Science and Civilization

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Why is there no Scientific Revolution in China?

The Department of History Ed`ucation
2003-13503
Kyungeun Min

The Question of ‘why scientific revolution did not take place in China?’ has been a very attracting topic to many scholars, regardless of their major, since China’s decline in the early 20th century. Wondering how the vast oriental empire, which once had the most glorious civilization in the world, could collapse so quickly, people have tried to find reasons for China’s lack of scientific revolution. To tell the truth, this kind of study was not confined only to China. All of non-western civilizations including Islam, India, and South America were compared with Europe to find the origins of their current inferior status, and they were blamed for not having scientific revolution, though revolution is called revolution due to its rarity. Indeed, all of these comparative researches between the West and the East cannot be free from suspicion of orientalism and western supremacy, and it would become more obvious when we recall early eugenicist researchers like Ernst Haeckel, who tried to explain this problem based on racism. However, as time goes by, more objective and scientific studies have been conducted by many researchers from various fields, and thanks for their sincere efforts, now we can understand this scientific disparity between the East and the West from various perspectives. So the aim of this essay is to clarify the reason for Chinese absence of scientific revolution, and in order to do that, I will first introduce some existing researches and theories, and then check the validity of each explanation.

The Relations between Chinese thought and science
The first comprehensive attempt to explain this question was conducted by Joseph Needham. In his book “Science and Civilization” published in 1961, he tried to explain Chinese absence of scientific revolution with its lack of scientific thought, which was attributable to the negative impact of Chinese philosophy. To be sure, it is a monumental and admirable work. Until now, no one has ever succeeded in making such an extensive and in-depth analysis, and even today almost every researcher studying this problem begins their stories by mentioning Needham’s contribution to this field. However, despite of its excellence, some of his conclusions seem so extreme. According to his argument, among the three major Chinese philosophical systems, Buddhism barely contributed to science, Confucianism mainly acted as obstacles, only Taoism was conducive to the development of scientific thought, but it also failed to make Chinese people interested in science enough to create scientific revolution. Is that true? Are Chinese religions really the main culprits of its lack of modern science? Unfortunately, there are so many emerging researches rebutting his argument. So in this part, I will introduce Needham’s main ideas about the relation between Chinese thought and science, and refute some of them with other researches, so that we can clarify the effects Chinese religions had on its science.

Buddhism
About Buddhism, he first mentioned certain theories that could be regarded as scientific thought, such as “the infinity of space and time, the view that our universe is circulating”. However, Needham basically considered Buddhism as a negative factor of Chinese science due to its emphasis on illusoriness. He said that “Buddhism has contributed to science by its belief of causation(緣起), but caused adverse effect to it by its doctrine of illusoriness.” Although it is true that this concept of illusoriness, which means that individual existence is illusory and that our consciousness continues existing after death, is one of the main concepts in Buddhism, and that it is somewhat responsible for Buddhism’s avoidance of practical and technical issues, the problem is not that simple. In fact, Buddhism was more scientific than any other religious at that time. It was...
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