BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

BBC Homepage
BBC Radio
BBC Radio 4 - 92 to 94 FM and 198 Long WaveListen to Digital Radio, Digital TV and OnlineListen on Digital Radio, Digital TV and Online

Radio 4 Tickets
Radio 4 Help

Contact Us

In Our Time - Debate
Go to the Listen Again page
In Our Time banner
An opportunity for the audience to have their say.

Maddy Gray - The Needham Question
What about the Mongol invasion and conquest of China in our C13 and C14 - did this have any influence on China's later reluctance to engage with the outside world on any terms other than its own?

John G. - Needham Question
Greek philosophy emphasized the existence of objects; in this outlook objects have an independent existence from each other. Said objects have an independent constitution and properties. Any interaction between objects can be explained in terms of these properties and guiding principles. This reached its maximum maturity in Descartes reductionist philosophy, which led to the modern methods of analysis. A large portion of Eastern philosophy, including Chinese philosophy, did not make such distinctions everything was at bottom the same thing hence they did not emphasize individual properties and characteristics. In this outlook, it is difficult to investigate the individual properties of objects and their interactions for this implicitly assumes that things have an existence of their own. The strength of Western science resides in compartmentalization; you can focus all of your thought into one aspect of reality and thereby make discoveries.

Rob Dickens, The Needham Question
Perhaps a question for a future programme on veganism, but why didn't dairy farming take off in China? Is this another example of their falling behind technologically, or something else? The answer might inform the ethical-farming and healthy-eating debates.

Advanced technology!
This week the increase in broadband subscriptions was in the news. You may be pleased to learn that it was In Our Time downloads which finally persuaded me to get it!

naqash siddique,13:virtue
i saw on the section about virtues that you were questioning what a virtue is.i have recently written a paper on virtues and according to aristotle and confuscious a virtue/good quality has to be between two extremes. so for example,courage is between the two extremes;rashness(excess) and cowardice (deficency). i think that that was a great section. keep the good work up!

Richard Thatcher - Needham Question
Others take a different view of Needham: "He was absorbed by his ground[-breaking] research, bringing Chinese science history to light, but also he oscillated all his life between honestly searching for explanations and negating the Grand Issue altogether. He steadily balanced between wishing to explain the advance taken by the West in the last centuries and pretending it had never existed, i.e. that China had always been behind [(was first in)] most scientific inventions."

G.C. Wright "The Inquisition"
Thanks for your extraordinary show. I wanted to mention that this show focused on the misuse of the Inquisition which, though more interesting to most people, is a focus that overlooks its proper use. At the theological heart of the inquisitorial activity was the mercy of God and the firm and widespread belief that heretical beliefs could only end in eternal damnation, a punishment far surpassing anything one could suffer on earth at the hands of an inquisitor. One must also factor in the very real fear that a heretic might lead many others to the same eternal fate. Yes, like democracy, or communism, or capitalism, it can be and was abused, but like democracy, or communism, or capitalism, its intention was noble.

Christian H -- Needham Question
This was IMHO the best program in this young season, and indeed the very best since a while. Thanks!

John Wakefield: The Needham Answer: Glass
As mentioned by one of your correspondents: the chief reason that China (and also Japan and India) failed to translate their early technological supremacy into an industrial revolution is these country's failure to produce glass. Glass in Medieval Europe developed under the twin imperatives of architectural (window) glass in the north, and decorative drinking glasses in Murano. In China and Japan, tea and other beverages were drunk from china and porcelain. In Japan (especially) earthquakes and bamboo buildings made rice paper a more practical glazing solution than glass. For these two reasons, glass was not widely produced in the far East until the 19th century. The implications are enormous. Just to take a few: the most potentially productive years of a craftsman's life are those of maturity - the availability of eye glasses in the West extends the productive life of scholars, scientists and engineers into middle and old age. Glass in the form of lenses for telescopes and microscopes is fundamental for scientific progress. Arguably even more vital is the role of glass in pressure gauges, retorts, test tubes, distillation flasks, thermometers, barometers etc etc - the essential components of physical and chemical research and development. John Wakefield.Tucson Arizona

Yufeng Mao--The Needham Question
Chinese people prefer stable life more than anything else. So long as there is enough to eat and enough comfort in our family, we will feel that is everything human needs in this life. It is this mentality that actually contributes to the slow development of science and technology in China. People don't see the need to do that. That can partly explain chinese people are so tolerant of their government and policies, because we are still alive. So long as there is no real danger for us in the near future, we will feel satisfied.

Norman Wallace The Needham Question
The Needham Question was an interesting prorgamme,but unless I missed it, the participants avoided the question, 'why did the scientific revolution develop in Europe and not China? They only sought to explain why China did not share in the great advances of the 19th century (their main reason being she was too bound up in the European imperial exploitation of the time). I studied a superb module on the question at the Open University a few years ago, 'The Rise of Scientific Europe 1500 - 1800', and some of the answers, if I remember them correctly were:- 1) The West became dominated by the worship of a God who created the world, and was separable from his creation. There was no such separation in Chinese religion. 2) Perhaps arising from this, Chinese learning tended to regard nature as essentially inscrutable, its structure undiscoverable by rational enquiry, whereas Western learning derived from the Greeks the idea that truths in nature were discoverable by the reason of man. 3) Chinese mathematics never developed the rigorous proofs and demonstrations found in Western. With no developed geometry, there was an absence of geometrical schemes to explain the motions of the planets - this being very characteristic of the West. And as to physical explanations of such planetary motions, there was ( as in 1 above)an absence in China of any belief that a divine creator had made the universe according to a rational plan and so no incentive to understand such a plan. 4) The European voyages of discovery from the 15th century onwards, while hardly motivated by scientific concerns, unlocked a wealth of new knowledge in zoology, botany, geography, astronomy etc. which raised fundamental questions about revered Greek explanations about the world. This would eventually dethrone even Aristotle from his position as "the philosopher". This forced the West to look for new explanations, which would lead to Greek learning being far surpassed. The Chinese also undertook great voyages in the 15th century, but they were abandoned after a few decades.

Sandra Douglass - The Needham Question
This week’s program was unsatisfying because the experts seemed bent on defending China from the accusation of backwardness rather than exploring the “Needham Question.” While that may be sociologically well-meant, it shed no light on why the industrial revolution, with all its benefits and drawbacks, happened in the West and not in ancient, sophisticated China. Perhaps China, during the 1400’s to the 1900’s was run by and for a successful and well insulated upper class that saw no benefit to themselves in further evolution of thought or practice. The West in that same period was coming out of a long, bloody, desperate period of stagnation, sustained by a religious stranglehold on thought and innovation. Our Greek and Roman inheritance, coming to us through the Arabs enriched thought. The printing press, gunpowder, labor saving agricultural innovation all weakened the grasp of Mother Church and tended to collapse the hierarchies of renaissance Europe. As my country is currently struggling with unassailable religious doctrine being thrust into government at the highest levels, I would have been interested to hear this discussed.

Chris Lynch -- The Needham Question
A 45-minute programme was frustratingly short for such a fascinating subject. I recommend the late David Howard Smith's books for listeners who want to learn more about Taoism. (I actually e-mailed Tim Barrett last year as part of my quest to obtain more information about the elusive Professor Smith.)

Thanks for most interesting views on China and technology. May I make a few points. 1. Printing, surely the fact that European language had far fewer letters was very relevant. 2, Since the year 1000, very rarely has a northern european harvest failed![ indeed if you think on it even today 90% ofworldwide commercial farmers are descended from European stock]. 3, Yes, porcelain bowls are very pretty, but the soup tastes the same, and cheap wooden bowls don't break if you drop them. 4, maths is indeed wonderful, but it needs to be applied at village level to build a roof.You need to look to the Romans to see a lighter cheaper roof. 5. Britain could only have an industrial revolution AFTER it could produce enough food per farmworker/ peasant that released spare workers for industry. I reckon you need a few engineers on your programme. What percentage of academics from our great universities know how a farm baler ties knots.[ it was invented by a Scottish farmer called M'Cormick] I could go on, but I'll wait for next weeks programme. DWV.
Anthony Alexander - The Needham Question
Once again, thanks for the opportunity to hear another fascinating discussion, although due to time constraints, it tantalisingly skated over so many interesting areas. The answer that Einstein posed, mentioned at the very end, seems to open a fresh angle on the problem. Perhaps a future discussion could explore this area? That Hebrew monotheism and Greek mathematics provided an external logic to the universe, and thus the metaphysics of the modern world have their origins in the misty dawn of civilisation. I first became acquainted with the perspective of Daoist metaphysics (not that they can properly be called that) through the arts of tai chi chuan. The problem of understanding this through western analytic thought is comprehensively explored in the excellent Harvard Divinity School book, Daoism and Ecology, which shows how their modelling of nature was radically different from that in the European renaissance. Religion and science are inseparable. The internal politics whereby Daoism and Buddhism rose and fell in their relative influence in the Imperial court over the centuries is also significant, waning after the arrival of the Jesuits and surpressed by the end of the Manchu era. I attempted to explore some of these ideas in an article in Resurgence magazine last year, if anyone is interested. However, the law of unintended consequences seems even more relevant and there is a hugely compelling suggestion that because the Chinese drank tea not wine, they never developed the glass-making industry that was essential to European instrument making; telescopes, prisms, mirrors and microscopes. This was alluded to when you discussed the anti-Western propaganda of babies eyes being used to make mirrors. However, the story of the Boxer rebellion at the turn of the last century, is fascinating as an example of the last gasp of ancient, pre-modern beliefs declaring all-out war against industrial modernity. A century later, China leads the world in the development of optics. Will Chinese science soon create a new paradigm that will leave us feeling as overwhelmed as they once did?
Listen Live
Audio Help
[an error occurred while processing this directive]

In Our Time

Melvyn Bragg

In Our Time: A companion to the
Radio 4 series

The In Our Time Companion, edited by Melvyn Bragg, features a personal selection of episodes from the series. Find out more about the book.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy