Science in China: Key Problems, topics, and methodologies

Florin Stefan MORAR*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Book Chapters | Papers in Conference ProceedingsBook ChapterResearchpeer-review


For much of the 20th century, science has been understood as a Western development. Historians have tried to explain the origins of such things as mathematization of nature, experimentation, and science-based technological developments by highlighting unique cultural aspects of Western civilization and history. This view has come into doubt as historians have begun to seriously investigate other areas of the world. China especially has demonstrated a long history of developments in the making of knowledge in technology and medicine that were analogous to those in the West and that can be reliably identified as scientific. The history of science in China is an attempt to interpret these developments.

Crucial in the discipline is the work of Joseph Needham (1900–1995), who was the first to discuss Chinese scientific achievements and compare them to the Western ones (Needham et al. 1954). Needham validated knowledge-making in China as scientific but did not see it as equivalent to ‘modern’ science as was developed in early modern Europe. He was therefore preoccupied in investigating a negative question: why was China on the cusp of the ‘scientific revolution’, but did not ultimately realize it? Needham’s work remains valuable for its contribution in identifying what can be understood as ‘scientific’ in China’s past. Yet newer approaches have widely rejected Needham’s arguments, producing new understandings.

This chapter aims to chart the evolution of the history of science, and by extension of the history of technology and medicine in China. I first discuss the work of Joseph Needham, then explore how newer approaches have recast our understanding of knowledge-making in premodern, modern, and contemporary China.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Handbook of Chinese Studies
EditorsChris SHEI, Weixiao WEI
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9780429059704
ISBN (Print)9780367181390
Publication statusPublished - 31 May 2021
Externally publishedYes


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