By Nathan Sivin
Chinese Science, No.5 (1982)
Introduction: When people learn that there were many scientific traditions in the ancient world, they usually begin wondering why the fateful transition to modern science first happened where it did. Joseph Needham has given the ‘Scientific Revolution problem’ its classic formulation: “Why did modern science, the mathematization of hypotheses about Nature, with all its implications for advanced technology, take its meteoric rise only in the West at the time of Galileo?” This affirmation implies that one must investigate the absence of such a revolution elsewhere, and indeed page after page of Science and Civilisation in China is given over to “why modern science had not developed in Chinese civilization…?” He adds a second question that bears on this absence, enhancing the interest of the larger inquiry: “why, between the first century BC and the fifteenth century AD, Chinese civilization was much more efficient than occidental in applying human natural knowledge to practical human needs.”
In two decade of study, teaching, and public lecturing on Chinese science and medicine, I have encountered no question more often than why modern science did not develop independently in China, and none on which more firmly based opinions have been formed on the basis of less critical attention to available evidence. Since those who put forth these opinions are on the whole intelligent and thoughtful, I have gradually been led to suspect that there is more to the Scientific Revolution problem than meets the eye. In this essay I will turn it inside out in order to ask the assumptions about the European tradition of science – assumptions by no means confined to Europeans and Americans – encourage us to take this problem more seriously than its intrinsic merits justify.