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After winning acclaim for his monumental work on the history of Chinese science, Joseph Needham was occasionally introduced to fellow scientists who expressed appreciation for what they took to be his father–s pioneering research on chemical embryology. The two women central to his adult life – his first wife Dorothy, and his long¬time collaborator and eventual second wife Lu Gwei-Djen – used to enjoy recalling the surprise on the face of new acquaintances when they realised the biochemist and the sinologist were the same man. Like A.N. Whitehead, whose philosophical views and breadth of outlook he absorbed as a young man, Needham made the history of science his priority only after first gaining a reputation as an innovative scientific researcher. His later orientation was nevertheless solidly grounded in sensibilities he cultivated from youth.
Joseph Needham was born in London in December 1900. Looking back on his life in the 1970s, he accounted for the distinctive features of his character in terms of the influence of his parents. His tendency to embark on expansive projects he saw as reflecting the artistic temperament of his Irish songwriter mother, while his scientific propensities and broad religious interests he ascribed to his English father, a physician of Anglo-Catholic conviction and Gallophile tastes. Like George Bernard Shaw, one of his youthful culture heroes, Needham later explained his creativity, and particularly his abiding desire to build bridges between various areas of interest, as the consequence of a desire to reconcile parents whose personalities and opinions often clashed.
Western interpretations of the nature and significance of Chinese civilization have varied widely over the past eight centuries. At times quite opposing readings have been made of China even within a single period. This diversity of opinions has been documented in a number of detailed surveys on the history of Western ideas about China, and it is not the aim here to elucidate it in detail. In the present chapter, attention will be devoted rather to situating the development of certain key ideas about China in terms of trends in the evolution of Western social thought, especially notions related to what was often termed “the nature” of Chinese society, a concern that underlay and shaped Western discourses about China from the sixteenth till the mid-twentieth century when the bourgeoisies of the leading Western states asserted themselves and then consolidated power in classical fashion both at home and globally. The different phases in the development of ideas about China were linked to broader trends in ideology, political goals, and capitalist economic priorities, though not always in obvious or predictable ways. For present purposes we will not examine the large bodies of literature written by or devoted to authors who over the centuries traveled to China and wrote accounts of it; nor will we consider the corpus of expert works by scholars who devoted themselves primarily to Chinese studies.
The historical experience of the world has been as much the history of China as of the West. This modest fact has found recognition in the West only recently, and still only in certain circles. The dominance of models of society derived from the European experience in history and the social sciences has served to block this recognition. Too often the generalizations of social science – and this is as true in Asia as in the West – rest on the belief that the West occupies the normative starting position for constructing general knowledge. Almost all our categories – politics and economy, state and society, feudalism and capitalism – have been conceptualized primarily on the basis of Western historical experience. Until recently, China was sometimes taken into account, yet it mattered only to the extent to which it provided corollary proofs for European solutions to European questions. The teleologies of meaning attached to these concepts of analysis in European history have remained intact in spite of the often glaring counterexamples that China and the rest of Asia offer to Western observers. In this volume, we aspire to take account of China's historical experience in a different way: in the first three chapters, to probe the impact that Western genealogies of historical knowledge have had on how China is understood; and in the latter two, to suggest lines of flight from this dead end.
This book addresses the historical relationship that has arisen between the concept of capitalism and the idea of China. Formulated by European intellectuals in order to identify the social formation in which they found themselves, capitalism was portrayed as unique to Europe and as an organic outgrowth of Western civilization. In this way, China was rejected as a model of civilization, and seen merely as despotic, feudal or stagnant. This Eurocentric judgement has hung over all subsequent thinking about China, even influencing Chinese perceptions of their own history. The aim of this collaborative project is to examine how the experience of capitalism as a European social formation and as a world-system has shaped knowledge of China. In addition the volume aims to establish new foundations on which a theory of Chinese society might be built, in order to perceive and understand Chinese development in less Eurocentric terms.
This book has had its own long and complex history. The original idea of addressing the formation of European and Chinese interpretations of China in the light of the development of European capitalism we owe to Joseph Needham, who died in 1995 at the age of ninety-four. Needham stood out among Western scholars who have taken China seriously in the sense of using Chinese history to question assumptions about European and world history. He committed his work on the history of Chinese science and technology to the task of recognizing China's contributions to world scientific knowledge and scientific culture. Wanting to understand why Chinese science and technology had been comparatively advanced, only to be eclipsed by “modern” science in Europe after the sixteenth century, he set himself the task of historically reconstructing the Chinese scientific and technical traditions. During the Second World War he formulated his problematic in terms of the negative question of “why modern science had not developed in China but only in Europe,” but he soon expanded his inquiries with the more positive formulation of “why was Chinese civilization much more efficient than occidental in gaining natural knowledge and in applying it to practical human needs” prior to the sixteenth century. The difference between Chinese superiority until that time and European superiority thereafter Needham credited not to a difference in civilizational genius, as many of his generation and their predecessors had done, but to differences in the historical circumstances shaping the two societies.
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