SCIENCE IN TRADITIONAL CHINA: A Comparative Perspective by Joseph Needham


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How pleasant to report that Needham--now in his 81st year--is truly a venerable sage. In five scholarly lectures he presents some of the fruits of 43 years' labor aimed at chronicling the history of science in China; as a group, they serve to introduce the general reader to the charm of Needham's style and to a content as fascinating as it is unfamiliar. A long introductory lecture discusses practical versus theoretical thinking East and West. ""Metaphysical idealism was never dominant in China, nor did the mechanical view of the world exist in Chinese thought."" Instead, Needham finds a kind of organic wholeness that led the Chinese to make practical inventions at the same time they might theorize about stars, space, and action at a distance. (Though algebraic in mathematical thought, not geometrical, the Chinese were perfectly capable of making elaborate gears, clock escapements, or other devices dependent on rotary motion.) A longish chapter on gunpowder records the earliest Chinese alchemical discoveries and debunks the notion that the Chinese used gunpowder only for fireworks. A chapter on macrobiotics--literally the art of long life--makes the point that, in China, the idea of transmuting minerals to gold was never divorced from the idea of using minerals to achieve immortality, or at least to heal ills; in the West, Needham remarks, comparable ideas only began to flower with Paracelsus. Acupuncture and moxibustion (the burning of special sticks on or above selected points an the skin) are the subjects of the fourth lecture in which Needham, trained as a biochemist, guardedly defends acupuncture on grounds that the needles tap into the body's own endorphin-mediated pain suppression systems. In chapter five, finally, Needham singles out China as dominated more by linear, progressive notions of time versus the domination of repetitive cycles (or the eternal return) in post-Hellenic and Indian cultures: an oft-heard East-West dichotomy. He cites China's sense of history, its reverence for past masters and inventors, its progression in science toward greater accuracy--overall, the idea that knowledge is cumulative. Why then did China stand apart from the burst of modern science that took off in the West after Galileo? Here Needham is mute, alluding obliquely to the very essence of Chinese culture; the unbroken mandarin bureaucracy able to absorb and assimilate; the concept of the slow and steady versus the climactic and cataclysmic history of the west. . . . All this makes stimulating and absorbing reading, an introduction that whets the appetite for more and more.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press