Academic Exchange Quarterly    Fall  2003    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume 7, Issue 3

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Teaching Needham’s Puzzle - Fostering Historical Thinking


Fan Ka Wai, City University of Hong Kong


FAN, Ka wai is senior tutor at the Chinese Civilization Center of the City University of Hong Kong. He received his Ph.D. in history from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His main research interests are in the history of Chinese science and medicine and he has published several articles in the field.




In this article, the author shares his teaching experience with regard to Needham's Puzzle and introduces online resources and teaching materials. He points out two difficulties he encounters in teaching the topic; the availability of model answers to the students and their lack of understanding of academic issues relating to the question. In conclusion, the author discusses how to foster students' historical thinking through learning Needham's Puzzle.




The author, a teacher at the Chinese Civilization Center of City University of Hong Kong, gives courses in Chinese culture at the Center. Statistics from 1998 to 2000 show that, among many of the history subjects, the History of Chinese Science is one of the most popular among students. In the Chinese Civilization Course, one of the teaching modes is an online program. Since 2001, an online component has been required for teaching a Chinese Culture course, through which students must conduct research and study. In keeping with the requirement, the author has designed an online course that focuses on the History of Chinese Science.  In this course, Needham’s Puzzle, one of the most important topics, is discussed.


Joseph Needham began his career as a biochemist working in embryology. He obtained his doctor’s degree from Cambridge University in 1924 and, in 1937, when he met Lu Gwei-Djen, who came to Cambridge University to study, Needham learned about the extraordinary contributions made by ancient Chinese science.  He became fascinated by ancient Chinese science and, when he was 38, studied scientific information in ancient Chinese books. After World War II, Needham returned to Cambridge University and began researching the history of Chinese science and technology (Cowling). He developed a project on “Science and Civilization in China” and invited many experts from around the world to cooperate in the project. Today, “Science and Civilization in China” is still an ongoing publication. The historical question that puzzled Needham for many years was “Why did modern science not develop in China?” In the present article, the author intends to share his teaching experience concerning this question, which is referred to as Needham’s Puzzle.




The course aims to address the two major difficulties encountered by students. The first is that students have the same “model answer” for Needham’s Puzzle, even though they have a keen interest in discussing the subject. This is surprising since Chinese Language and Culture, including one topic on the History of Chinese Science, is a requirement for secondary school students in Hong Kong. It seems, however, that in order to help students to get a high score in the examination, a series of model answers has been worked out by high school teachers, and has been included in textbooks for students to learn from for the Advanced Level Examination. The second difficulty is that students do not fully understand the academic discussions of Needham’s Puzzle (see IrfanHabib and Raina, 1999; Lui and Wang, 2002) and they even distort Joseph Needham’s ideas. Many preconceived concepts are held by the students, which undoubtedly adds difficulty to teaching.


The objectives of the author in designing his course on Needham’s Puzzle are: (1) to rectify the misconceptions of students; (2) to train the students to think about history – historical thinking develops skills needed to formulate questions, collect evidence,  critique historical interpretations, and construct a historical analysis among different viewpoints (Advance on Thinking Historically; Standards in Historical Thinking; Historical Thinking Concepts;  Holt 1990); and (3) to use internet sites as teaching materials so students will realize that an abundance of historical teaching resources is available online, which may be helpful not only for their present but for their future studies of history. 


Needham’s Puzzle


Was any science developed in ancient China? To answer such a question is virtually impossible because an exact definition of “science” is difficult.  In the history of China, many extraordinary scientific achievements came about, such as the well-known “four great inventions,” which had a considerable influence on the development of culture in the world. Unfortunately, in the last 150 years, the invasion of the Western powers has opened a miserable page of Chinese history. Since the May Fourth Movement in 1919, the pursuit for democracy and science has never stopped, and Chinese culture was blamed for having prevented democracy and science from being more firmly developed in China. The rapid development of Western science was because of the Scientific Revolution, but why had scientific achievements in Chinese history not been incorporated into modern science? In discussing the history of Chinese science, the first question to ask would be: “Why has modern science in China lagged behind that of the Western countries, despite the illustrious scientific achievements in ancient Chinese history?” Thus, Needham’s Puzzle was conceived and developed from such a question. “Why had a Scientific Revolution not taken place in China and why did modern science fail to develop in Chinese civilization?”


When asked to provide an explanation for the question posed by Needham, students most commonly give two model answers. First, since the Tang dynasty, Civil Examinations were almost the only way to recruit talented people; because science was not part of the Civil Examination the development of science was hindered. Second, the Chinese people are nature loving, and would not want to damage nature; within Chinese culture, science is viewed as being detrimental to nature. Chinese people, therefore, have generally not studied scientific activities. The model answers make points about “restraining factors” – factors in Chinese culture that hindered the development of science in China. Is it suitable, however, for students to discuss the idea that “China lagged behind other countries in science development”? To rectify preconceived ideas, it is not meaningful to find one or two more explanations that students had not known before.  Students may simply memorize the one or two reasons, without considering them more deeply.  Therefore, the teaching method designed by the author is intended to enable students to understand the meaning of the Puzzle and the discussion that exists in the academic community, and to understand the extent to which these model answers may be true, by carefully scrutinizing and discussing their answers.


Teaching Structure and Content


Student learning in the course on Needham’s Puzzle differs from the approach used at secondary school. Discussions are held in tutorial classes. Students then go to a website and reply to questions asked by the author; there is discussion on the internet with the author and with classmates. Internet resources are recommended, many of which are from The Needham Research Institute (NRI), a site linked to the student website, that introduces the life of Joseph Needham and his contributions to research into the history of Chinese science.


The following three articles found on the web are particularly important in relation to the puzzle; Fan Dainian, “A Discussion on Reasons for China’s Lagging behind in Science”, Liu Dun, “A New Survey of the Needham Question” and Nathan Sivin, “Why the Scientific Revolution Did Not Take Place in China – or Did It?” These articles discuss three aspects of Needham’s Puzzle.  Fan Dainian’s article introduces previous research on the Puzzle. By reading the article, students may be able to understand the various discussions and viewpoints. Liu Dun’s article discusses the derivation and academic meaning of Needham’s Puzzle. Finally, Nathan Sivin’s article is an important work on thorough re-thinking of Needham’s Puzzle; it points out the academic meaning of the Puzzle and mentions various mistakes made by Needham when he was searching for the answers to the question.


The structure of the course is such that, students first learn about Joseph Needham (1900-1995), gaining an understanding of his life and contributions to the history of science. The students consider the six conditions which, according to Needham, should be met for researchers on the history of Chinese science (Wang, 1992):

1.      The researcher must have scientific accomplishment and many years of

experience in scientific research and practice;

2.   The researcher must be familiar with the history of Western science and have 

      experience researching a certain aspect of the history;

3.   The researcher must have knowledge about the social and economic

      background of scientific and technological development for each of Europe’s   

      historical periods;

4.   The researcher must have a personal taste of the life of Chinese people;

5.   The researcher must understand Chinese and at least be able to look up  

      original works and any necessary reference literature; and

6.   The researcher must be fortunate enough to obtain adequate guidance and 

      instruction from a good number of Chinese scientists and scholars.


The next step is to ask students to answer two questions: (1) Are you able to satisfy the above conditions? (2) Why should you be required to be familiar with the historical development of Western science, and have knowledge about the social and economic background of scientific and technological development in each period of European history to be able to do research on the history of Chinese science?


The students are then guided to probe more deeply into Needham’s Puzzle. After

having completed reading of the articles by Fan Danian, Liu Dun and Nathan Sivin, mentioned above, students go to a Discussion Forum on the course website to discuss the question. The author expressly:

1.      tells students that the focus of discussion is not to find out one or two more answers to the question as to why China is lagging behind in science development, or to determine which factors are more important than others.

2.      asks whether “Needham’s Puzzle” is a false statement.

3.      tells students that, when reading the articles provided, they should not only focus on the content of the arguments, but also on whether the methods used by the scholars are correct, and if the arguments are tenable.

4.      tells students to weigh their previously held ideas and decide whether or not they are tenable.


In summary, the key points of the arguments of Nathan Sivin and the author of this article, are the following:

1.      China is lagging behind in science” is a comparative conclusion; that is, the conclusion was made after comparing the scientific development in China to that of Western countries. If, for example, China had been compared with African countries, then the conclusion “China is advanced in science” might have been obtained. In this case, is it meaningful to be “advanced” or “lagging behind”?

2.      Although a scientific revolution did not take place in China, is it meaningful to ask, “Why did scientific revolution not take place in China?” Under what circumstance would it be meaningful to discuss “a matter that never happened”? Does it make sense to say that it should have but did not happen? (Nathan Sivin) For example, imagine meeting a classmate who is taking the same computer course as are you. The class was given an examination today, but you did not take the examination. The meaningful question to ask would be, “Why did you not take the examination?” If you were not enrolled in the class, however, the question would be meaningless.

3.      Why should scientific revolution or scientific development have happened in China? If we ask, “Why did Confucianism not emerge in Britain”, could a reasonable answer be found? In most civilizations, such as the Indian, Islamic, African, or South American, “Scientific Revolutions” did not occur. The Scientific Revolution only existed in Western civilization. Thus the territory to be defined is the meaning of “other civilizations” vs “Western civilization.

4.      Can the “restraining factors” explain “why a scientific revolution did not take place in China”? In other words, is it useful to say that certain factors in the Chinese culture were contrary to scientific development? Nathan Sivin cites the example of whether the appearance of the carriage in Europe had pushed or hindered the invention of the automobile.  If the carriage had provided impetus for the invention of the automobile, it might have been because the people were eager to find substitutes, since they were not satisfied with the performance of the carriage. Alternatively, if the carriage had hindered the invention of the automobile, perhaps the people were not eager to find substitutes because they were satisfied with the performance of the carriage. (Nathan Sivin).  It would be difficult to show clearly whether the appearance of the carriage helped or hindered the invention of the automobile.

5.      How do preset conclusions affect our viewpoint about historical issues? That is, if we conclude that “China has lagged behind” to be a fact, then what errors may result from our further reasoning on this basis? A similar question would be to ask: If an elephant has four legs, then if another animal has four legs, is it an elephant?

6.      When we impute the non-occurrence of a matter to a certain factor, and if such a factor was eliminated, then is it fair to assume that the matter would have taken place? When referring to “restraining factors” in connection with the lack of a scientific revolution in China, is it logical to assume that if such factors had not restrained the development of science, then a Scientific Revolution would have occurred?


Finally, after students have considered the above questions, they need to answer a further question in the Discussion Forum: “Did Civil Examinations hinder the scientific development in China?” The author does not preset answers for this question, and students can answer either “Yes” or “No.” The purpose of the question is to remind students to consider whether or not the argument: “Science did not develop because science was not part of the Civil Examinations” is reasonable.  Further questions are asked such as: “Was the development of science hindered by Chinese people putting a greater importance on moral education?” “Was the development of science hindered by Chinese people loving nature?”


By responding to discussion questions and reviewing the answers, students should be able to understand the following key points:

1.          The question, “Why did a scientific revolution not take place in China?” is not asked to find a final answer, but is asked to provide an opportunity to consider the characteristics of the historic development of China. As Nathan Sivin suggests, the question is heuristic.  

2.          When researching the history of China, world history must also be studied and used for making comparisons.

3.          The history of science can communicate both arts and science. In many countries, history is often considered to be a social science as well as an art. The situation in Hong Kong is different, however, as history is regarded as a purely an art, not a social science. 

4.          When researching history, finding an ultimate answer for historical issues is not always necessary. The key point is to understand the true historical situation and seek historical evidence, instead of making unfounded guesses.  When studying history, all relevant aspects need to be evaluated, instead of just one or two factors independently.




The teaching of Chinese history using the internet is a new aspect of education in Hong Kong. The author has developed a tutorial and internet based course dealing with Needham’s Puzzle. The course involves discussion and interpretation and focuses on “historical thinking”. The students have responded positively to the course, they feel that they have gained an appreciation of the value of history and have acquired critical thinking skills. Clearly, teachers and history researchers should guide students in the exploration of available information resources, and invigorate their thinking so that it is both logical and constructive. The author believes that by participating in critical discussion students have increasing confidence to evaluate the varying historical interpretations they encounter. By the end of the course, they show independent and wise judgments.




Holt, Thomas C. Thinking Historically: Narrative, Imagination, and Understanding. New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 1990.

Lui, Dun, and Wang Yangzong (eds), Chinese Science and Scientific Revolution: Selected Essays on Needham’s Puzzle and Related Researches. Shenyang shi : Liaoning

jiao yu publishing house, 2002.

S. IrfanHabib and Dhruv Raina (eds), Situating the History of Science: Dialogues with

Joseph Needham. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Wang, Guozhong, Joseph Needham and China. Shanghai: Shanghai ke xue pu ji

publishing house, 1992.

Wineburg, Samuel S., Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the

Future of Teaching the Past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.


Resources on the Web


Advance on Thinking Historically

Fan Dainian, “A Discussion on Reasons for Lagging behind in China in Science”

Historical Thinking Concepts

Liu Dun, “A New Survey of the Needham Question”.

Maurice Cowling, Joseph Needham & the history of Chinese science

Nathan Sivin, “Why the Scientific Revolution Did Not Take Place in China --Or Didn't It?”

Needham Research Institute

Standards in Historical Thinking