Project Overview

The Needham Questioning: of the Unquestionable

Faculty Sponsor

Jing Wang (


East Asian Languages and Literatures
Asian Studies


Title: “The Needham Questioning: of the Unquestionable”

There are no bad questions? Then, there are no good ones, either? Let’s say it depends on what we wish to do in our given time-space.

“Why did China not develop modern science?” “Why did China not develop modern capitalism?” Since the spread of western modernization in recent centuries, these seem to be standard questions in the academic establishment, and this negative pattern of inquiry about the non-west seems to reproduce itself endlessly so that we often get fascinating research topics but of the same intellectual mould. In the social domain, such interrogation goes to seemingly small things, such as one American missionary demanding to know from a Chinese peasant: “Why do you not add salt when you make bread?” He did not ask, was not asked, why one should add salt when making bread. It seems difficult to turn the table, and reasons are too numerous to list. The larger critical concern of this project is western-centrism as method, the point being the “ism,” leading to a single narrative in a single order, be it cultural, social, or disciplinary.

Specifically, one starting point of my project is the modern science question. “Why China did not develop modern science” is a western-centrically simplified or even “high-jacked” version of what is known as the “Needham question” in the field. The question was not originally raised by Neeedham but named after him due to the fact that he, curious to find out, studied the Chinese language, conducted research in China for over a decade, and presented traditional Chinese scientific thought and practice in a 27-volume series called Science and Civilisation in China (Cambridge UP, 1954-2008). Inevitably (yes, inevitably), Needham left the question unresolved, to the disappointment of those expecting an answer.

Many scholars unsuspecting of the question have offered explanations in the past century from their respective disciplinary viewpoints. In my book project I do not intend to work toward an answer. Instead, I study why Needham became the ultimate expert on Chinese science but did not as generally expected give a satisfactory answer to the so-called Needham question. My guiding question is: How was Needham intellectually situated so that he could approach the question on Chinese science from scratch and with original and independent thinking, not based on existing scholarship? To address this question, I go into Needham’s system of thought as seen in his writings (a lot) on philosophy and science, i.e., writings he produced in his earlier career as a philosopher and experimental scientist. I believe that only by delving into his intellectual prehistory can we understand his later contribution to the world (not just western) historiography of science with an East Asian regard. 

Since my interest is method, I look at the Needham question and Needham’s writings from an epistemological viewpoint. I emphasize that Needham’s philosophy of knowledge, as seen in his writings, is fundamentally above and beyond the question-and-answer mode, and that his view of science and history was above and beyond the western-centric mainstream view. In writing this book, I hope to expose Needham’s work as method to all readers interested in doing groundbreaking work despite established perception. I believe Needham’s method has great generality.

I propose for two students.

One I need on campus to help me take new notes, organize old notes, compile bibliographies, read with me for discussion, and provide help otherwise as needed. The work will be mostly in English. With adjustment, the project will carry on if remote-only format is dictated.

I need the other student to help me gather archival materials in Chinese about Needham and his study of Chinese science as a part of world science in history. This will involve travel to China. Places to go include The Needham Literature Center (???????) in Shanghai, China National Libraries in Beijing and Shanghai, libraries of Fudan University in Shanghai, and libraries in Tsing-hua University and Peking University in Beijing. I expect found materials to be saved in PDF format, organized by topic and by date, and all items annotated (short summary provided) and listed alphabetically in pin yin in correct MLA citation format. Besides, I would also like the student to find out whether there are, and if so, what courses are taught on Needham in Chinese universities in general. If travel is restricted and the student has to stay on campus, they can research what is available online and help me process Chinese materials I already have on hand by taking new notes, organizing old notes, and creating annotated bibliography.


Student Qualifications

The students are expected to: (1) be eager to learn, be dedicated, and be proficient in Chinese as well as English, (2) be perceptive readers of texts, and (3) have patience to do detailed work, (4) enjoy working together and independently as needed. Students interested in philosophy, history, and scientific thought (science plus thought) -- both Eastern and Western -- are encouraged to apply. 

Number of Student Researchers

2 students

Project Length

10 weeks

Applications open on 01/03/2022 and close on 02/04/2022

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If you have questions, please contact Karyn Belanger (