Science Express: Science and Civilisation in China 

Thu 5 Jun 20146.30pm–8pm
Level 4 Espresso
Free entry

Duncan Campbell
Duncan Campbell doing fieldwork in the Temple of Confucius, in Confucius’ birthplace of Qufu, Shandong province, China, 2013. Photograph courtesy of Duncan Campbell.

What caused the decline of science and technology in 15th-century China, when modern science was developing rapidly in the West? Duncan Campbell discusses the explanations given by famous historian Joseph Needham.

The Needham Question

The Needham Question (also sometimes referred to as the Needham Problem or Needham’s Grand Question) poses a simple but fundamental question. Before the 15th century, China was a world leader in almost all fields of scientific discovery and technological application. So why did modern science have its meteoric rise in the 15th century only in the West, rather in China?

Joseph Needham (1900–1995) was a British biochemist and historian of science who set out to investigate the possible cultural, religious, economic, sociological, historical, and linguistic reasons for China’s great inertia in this respect. His monumental Science and Civilisation in China (the first volume was published in 1954) now stands at 24 of the 27 projected volumes. This talk considers a number of Needham’s proposed explanations.

Duncan Campbell

Duncan M Campbell graduated from Victoria University of Wellington, then studied mandarin in Malaysia for a year. From 1976–78 he was a Chinese Exchange Programme student in China (in Beijing and Nanjing). Since then, he has taught Chinese language, modern and classical; Chinese literature, modern and classical; and aspects of Chinese history and civilisation, at the University of Auckland, Victoria University of Wellington, and the Australian National University in Canberra.

The bulk of Duncan’s research concentrates on the literary and material culture of late imperial China, with particular reference to the late Ming-early Qing period (1550s–1660s). Within this field, one particular focus is a group of writers and scholars who were born in Shaoxing 紹興, Zhejiang Province and all of whom experienced this most cataclysmic of dynastic transitions. Specific areas of interest include: gardens and their literary and pictorial representation, letter writing and diaries, travel and travel writing, aspects of print culture, the history of the late imperial private library, and biographical and autobiographical writing.