The Needham Question
Joseph Needham in his Cambridge laboratory.
After my recent travels to China, I became acquainted with the concept of “the Needham question.” Joseph Needham was an eminent British scholar who embarked upon several remarkable adventures in China during and after World War II in search for clues to China’s many historic scientific achievements. Chronicled by Simon Winchester in his book, The Man Who Loved China, Needham’s controversial question probes the causes for China’s decline from its position as the most technologically advanced civilization on the planet around 1500 A.D.
Although Needham never answers this question—many scholars blame the xenophobia and introversion of the Ming dynasty for the transfer of scientific authority to the West—his predictions that China will reclaim its global technological superiority are particularly resonant. Winchester describes a sign posted in the fast-growing city of Jiuquan as an embodiment of Needham’s sentiment towards contemporary China: “Without Haste. Without Fear. We Conquer the World.” Winchester adds, “After its 5,000 years of patient waiting, watching, and learning, this is at last China’s appointed time.”