10/08/2022 thesaker.is  15 min 🇬🇧 #213568

Needham's puzzle in retrospect

by Jean-Pierre Voiret for the Saker blog

First note: With all its problems, Needham's Science and Civilisation in China (SCC) is definitely a tremendous contribution to the history of science and technology as well as a formidable vehicle for intercultural dialogue.

Second note: A successor of Father Ricci S.J. in the Jesuit China Mission, Father Dominique Parennin S.J., was in my opinion the first man ever to formulate the so-called "Needham question" (also called Needham's puzzle). He asked this question in a letter he addressed to the French academician Dortous de Mairan on the eleventh of August, 1730!

But what is "Needham's question?"

Joseph Needham's biographer Simon Winchester formulated this question in the following terms:

"Joseph Needham fretted for decades over one single aspect of China's inventive history that seems at odds with the main story: The curious fact that after centuries of scientific and technological creativity, everything in China suddenly ground to a halt. The Chinese of the distant past did essentially all inventing. Come the fourteenth century, when the Renaissance was fully under way in Europe, the creative passions of China suddenly seemed to dry up; the energy began to ebb away and to die"  1.


Now, let us see how Father Parennin formulated this same question almost 300 years ago in his letter to Dortous de Mairan  2 ? Commenting on his observations he asked himself (I sum up): Why is it that the scientific knowledge of our Chinese colleagues at the imperial court - the doctors and astronomers one would meet there every day - is much lower than the level of knowledge one would find in the Song dynasty's books on medicine and astronomy  3 in the imperial library? In other words, why was the high level of science in China during the Song period (960-1279 AD) lost to a considerable degree later on? Father Parennin provides no answer to this question in the letter. However, I think we can agree that his is a superb early formulation of "Needham's question".

So why did modern science not develop in China as it did in Europe? Indeed, it is a bit of an understatement to call this question simply "Needham's question" or "Needham's puzzle". It is really Needham's grand question; for apart from dozens of times he asked this same question again and again in the various volumes of his 'Science and Civilisation', he wrote an entire book about it entitled "The Grand Titration".  4 To be sure, he did provide partial answers (the bureaucracy, the conservative evolution of Confucianism, the different focal points of mathematics in the East and West, the late evolution of Taoism, the development of capitalism in Europe, the influence of logics, the influence of religions, the influence of various social factors, etc.), but he also repeatedly underlined that these answers were partial at best, and that more research would have to take place before this complex problem could be considered understood. Please allow me now to contribute my modest insight into this question.

  1. What I shall try to demonstrate in the next twenty minutes is that the incredibly crippling Mongolian invasion and the long occupation of China could be the main reason for China's scientific and technical stagnation during and after the 65-year war from 1214 to 1279 and the long phase of occupation and exploitation of China by the Mongols and their vassals from 1279 to 1368  5. I shall try to prove that the negative impact of the Mongolian intervention on China has been grossly undervalued. One reason lies in the fact that the Chinese historians themselves have considered and treated the Yuan dynasty practically like a traditional Chinese dynasty and have invented the "fairy tale" of the sinisation and of the integration of the Mongols into Chinese society in order, firstly, to reduce the loss of face of having been defeated as a cultural and technical superpower by an army of illiterate barbarians, and, secondly, to repress and forget the traumatic experience of more than one and a half centuries of war, ravage, rape and occupation. As for the reason why Western sinology uncritically accepted the Chinese version of these events, it probably lies in the fact that after WWII, Western sinology was dominated by Anglo-Saxon sinology. Needham was a citizen of Great Britain, a nation that has never been invaded and occupied since 1066, so that Britons cannot really envision what a defeat and a prolonged occupation actually mean. US sinologists cannot imagine that either. Conversely, I do believe that my experience, as a child, of the occupation of my country, France, by the Wehrmacht, and of the exploitation of the French industry to the aims of Hitler's wars, as well as my later reflections on these and similar events, did help me acquire a view of China's Mongolian trauma that is very different from the benign view of this event which is common among the Chinese and Anglo-Saxon sinologists.

This text is actually but a brief summary. As a consequence, let me list here my main arguments, for which you will find many further details, explanations and evidence in my 2022 book (in German).

1. The conquest of China by the Mongol armies lasted 65 years (1214-1279), which is more than twice the duration of Europe's devastating so-called "Thirty Years War" in the 17th century. Before this conquest, China's weakening had already started with the Khitan and the Jürchen invasions of North China.

2. During this Mongolian conquest, according to the available censuses, China lost around half of its population: not only half of its farmers, but also half of its scholars, scientists, technicians, doctors, teachers, printers, etc.

3 We often underestimate the utter level of barbarism and of destruction achieved during China's conquest, although we own the testimony of a European Witness, Marco Polo: As Marco travels on horseback in 1278 through Western Sichuan, he observes that the ravages that go back to the conquest of this region by the troops of Mongka Khan in 1258 are still obvious:

"There are many towns and many villages and hamlets in this province, but all dilapidated and ruined. And one passes quite twenty days journey through uninhabited places, through which wild beasts roam."  6 

The destruction was so complete that twenty (20!) years later, there is nothing to see but ruins.

The great sinologist Wolfram Eberhard has thoroughly analysed the reasons for the strong impoverishment of China under Mongol rule, especially the huge growth of statute labor (corvée) for the sole benefit of the invaders. For instance the building of Kanbalik's (Peking's) new palaces and buildings was done by armies of Chinese farmers, whose field thus remained uncultivated. It was also necessary to repair the dykes and irrigation systems which had been systematically destroyed. Again, armies of farmer had to do this work and could not produce food. But this was only one part of the disaster: The peasant class, which traditionally had to feed their aristocracy and upper class, had now to feed one million more people: the Mongol conquerors and their foreign collaborators. On top of that, huge pieces of land were requisitioned for the private use of Mongol nobles, for military camps and for Lamaist temples, and thus lost for agriculture. In this way, the number of tax paying farmers was considerably reduced. At the same time, the State needed growing sums of money to satisfy the greed of the new Mongolian and foreign prebends and sinecure receivers. For these reasons, tax levels had to grow permanently, so that "the Mongolian occupation became a period of permanent and fast impoverishment of the whole of China". (...) "A statistic from the year 1329 states that the number of starving people in the empire reached 7.6 Million. Since this was the official number, their real number was probably much higher"  7.

4. The conquest was followed by up to 108 years (1279-1387) of occupation and exploitation  8, during which time especially the schools and institutions of higher learning were in deplorable shape or did not function at all for long stretches of time.

5. The total period of war plus occupation lasted more than 150 years. This means that four to five generations of well-educated scholars and scientists are missing in the history of China's academia. I call these 150 years the "Mongolian black hole".

6. The scholars and scientists who Needham calls "Yuan scholars and scientists" were in fact not Yuan scholars and scientists; they were the Song scholars and scientists who had not been killed during the war and had survived the 65 years of war, flight, hunger and sickness. Very few, like Guo Shoujing agreed to work for the Mongols. Most of them disappeared into private, retired life and at best taught a few private students. The following generation of scholars failed to be bread. Why?

7. Well, under Mongolian rule normal training of scholars and scientists was practically impossible. During the war in many provinces no examinations had taken place for decades. Many schools and libraries had been destroyed; the existing schools were almost empty. Biot mentions Ma Duanlin stressing that only few of the scholars who had fled to the mountains agreed to reintegrate into academia or into the civil service in spite of the calls by the Khans Qublai and Renzong  9. Furthermore, the exams remained non-existent until 1313 although Qublai had reintroduced them by decree in 1291. Later, in 1335, they were abolished (!) again; then, from 1351 to 1387, a new period of war followed, ending with the ousting of the Mongols. In 1369 the first Ming emperor writes: "All institutes of higher learning created by the Mongols mostly existed only in name and had no material reality!"  10

8. In his letter Father Parennin underlines the relative ignorance of the imperial astronomers and doctors who were his colleagues at the Ming court in the 17th centuryt  11. Let us not forget, first, that they were the best available in the country (if not, they would not have been selected as Court scientists), and second, that the Mongols had particularly sponsored astronomy and medicine.

Consequently, you can imagine the state of the other sciences not promoted by the Mongols.

9. In his book "Chinese Science"  12, Nathan Sivin emphasises correctly how scattered the scientific institutions and developments of the early Chinese were as well as how equally scattered the technical achievements were. Now Song China was well committed - with the help of the book printing technology - to a unique and in my eyes most important process of classifying, concentrating and systemizing this broad but scattered Chinese treasure of knowledge. The edition of a significant number of scientific and technical encyclopaedias under the Song  13 amply demonstrates this fact of growing general knowledge. It is also in Song times that the publication of local histories of cities and towns began in earnest. If these processes had not been interrupted by the Mongolian conquest and occupation of China, it would - as we may assume - have led to a Renaissance-similar process of knowledge concentration and, like in Europe, to a corresponding break-through to "modern science".

10. Before the invasion, Song China witnessed an extraordinary economic and commercial development  14, based on a genuine "green revolution"  15, with a shift away from the tribute mode of production and a shift towards a proto-capitalist mode of production with a growing salaried sector in the non agricultural fields of economy. Similarly, Song China witnessed the creation of written money transfers and of paper currency. After Yuan, Ming China, on the other hand, reverted progressively from paper money back to silver bullion and witnessed a re-establishing of old fashioned tribute contributions. Can we explain this huge monetary and economic step backwards without considering the Mongolian "black hole"?

11. "Whereas the State Treasury was mostly sustained by commercial taxes under Song, the bulk of the State resources came again from agricultural taxes under Ming and Qing"  16. Another step backwards to the economical Middle Ages! What about industry? Look at cotton, for instance: Under the Southern Song we find the first real "cotton factories", with hundreds of full-time salaried workers. What a step backwards under the Ming dynasty, during which time a law limited the size of workshops to twenty (20) looms! Capitalism was now blocked at the level of petty capitalism and the tribute mode of production regained centre stage!

I mention these economic points because in Volume VII: 2 of his SCC, Needham writes: "In the West, military-aristocratic feudalism was replaced by the bourgeois merchants. In China, on the other hand, this did not happen. Bureaucrats continued to operate as before, opposing that which was fundamentally new"  17.

This is simply not true. Particularly not in Song times: The Song period witnessed, as we said, a "green revolution" of agriculture, with - I quote SCC Vol. VI: 2 - "the government offering financial incentives to its farmers to invest in improvements."18 Consequently, the bureaucrats did not "oppose that which is fundamentally new"; they supported it. The Song period witnessed the robust beginnings of an industrial revolution, of a market revolution, a huge growth of production, an increase of both domestic and foreign commerce, a monetary revolution, the growing monetarisation of the social and economic relations and structures, an intensive urbanisation of the country, a schooling revolution, growing population mobility and substantial social changes. Where were the "bureaucrats opposing that which was fundamentally new?" In Needham's own words in SCC's Vol. III  18 you can read that these bureaucrats distributed the latest mathematical books like the Haidao suanjing - I quote - "to all government libraries"! No, my friends, China's leap to fully developed capitalism was not hindered by the Song bureaucrats. Something else occurred:

This process of economic development was interrupted by more than 150 years of war and occupation and by the loss of five generations of scholars, "engineers" and early "industrialists" - not by bureaucratic opposition. Moreover, on the whole until the end of the Song dynasty, there was a period of continuous progress towards more modern social and economic structures and infrastructures, and this occurred in spite of the continual necessity of hefty payments to the Khitan and Jürchen to keep them out of China proper.

At the same time - as we did in our Renaissance - the Chinese rediscovered under Song their ancient past, categorized their bronze vases, their art styles and their inscriptions; they continued to develop their science and technology; they systematized the extant knowledge in hundreds of technical books and encyclopaedias; they published - officially and privately - millions of books  19. Was this a period of stagnation? By no means: Rather it was definitely a period of bright progress! This was a progress to a Renaissance-similar development which unfortunately got brutally interrupted by 150 years of conquest and occupation by the Mongols.


BALAZS, E., HERVOUET, Y. (Hg.), 1978: A Sung bibliography. Hong Kong.

BIOT, Édouard,1847: Essai sur l'histoire de l'instruction publique en Chine. Paris.

GERNET, Jacques, 1972: Le monde chinois. Paris.

HARTWELL, Robert: "A revolution in the iron and coal industries during the Northern Song". In: JAS, 21, p. 153-162.

MOULE, A.C., PELLIOT, Paul, transl., 1938: The description of the World. London.

NEEDHAM, Joseph, 1954: Science and civilisation in China. Vol. I, Cambridge.

1959 Science and civilisation in China. Vol. III, Cambridge.

  1. Science and civilisation in China. Vol. VI:2, Cambridge (Bray).

2004 Science and Civilisation in China. Vol. VII:2, Cambridge (Rob.).

NEEDHAM, Joseph, 1972: The grand titration: Science and society in East and West. London.

SIVIN, Nathan:1973 Chinese Science. Cambridge, Mass.

TWITCHETT, Dennis, 1983: Printing and publishing in medieval China. London.

VOIRET, Jean-Pierre, 1983: Papier und Graphik im alten China. Katalog, Zürich/Thalwil.

VOIRET, Jean-Pierre, 1996:Gespräch mit dem Kaiser und andere Geschichten.


VOIRET, Jean-Pierre, 2022: Ex Oriente lux? Göttingen.

VAN GULIK, Robert, 1971: La vie sexuelle dans la Chine ancienne. Paris.

WINCHESTER, Simon, 2009: Bomb, book & compass, Joseph Needham and the secrets of China. London.

Winchester, 2008, pp. 269-270.  

In Voiret, 1996, p. 194-211: letter of Aug. the 11th, 1730 "On the stagnation of science in China."  

For the Song Dynasty scientific books and encyclopediae, see Balazs, Hervouet, 1978, pp. 238-319 (detailed) or Voiret, 1983, pp. 62-68 (concentrated).  

Needham, 1969.  

So called Yuan dynasty. Actually from 1279 to 1387. In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang founded officially the Ming dynasty in Nanjing, but Sichuan, Gansu and Yünnan still had to be reconquered and it was not before 1387 that the whole of China was one again. See Gernet, 1972, p. 341.  

Moule & Pelliot, 1938, chapt. 115, p. 268.  

Siehe Eberhard, 1948, Seite 264-267. Eberhard schätzt die Anzahl Mongolen, die in Yuan-China wohnten, auf ca. eine Million Menschen (Seite 260). Zu den Zwangsbelehnungen schreibt Endicott-West, 1989, Seite 127: "The appanages of the imperial princes, however, were indeed semi-autonomous entities. (...). The Yuan rulers never abrogated the system of semi-autonomous domains."  

On exploitation of China, see Van Gulik, 1971, p. 307: "The Mongols had only one thought: drain all the country's riches in the shortest possible time by the most merciless methods."  

Biot, 1847, p. 416: mentions of Ma Duanlin's "Wenxian tongkao", XXXVII, fol. 5 to 7.  

Biot, 1847, p. 409.  

See Voiret, 1996, especially p. 203, 205.  

Sivin, 1973, p. XVII. See also Voiret, 2022: "Ex Oriente Lux?", chapter 4.  

Voiret, 1983, p. 63-68, or for more details Balazs, Hervouet, 1978, p. 238-319.  

See for instance Hartwell, 1962, p. 153-162.  

Needham, 1984, p. 597 f. -do-, p. 599.  

Gernet, 1972, p. 342.  

Needham, 2004, p. 209.  

Needham, 1959, p. 40. By the way, I consider Michael Billington's assertion that Needham was supported by the British Intelligence service to promote Taoism as a means to stop China's industrialization as idiocy. Mao's China did oppose Taoism: it opposed every religion, and was not very good at industrializing. Today's strongly industrializing China has practically no problems with Taoism. Ask Pepe Escobar.  

See Twitchett, 1983, p. 38f.