Time, Science, and Society in China and the West

By J. T. Fraser; N. Lawrence et al. | Go to book overview

Cultural and Intellectual Attitudes That Prevented the Spontaneous Emergence of Modern Science in China

Qiu Renzong

Summary The emergence of science was an improbable event in the history of mankind. Only in
Europe did all the factors converge to make the birth of natural science possible. The social, cultural,
intellectual, and political ambience of ancient and medieval China made the coming about of
mathematical-experimental science impossible. Instead, we find two different kinds of knowledge:
Confucianism and the study of Confucian classics was one; craft knowledge was the other. Both
contain many valuable ideas and some true achievements of the human spirit, but craft knowledge has
never been transformed into science. Thus, natural science had to be imported to China, as it had to be
imported everywhere else outside the sphere of European culture. If science is to grow in China, it is
necessary to create the appropriate intellectual soil for its nurture.

The question of why Chinese science and technology fell behind that of Europe in modern times has been broadly discussed in contemporary Chinese writings (see the list of references at the end of this article). It is easy to see why the question was asked. On the one hand, through the work of Chinese and non-Chinese historians of science (notable among the latter, the work of Joseph Needham), it became evident that in antiquity and through the Middle Ages Chinese science and technology was ahead of Europe in many fields. On the other hand, since the open-door policy began after the Cultural Revolution, it became clear that contemporary Chinese preparedness in science and technology lagged behind that of the West. An answer to the question of how this imparity developed should help in reaching the goal of the program of modernization as far as science and technology go. Understanding the reasons for falling behind will surely assist China in catching up with the scientifically advanced countries.

Detailed formulation of the mode of attack on the problem is not easy. On a first approach, on the surface, "falling behind" and "having been in the lead" speak mainly of quantitative issues: the number of scientific and technological discoveries and the times of their occurrence. But beneath the quantitative issue there is a qualitative one: Did traditional Chinese science have the same quality, or nature, as the science of the West did, in the same developmental stage? Are there specific reasons why the scientific revolution did not, or could not have occurred in China? Why did it have to be imported?

An answer to these questions demands an understanding of the character of modern natural science. Is it a type of knowledge independent of cultural and social contexts?

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