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The Needham Question - gunpowder and all that


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Listen here, by clicking the Listen link

Part of the BBC's In Our Time series, hosted by Melvyn Bragg. This one is about the Needham question - why didn't discoveries made in China - printing, gunpowder, etc - have the impact in China that they did in Europe when they arrived there. There's an introduction on the link above if you want some more info before you commit to the 43 minute recording.

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My two cents as to why technologies like gunpowder made the impact it did in Europe compared to China is due partly to the religious wars that preoccupied Europe for two centuries since the Reformation, the development of national identity or nation-states along religious lines, and the resulting quest for supremacy between the European nations during this period.

The concept of a nation-state didn't exist in China or its East Asian neighbors during the parallel period, let alone the absence of religious wars that had a socioeconomic impact on the societies of Europe.

Although gunpowder was not utilized or enhanced to its full military potential in China, the use of it in cannons against the Mongols during the Song dynasty allowed China to withstand Mongol invasions much longer than the rest of Asia/Europe.

While Guttenberg's enhancement of the printing press spread religious ideas across Europe, and expanded the Reformation's reach; the invention of the printing press in China during Song boosted agricultural production with publishing of farming techniques.

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I haven't had the chance to listen to the link yet, but for anyone interested in this topic they should read the article by Justin Yifu Lin titled "The Needham Puzzle: Why the Industrial Revolution Did Not Originate in China." Here is a link to the file in case you don't have the proxy access. http://www3.nccu.edu.tw/~jthuang/Needham.pdf

Dr. Lin is a leader scholar dealing with China, and the article is not difficult to read.

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  • 4 years later...

I've been recently enjoying In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg and wanted to see if it had been mentioned here on the forums. I highly recommend it if you like panel discussions on a wide variety of topics. As I listen through I'll try to pick out the ones with a "China" theme. It is available on iTunes, btw. Here's one on Confucius.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Look at Justin Lin's theory on industrial revolution and its effect on China.

Basically, he states:

China has alwys had a huge population. Because of this, China became advanced in EXPERIENCE based advancements.

However, in order to advance to the industrialization of Europe, we needed a scientific revolution. This could not have fostered under the civil service examination system in place that rewarded people who knew classics, and not science.

Once, the world moved to EXPERIMENTATION based advancements, China's surplus of humans meant nothing.

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