were designed with a bulkhead and used a hinged axial rudder. But support for the navy faded, obviating any further development of sea power, when domestic concerns rose from invading hoards across the steppes. Only fifty years later the Portuguese, privately financed and motivated by trade and religion, arrived in the late 1400s. What a difference it would have made historically if the Portuguese and Chinese had converged on the sea!
Given Needham's overwhelming fascination with Chinese science and technology, he speculates on why modern technology did not develop in China. As concisely put as possible he says "China was fundamentally an irrigation-agricultural civilization, as contrasted with the pastoral navigational civilization of Europe."(82) Because monsoon rainfall patterns were limited to certain months and the amounts of rain were unpredictable, a large bureaucracy grew to manage irrigation. This bureaucracy contributed to Chinese civilization's continuity (3000 years) along with a common language, strict laws as a method of control, and a shared culture through printing.
Geography is another reason offered as to why China did not develop technologically. In contrast to the continental character of China, Europe had a peninsular structure. Needham hypothesizes China's centralized agricultural bureaucracy is unlike the city-state structure in Europe which fostered a mercantile economy. In China merchants were restrained from gaining power, while in Europe merchants prospered, fostering technological innovation.
Needham, writing from the perspective of a Western scholar, offers a provocative and controversial study. Perhaps one day a Chinese scholar will reply with an equally erudite synthesis, hopefully translated to English!
Clerks and Craftsmen in China and the West: Lectures and Addresses on the History of Science and Technology Overview
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