The Development of a Chinese ‘Science’: Analogical Reasoning & the Needham Question

Esmond Soh, Contributor & Writer, Cogito Collective

Imagine a thousand streams feeding into a single ocean. Every stream is a community’s interpretation of the natural world, and the large ocean that every stream titrates into is what we call ‘modern science.’ Such was the worldview of the sinologist and historian of science Joseph Needham (1900-1995). This poses the question, “the essential problem [is] why modern science had not developed in Chinese civilization (or Indian) but only in Europe.”

The eponymous Needham Question, to be sure, did not occur in a vacuum, even though it privileges a Western paradigm of modern science. Because this is a short article, I will not quibble over what defines ‘modern science,’ much less what is to be defined as ‘Chinese’ or otherwise. Analysis performed on the basis of the nation-state (in this case ‘Chinese’) is always controversial and remains open to debate. After all, can we really say that there was a singular, homogenous core that we call ‘China’ that had existed as a timeless entity?

Instead, I will examine three features of the Needham Question. Much ink has been spilled over the strengths and limitations of dwelling over the worth of the Needham Question, and this work draws heavily upon the analyses of the historian of science Yung Sik Kim. The first section revolves around the contradictions inherent within the propositions raised by Needham himself. Secondly, by exploring a mentality that is (and was) prevalent within the Chinese mindset – namely, the role of analogical reasoning – I will explore how the Needham question’s original formulation is inadequate to understand Chinese society and science as a whole. Finally, I will detail how the Needham Question, despite its flaws, can provide a powerful analytical tool for contemporary societies to reflect upon.

The three features of the Needham Question. The first is regarding inherent contradictions within this tool; the second regarding the inadequacy of this tool in understanding Chinese society and science; and finally how this tool can be used to analyse contemporary societies.

Problems with the Needham Question

Su Song was the engineer of a hydro-mechanical astronomical clock tower in medieval Kaifeng, which employed the use of an early escapement mechanism.

The first contradiction within the Needham Question lies in it placing China along the same contours as Europe in its development of science. In terms of a model, the Needham Question may appear consistent and logical: a model, after all, serves to simplify a complex world. In other words, it assumes all communities – not only in China – but the rest of the world, were to evolve through a series of baby steps into a modern science like that of nineteenth-century Europe. But it is precisely a complex world and a complex past that renders the Needham Question problematic. Is it accurate to place any community along a sliding scale of progress towards a modern science? As I will show, the Chinese possessed a mentality that rejects simple compartmentalisation into the evolutionary ladder envisioned by Needham.

More problematically, through the Needham Question, we tend to assume that all societies were set on an inevitable path to modern science. This ‘why not’ assumption embedded in the Needham Question reflected in part Needham’s then-belief that all the sciences of the world – however different their provenance and remarkable their origin – was to eventually homogenise into the paradigm of Western science. We may wonder how these assumptions were related to theories of modernisation, but it is clear that both the Needham Question and modernisation theory privilege a teleological interpretation of an idealised yardstick for all other societies to benchmark themselves upon.

On a similar note, we tend to assume that the institutions lacking in China but present in the West were responsible for the absence of a modern science. There are limitations in using Western paradigms to examine Chinese science. Works on the development of science in China continued “stressing those factors which were significant in Western scientific development, as if they had to be the factors which affected the development of Chinese science.” Factor-by-factor analysis, while not wrong in itself, does limit the amount of room given to exploring complex interactions and complexity.

Likewise, we must also recall that most of the concepts that developed in China and the West cannot be compared. How certain are we that the Chinese and Europeans would have agreed upon the common use and translation of the terms that characterised their disciplines (a fairly ahistorical term in imperial China)? For example, we can mine Chinese works for mentions of ‘profit’ and ‘wealth’, but how sure are we that there is a mutual agreeable interpretation of terms such as ‘capitalism’ in both China and Europe before mutual contact in the nineteenth-century? Capitalism, and the Marxist critique that emerged in its wake, was a phenomenon indigenous to industrial Europe, and to the best of my knowledge, these concepts do not possess an equivalent until late nineteenth-century China. Even then, these foreign ideas have become transfigured and hybridised to fit Chinese needs. Comparative studies of why China ‘failed’ while Europe succeeded in their attainment of modern science cannot ignore the difficulty in translating terms and institutions across different worlds. We can surely tease out some similarities, but to assume that these concepts are accepted across the Eurasia is to be grossly ahistorical and misunderstood at best.

Through the Needham Question, we tend to assume that all societies were set on an inevitable path to modern science. This ‘why not’ assumption embedded in the Needham Question reflected in part Needham’s then-belief that all the sciences of the world – however different their provenance and remarkable their origin – was to eventually homogenise into the paradigm of Western science.

Analogical Reasoning and Human Society: The Case of ‘Zoology’ in China

Funerary Sculpture of a Chimera (Bixie)
is a Chinese mythical hybrid creature, commonly (but incorrectly) referred to in the West by the Greek word “chimera”, and considered a powerful protector of practitioners of Feng Shui. It resembles a strong, winged lion. 
It was also featured as a design on the sword of Fa Mulan’s character in the 1998 Disney animated feature Mulan.

Elsewhere, Yung Sik Kim explored the limitations of matching practical knowledge about motion and fossils among the Neo-Confucian Chinese of the Song dynasty (960–1279 CE) with its Western science counterparts. This section, which draws upon Kim’s earlier works, explores an alternative institution that is rarely considered in studies of science and society in China: analogical reasoning. Since Kim covered a fair number of examples from the Song dynasty, my points will go further back into imperial China’s history. I share a similar goal as Kim, but I draw upon examples and a discipline (zoology) that has been rarely touched upon in the history of Chinese thought.

Here, I am using the term analogical reasoning as an ‘institution’ loosely in this regard. In large part due to analogical reasoning, we could actually argue that there was a very distinctive manner by which the Chinese conceived of and interpreted the natural world. ‘Zoology,’ or more specifically, the systematic description of animals – given the discipline’s anachronistic position until late imperial China – is a case in point. The anthropomorphising of animals (giving animals human characteristics such that they resemble humans) is common both to European and Chinese societies.

However, we gradually begin to see how these have become edged out by more mechanical and detached interpretations of the same phenomena. Aristotle (384–322 BCE) began classifying fishes according to their fins and appearances. The De Animalibus by Albert the Great (circa. 13th century CE) too revolved around the classification of animals based on their anatomy and biophysical features. Descartes’s (1596 – 1650 CE) role in peddling his brand of mechanical philosophy is another case in point: Animals were nothing more than machines. In these paradigms, we see how animals were differentiated according to their physical characteristics, and the gradual distancing of animals from humankind. To be sure, this was not a linear process where animals became ‘less human’ (think about where the modern-day incarnation of the animal rights movement stemmed from, for example) but one cannot deny that the separation of animals into a category that was worthwhile for study sowed the seeds of zoology as we understand the discipline today.

Prevailing interpretations of animals on the part of the Chinese, on the other hand, did not take on such mechanistic overtones. As far as the Chinese were concerned, we are better off seeing animals as being located along a spectrum where they became more human or less human. The androcentrism (where humans are stationed at the apex of any observed phenomenon) inherent in the classification of animals may appear awkward to us, and readers may question how this is even ‘science’ given the amount of emotion and subjectivity injected into these observations.

But to insist that there is an idealised modern science is to miss the point, since there is neither a consistent nor comparable interpretation of ‘science.’ How the Chinese understood their natural world was different from the Europeans, and the Chinese’s constant attempts to draw parallels between what they observed to the natural world with a body of pre-existing knowledge was the norm, rather than an exception. Analogical reasoning pervaded all aspects of Chinese life, and by extension, the manner the Chinese described and interpreted natural phenomena: the number five corresponds to the five planets (Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, Saturn), the five elements (metal, wood, water, fire, earth), the five organs of the human body (heart, liver, lung, kidney and spleen) and the number of directions (four cardinal directions and the centre) in the universe. This cross-matching of two supposedly unrelated phenomena extends to the Chinese’s relationship and interaction with fauna as well.

Of the many possible parallels between human knowledge and zoology in China, the Confucian ethos of filial piety comes to mind. We like to think of filiality as a distinctively human characteristic, but imperial China is replete with observations about how animals were more filial to their mothers than we think. In Search of the Supernatural tells of how a baby monkey was kidnapped by a hunter. The mother monkey was not ready to give up without a pursuit, but she eventually died. When she was cut open, it was discovered that her intestines had disintegrated. In an act of divine retribution, the hunter and his family were struck dead. The correlation of the mother monkey’s grief presents a sympathetic picture that even the most hard-hearted reader can correspond with. These monkeys were not to be studied as themselves. Rather, they served to reflect human sentiments and deficits, and hence we are confronted with a paradox: Is this knowledge about the natural world repackaged as cautionary tale, or are socialised morals transplanted onto the natural world?

Analogical reasoning pervaded all aspects of Chinese life, and by extension, the manner the Chinese described and interpreted natural phenomena: the number five corresponds to the five planets (Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, Saturn), the five elements (metal, wood, water, fire, earth), the five organs of the human body (heart, liver, lung, kidney and spleen) and the number of directions (four cardinal directions and the centre) in the universe.

We have no simple answers for the rhetorical question raised, but we can reasonably infer that these parallels were not drawn out of thin air. They are obviously dramatized, and these classics served as moral injunctions rather than scientific texts as we understand them from today’s standpoint. However, the social, cultural and economic environment in imperial China was certainly conducive to the study of these animals at close range. The Warring States of China (475–221 BCE) gave us the classic, the Zhuangzi, where it was recorded that monkeys were tied to posts were made of trunks of catalpa, cypress and mulberry tree trunks the size of a “span or two or rather more in circumference.” In the Zhuangzi, the monkey is presented as a metaphorical tool in at least two instances. The first occurs with a keeper of monkeys who offers his pets a choice: they could either have three measures of chestnuts in the morning and four at night, or four in the morning and three at night. Agitated after the monkeys were presented with the first choice, the reader is told that the monkeys subsequently became satisfied at the latter offer. This roundabout retelling of the adage of old wine being stored in new bottles testifies to how similar animals were to their human counterparts: Too often, we are fooled when we are presented with a ‘choice.’

The second account presents a much darker ending, where a complacent monkey was pierced to death with arrows by a band of hunters. This pitiful end, as the reader is told, was not by coincidence. Seconds before this monkey’s untimely death, the troop of monkeys scattered when approached by hunters, but this vainglorious monkey chose to display its agility rather than taking to its feet. Not realising that this action provoked the hunters’ determination, the foolish monkey met its end. Like the first, this instance was another veiled parable: those who flaunt their talents are doomed to an unnatural death. The wisest administrator was one, who was able to rid himself of conceit, unlike the prideful monkey.

Analogical reasoning was not a lazy heuristic, and the Chinese had taken pains to distinguish themselves from their animalistic counterparts. The similarities end with the expression of filial piety for the case of the mother monkey and its unfortunate baby as described two paragraphs ago. The Confucian schema, which privileges the relationship between father and child is reflected – but not replicated – in the first retelling of events. The situation of animals alongside a spectrum ultimately privileged the human condition. Unlike its non-human counterparts, humankind is able to respect and institutionalise the ‘true’ relationship between a father and child. Animals, with their emphasis on mothers, rather than fathers, rank lower than an idealised human relationship.

One does not need to look too far for an alternative perspective of the same transposition of human relationships upon the animal world: Chinese beekeepers since the Jin dynasty (265-420 CE) may have recognised the significance of the queen bee in any working beehive, but a queen was never acknowledged as a head of a hive, but represented as a ‘king’ instead. An ideal beehive was thus a microcosm of Confucian governance, and queens – who had little official role to play in the politics of imperial China – were deemed as unimportant and re-represented as kings instead.

Analogical reasoning, to be sure, has a long history in Chinese thought, and the afore-mentioned examples stretch much further back. These few examples I have offered in the field of ‘zoology’ are only the tip of the iceberg. It is indeed open for debate, but the Needham Question’s subtle hinting that it was a shortfall on China’s part that contributed to the absence of a modern science suggests that analogical reasoning was a deficit. However, the simple teasing out and pigeonholing of these attitudes into factors that were present in positivist analysis of modern science’s development in Europe goes against the grain of appreciating complexity, as I have pointed out earlier. It makes more sense for analysts of science and society to consider the forces that normalised the ubiquity of analogical reasoning in Chinese society, rather than looking for where the Chinese have ‘failed’ in their hindsight pursuit of a modern science. Clearly, as these instances I have cited shown, the Chinese approached the natural world from a correlational perspective very different from the descriptive, mechanical and classificatory schema adopted by Europeans.

The Needham Question and the Future

The Seismoscope (which was used to measure the magnitude of Earthquakes, a metal ball would drop into a frog’s mouth also, to indicate the direction in which an Earthquake was occurring)

In the first two sections, I have explored how the initial formulation of the Needham Question remains flawed in both its conception and approach towards Chinese science, technology and society. Nevertheless, to simply reject the Needham Question for its flaws is to be ahistorical. We must recall that Needham’s Question was a product of both historiography and Needham’s own work. Needham’s still-unfinished magnum opus, the Science and Civilisation in China series, is divided into themes, and Needham’s Question – however disparaging it sounds in describing a China that failed to catch up to a modern science – gives us a glimpse into Needham’s belief that imperial China was more knowledgeable of the natural world (albeit with different incarnations, institutions and motivations) than previously understood.

However, Needham already established an idealised understanding of ‘science’ and ‘technology’ when he began this project – his entire volume of works was revolved around the matching of Chinese predecessors (or counterparts of) findings validated by the scientific establishment from the twentieth-century and beyond. Science and Civilisation in China was a groundbreaking piece, and as a pioneer of the field, reviewers of today are better off working on the limitations of Needham Question rather than simply lambasting it for being ‘wrong.’

On our part, by recognising that both the West and China have widely similar but varied methods of interpreting and rationalising the natural world, we have to understand that modern science was a historically-contingent project that was only realisable in an industrialising Europe. In other words, the Needham Question can serve as a scaffolding for comparative studies of China and the West, although not the extent where we assume that China is streamlining into the West’s mould and understanding of the world.

Still, when I was drafting this piece, a reviewer suggested that I address a present-day question: If China and the West were really so different in conceptualising the natural world such that they existed in paralleling streams, why do we still see the allure of modern-day interpretations of ‘science’ in China? Architectural marvels and the surge of academic publications by Chinese scientists in both indigenous and foreign scientific journals – such as Science and Nature – have demonstrated that the Chinese are actively engaging with Western paradigms of science and society. I find this an interesting critique, but not necessarily an un-addressable one.

First of all, we are only able to quantify scientific results by Chinese scientists, but not what occurred in the thought processes of these Chinese scientists themselves. This ‘black-box’, where the subtle projection of our own social environment’s biases and beliefs onto a supposedly objective way of understanding the world, remains unknown. An observer who merely uses a scientific journal’s article as proof of China’s acquiescence to the Western paradigm rarely has insight into the localised processing and expression of these findings. Thus, any commentator of science and society had better be prepared to be an anthropologist as well. To borrow a common quip, we are not simply commenting about Chinese science, we are trying to elucidate how Chinese scientists are engaged within science.

Secondly, even if a reader is thoroughly unconvinced with what I have posited throughout this paper, I propose an alternative way of conceptualising whatever I have just said: Instead of arguing that there are multiple streams of understanding the natural world, can we see Chinese and Western sciences as shades instead, distinct but interrelated as well? One may find this contradictory: why bring up ‘shades’ of scientific advancement if I just defended the logic of ‘paralleling streams?’ The reason is a multi-layered one: I do not see how the ‘shades’ and ‘paralleling streams’ hypotheses contradict one another, much less how one can preclude the other. The Needham Question is a historical question, it examines a specific context, namely imperial China and Europe. Close to seven centuries separates today from Song China, and along the way, the Chinese have tapped upon developments from within and without. The model of understanding the world according to Western ‘science’ was indubitably one of them. What is stopping the modern-day Chinese from seeing the world in an analogical manner while consulting a chemotherapist in the case of cancer?

This page is from a 16th century Ming dynasty edition of the Jiuzhang suanshu (Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art).  This illustration explains Liu’s exhaustion method for determining pi – obtaining a value of 3.14024.  A successor, astronomer-mathematician Zu Chongzhi (429-501) extended the method further and obtained a lower bound of 3.1415926 for pi and an upper bound of 3.1415927. 
Mathematical Association of America


Regrettably, I do not have too many pieces of evidence on hand to explore the overlapping schools of thought that I have described previously. Nevertheless, it is interesting for us to consider how the Chinese framework of analogical reasoning is far from dead even up till today. I am currently working on a short study on the anthropology of pseudoscience in contemporary Singapore, and my preliminary ethnographic observations show how analogical reasoning – for all its flaws – feature heavily in the belief systems of Singaporeans today.

All in all, I encourage readers to re-consider the worth of the Needham Question in a new incarnation. True, the Chinese may have become active participants in the new institutions we call ‘science,’ with its peer reviewers and journals. But how far are these pale imitations of the West? As I have demonstrated through a selection of examples from Chinese history, ‘zoology’ as we understand it today took on a very different incarnation in ancient Chinese history. Much more research can be done on a topic that reflects a divergence in ideology, and these differences between the Chinese and a vaguely-outlined ‘Western’ science may be more prevalent than previously understood.

About the author:

Esmond Soh is a student of Chinese religion in Southeast Asia. His other research interests include human-environment interactions and historical anthropology in general.

References can be requested at

Featured image: Jesuit with Chinese scholars painting. In late December 1668, in a contest held at the Chinese Bureau of Astronomy, the Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688) correctly predicted the length of a shadow cast by a vertical rod. The Kangxi Emperor was impressed. But he challenged Verbiest to two additional tests: the prediction of the exact position of the sun and planets on a given day and the timing of an approaching lunar eclipse. Verbiest successfully completed the final two tests, and, in the process, showed that the Chinese had much to learn from their Jesuit visitors.

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