According to Joseph Needham

Why did modern science, the mathematization of hypotheses about Nature, with all its implications for advanced technology, take its meteoric rise only in the West at the time of Galileo [but] had not developed in Chinese civilisation (or Indian or Islamic)? [Needham 1969, 2004, following wikipedia]

China had a primary site of development of technology and proto-sciences, but these developments were much less pronounced than the European fluorescence of technologies and proto-sciences in the Enlightenment period. Why?

  • Joseph Needham (1969). The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West
  • Joseph Needham (2004). Science and Civilisation in China. 7 part 2.
  • Needham and others 1954- Science and Civilisation in China [series]

(this incorporates material following Wikipedia)

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    Clarified. First time we've actually had the Needham question proper put. Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 5:58
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    I actually didn't know Joseph Needham or his question, since I am not an historian. Well I guess it's a good feeling that this seemed to be a valid unanswered question.
    – Opcode
    Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 16:09
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    Mr. Russell has done stalwart work in reforming this question, and I've voted to re-open. But fundamentally this is a counterfactual question "Why did history happen this way rather than that way?" is a question that solicits opinion over scholarship.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 18:28
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    Thankfully on this point, we have scholarly speculation on the counter-factual (much of the speculation is, "This is like asking why your name isn't on page 3 of the newspaper.") So it is well answerable from fixed scholarly opinion! Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 22:07
  • Actually the statement is not true: Islamic scholars developed a very high level of science (opposed to e.g. Galileo's contemporary). Only few read what Galileo wrote , and most of them was busy to burn people in name of God and ban books like the ones that Galileo wrote. The real divide occurred when industrialization and capitalism together could actually use new technologies, as well as the raw materials of the colonies (i.e. the cotton of America). This reinforced the development of new technologies and innovation.
    – Greg
    Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 1:24

7 Answers 7


One theory I have read—I believe Jared Diamond—is that Europe's diversity and fragmented nature spurred innovation, while the united China was much easier to control.

To explain that: China produced more Iron, better ships etc. than similarly situated European nations in the early 1600s but when the empire's bureaucracy feared the growing power of the merchants it was able to reverse the process.

In Europe, a lot of power competed with each other, and advantages gained by one power must be adapted by all power, even if it upset their domestic status quo. E.g. look at arbalets, which where disliked and banned by the church, but there was no authority which could enforce the ban. Similarly, a lot of European monarchs would have preferred less advancement, because it upset their countries' balance - but since the military needed to be competitive, they had to advance.

Another contributing factor might be the special role of cities, which is a often cited theory in political sciences (Stein Rokkan) which suggests that the independent cities (e.g., the Hanse) were better places for innovation than the tightly controlled cities of the far east.


First, you can put aside the "Well the Europeans were just cleverer", as even a cursory glance at world history will show inventions and developments from all societies at one time or another, from the Incan to the Chinese.

What I think could likely be the main trouble the Chinese had with technology is that the scale of the Chinese nation was so large. In order to get an idea to permeate the entire people, huge numbers would need to be produced. If the idea stayed in the circle of a select few mandarins, the chance that it would be misused or lost is increased. If the leadership decides it doesn't like this invention, you have to go thousands of miles to escape the government's grasp.

Contrast this to Europe in the middle ages and later. Discoveries were passed around by letter to many different political units. If the Pope didn't like the telescope, for example, there were astronomers in Poland or England that continued development. If a practical idea was discovered, it was much easier to outfit a city state in Italy with the new invention than all of China. And once new ideas showed practical use, either in agriculture, or building, or military use, then the chance that a second new idea would be accepted is greatly increased.

So Europe had nations that were big enough to support research, but not so large as to make implementing it impractical. The countries were competing enough that there was a market for advancement relative to your neighbors, but cooperative enough that ideas could flow across borders. And the large numbers of states with similar tech levels meant that this situation was likely to persist, rather than all being absorbed into a single state.


I remember being told that the development of glass making was one of the key technological breakthroughs that enabled the Enlightenment in Europe. Originally used for making vessels and windows, it allowed optics such as telescopes, magnifiers, microscopes, etc to be made. Once these had been invented sciences such as astronomy, chemistry and biology could take off.

China with its heavy reliance on ceramics missed out on these opportunities. Unfortunately I don't have any references to support this hypothesis but thought it may give a jump off point for someone else to take further.


I am not saying it is the only thing but the difficulty of becoming literate may have prevented the development of more than one potential Chinese innovator who was born into a family that could not afford education. I think of Faraday who had humble beginnings and he was not the only one. Importantly, who knows what would happened to Western science without Faraday? It is possible that another person motivated and capable of making his discoveries might not have come along for a generation. If not Faraday, I am sure there are other examples of people who benefited from being born in the West.


This is kind of an off-topic question because any answer will be a matter of opinion, but I guess I will take a stab at it.

First of all, Indian mathematics was very advanced in some regards and we ended up borrowing elements of it (via the Arabs), such as the use of "Arabic" numerals, which are actually of Indian origin. Indian computation of planetary orbits was far, far ahead of Ptolemaic computations. All of this was obliterated during the Mongol invasions in the 14th century, however, so it is hard to say how they would have done if uninterrupted.

Following on this, primitive civilizations are capable of advanced technology. For example, the Mayan calendar is very sophisticated and is arguably much more flexible and accurate than our own Gregorian calendar. Also, it was invented many hundreds of years before the Gregorian calendar.

So, what we are really after is net civilization--the totality of advancement, because in any one field anyone can be dominant if they apply themselves.

If we examine successful civilizations, we notice three key things:

(1) they rise and fall, the power centers move around over time

(2) they tend to occur where useful resources are located

(3) military dedication, attitude and approach is often innovative and superior

Based on this it would seem environment is very important. For example, early on the river valley civilizations (Nile, Euphrates) were paramount, but later on civilizations in more mineralized areas were stronger. There seems to be a symbiosis betweeen local resources and current needs. For example, countries that now have a lot of oil tend to be growing faster, ceteris paribus, than those that do not. For example, Sierra Leone, Turkmenistan and South Sudan have high growth rates now due to recently-discovered oil.

Then there is a military factor. Often large civilizations are created by a small, highly-motivated nucleus of warriors. For example, the Latins, the Macedonians and the Seljuk Turks. All three started in sheltered locations adjacent to rich old civilizations they could grow at the expense of. For example, the Latins sheltered in a large swamp (Latium was originally a big swamp), and over time pillaged and fed off of the Etruscans.

The success of Europe, a relatively small area of the world, would seem to be a combination of these elements: proximity to resources of the type needed by current technology, nearness to existing rich civilizations, and a terrain that favors creation of nuclear warrior groups.

One indication that supports these ideas is that China had difficulty in communication of civilization. For example, many regions of China, such as Sichuan, were in a primitive, almost neolithic state at the same time that other parts were in the bronze age and progressing rapidly. This shows that there was difficulty in communicating and spreading civilization there.

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    Those three key things, how are they more true for Europe than China? Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 0:14
  • @congusbongus Well, for example, in Europe you have many more mountain chains and hills closely together in combination with lowlands, whereas the main part of China is mostly river (alluvial) basins and plains composed of loess. While good for growing food, minerals are less common. Also, in such terrain there are fewer places for isolated warrior cultures to develop. Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 0:59
  • @congusbongus Another factor is invadability. Due to its wide, unimpeded plains it was easier for horse-riding invaders to devastate China. Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 1:13

China's problems with science appear to have begun with the steam and internal combustion engines of the 18th and 19th century. Prior to the 18th century, China appears to have been ahead of Europe in science. On the other hand, China was less noted for "engineering." Basically, the Chinese culture discouraged educated people from getting their hands dirty, so only "laborers" (and not scientists) would deal with mechanical issues, particularly when they used large amounts of energy and gave off large amounts of pollution.

China's resurgence appears to be tied to the fact that the world is moving beyond "industrialization" and into an information society. This is a world in which China can compete very well; the abacus may be seen as a primitive form of a computer, and Chinese rote education actually lends itself to "coding" minds.

China's recent weakness in manufacturing is covered by computer aided design and computer aided manufacturing. Basically, educated people can now direct manufacturing without getting their hands dirty (forget for a moment about "sweatshop" laborers).


Innovation is the result of competition. Stagnation is a result of complacency. If you are in competition with anyone, you attempt to out-think your competitor. In the 1700's, the competition between English, French, Spain was fierce. In China, they thought everyone else were barbarians and there was no threat of conquest by a foreign power...until it was too late. Fast forward to today. The Europeans are now at peace and have become complacent. China no longer considers the outside world as barbarians but as their competitors. The USA and China now dominate the world economically. China has a larger population while the USA has an edge on innovation. My answer to the Needham question may be confirmed in a few decades.

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