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What is Needham's Grand Question?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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If you look at the history of China, especially pre-Renaissance, you see an amazing amount of scientific and technological developments that far exceeded similar developments in the European West. During the Renaissance and into modern times, the reverse occurred, with Europe, and then America, taking a leading role in scientific discovery and invention, while China stagnated. There have been numerous scholars that have attempted to answer why this occurred, and how Europe went from little in the way of scientific progress to eventually leading the charge of scientific development. No one is better known for asking why this occurred than Joseph Needham, who evolved what is now known as Needham’s Grand Question.

Needham’s Grand Question is the following: Why was China overshot by the West in science and technology? Needham’s Grand Question engenders other questions, such as: What happened in the history of China that made developing science and technology less important? What happened in Europe that made developing science and technology more important? What are the cultural, religious, economic, political and historical factors that caused China to be overshot?

There are numerous attempts at answering Needham’s Grand Question. For Joseph Needham, who devoted half of his life to trying to answer this question and understand the history of Chinese science, the answer had to do most with the way Confucianism and Taoism promoted a way of life incompatible with huge scientific advances. Emphasis on wholeness in community thinking and respect to elders meant that children and even college students could not question teachers. A desire to maintain strong cultural identity discouraged new developments in favor of keeping a traditional way of doing things. To Needham, China’s culture and its philosophy and religion just was not interested in the high paced dramatic age of discovery in the West.

Needham’s theory is still noted by people from the West who teach in China. One of the difficulties noted is the challenge of teaching critical thinking to Chinese college students. Though these students are gifted, bright and as fully capable of intelligence as their Western counterparts, questioning a teacher is still frowned upon. Arguing with a teacher is a sign of disrespect.

Moreover, Needham’s Grand Question is often cited when people discuss the birth of individuality and the self that occurred during the European Renaissance. Few scientific developments are the result of a collective mindset, but instead, are progressions that were anti-status quo. Early scientific thought from Renaissance thinkers often railed against the establishment, resulting in punishment from authorities (particularly church authorities) who wanted to make certain that only church teaching was acceptable. Had the church been successful in completely squelching these individuals, we might have remained in a collective mindset, but gradually, the church lost the power to do this, especially as thought on the individual and the individual’s importance became more prominent.

China was much more effective in maintaining a society that preferenced the community over the individual, making it much less possible for individuals to reach forth and establish new scientific discoveries and technology. Though China has caught up in great degree due to Communist desire to compete with the Western world, there are still pockets of China in especially rural areas where the old ways prevail. A simple example in modern day is the way that modern medicine is practiced in China. It is considered extremely disrespectful to offer second opinions that differ from the primary physician in charge of a case. So while new solutions might be found, they may not be offered, and those who live in the rural areas of China are unlikely to question the opinion of a medical expert.

There are alternate theories to answer Needham’s Grand Question. One interesting one is the idea of how learning an alphabet, called the alphabet theory, may promote higher ordered thinking in young children. Others say it is impossible to answer Needham’s Grand Question without a full analysis of the history of both the west and China, which includes consideration of religion, culture, and geography. Needham’s Grand Question certainly prompted Needham to try to produce this kind of historical background, and he published numerous works on the history of science in China, in addition to working collaboratively with Chinese scientists to understand how and why the science and technology boom of the modern era belonged to the West.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon1003072 — On Apr 26, 2020

@anon959555: If you don’t understand Chinese characters, please don’t comment on our writing system! In front of Chinese characters, you will know how backward the Latin alphabet is!

By anon959555 — On Jul 05, 2014

China had been in decline for 300 years until the 1980s. The Ottoman Empire was called the "sick man of Europe" and China was called the "sick man of Asia."

Kemel, or "father of Turks," modernized Turkey to be the Republic of Turkey. Turks write with ABC/Latin writing. All you need is science/technology.

They have modern research universities, science labs and science development parks.

The Republic of Turkey Parliament (Congress) has the motto: "Sovereignty belongs to the nations and citizens."

China needs to follow the example of the "sick man of Europe " with free votes, a Parliament, free research in science/technology, free market and free trade with all nations.

Replace the ugly, ugly, ugly characters with Pinyin (Latin) writing system.

No other civilized nation uses such writing. Move from third world to first world.

China had an income in the 1980s of $200. Two hundred dollars. What nation has an annual income of $200?

By asd123 — On Jan 20, 2014

What are you talking about, anon85923? China did invent guns. Go search hand cannon.

By anon356653 — On Nov 27, 2013

Truth. You just want the truth.

Most of Europe never had (native):

1. The scientific revolution (only Britain did)

2. An industrial revolution (only Britain did)

3. Rational-legal regimes (look at fascist and authoritarian states of nineteenth and twentieth century Europe)

No free elections, no free speech.

Hangul, Arabic, Chinese, and hieroglyphic scripts.

Truth. You want the truth.

By anon85923 — On May 22, 2010

So China invented gunpowder and yet failed to make the mind leap that this invention could be the basis of a superior killing weapon - viz "the gun".

Don't tell me they didn't make the connection for humanitarian reasons (just look at their history and fondness of public executions with pistols to the back of the head). Every martial arts shop around the world has unique and inventive medieval weapons on display or pictured in magazines or DVD covers. How those warlords of the "warring states" would have loved a gun.

Yeah but... But me no buts, I've seen all the HK kung fu movies long ago 1960s and 70s. What about these for inventiveness:

Master of the Flying Guillotine; Iron Chain Fighter; 8-Diagram Pole Fighter, etc.

Back to Needham’s grand question: I think I lost the plot (somewhere)!

By anon49794 — On Oct 22, 2009

You do not know many things about ancient China and today's China'experiment-based sciences.

More than 2000 years ago, China began at-the-time advanced agricultural, early industry (hand-made industry), civilized, rations-included, legal regimes (The undeniable, competent rations are enough there in China's long history as well as in today's China, well explaining why China is the world's only longest never-broken living civilization). at the time Europeans lived as barbarians in a very primitive, very uncultivated, very uncivilized situation, and even just hundreds of years ago Europeans lived in the thousand-year Dark Ages.

Most language experts and culture scholars agree Chinese characters are much, much, much (in fact 3 much are not enough to stress it here) more advanced and superior than western alphabets.

There are several industry revolutions in Chinese history. One major example is that more than 1000 years ago, in China's Song Dynasty, China had an industrial revolution --the influences are still being affecting the world today.

Cars, airplanes, computers, cell phones, Internet and many other products are actually based on the influences and interactions of world cultures and experiences, especially the computer's invention is mainly based on China's great unique numerical 2-add-2 method. Many Chinese experts and engineers made, and are making, contributions to the know-how, development and progress of cars, airplanes, computers, cell phones, Internet and many other products.

Again, as in the thousands of years of China's history, China will bring the world, this time the utmost the whole world, to a new prosperous, peaceful level in the 21st century.

The core of China's culture is morality, while the core of western culture is jungle-rule that fails to make the world peaceful, moral and good, after all.

By anon26611 — On Feb 16, 2009

truth. i just want the truth.

china never had (native):

1. experiment-based sciences. (native)

2. industry-revolution (cars, airplanes, computers, cell phones. internet (native)

3. rational-legal regime. boy-emperor in 1911. red-emperor in 1949.

no free elections, no free speech,

4. alphabet- based reading and writing. abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz.



Truth. i just want the Truth.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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