Article Summary: “Needham Puzzle: Why the Industrial Revolution Did not Originate in China” by Justin Lin


Title: Needham Puzzle: Why the Industrial Revolution Did not Originate in China
Author: Justin Lin
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

The author attempts to answer the “Needham Puzzle”, first posited by Joseph Needham, one of the greatest Western historians of Chinese history. Needham “If the Chinese were the earliest to adopt key technologies, such as gunpowder, printing and the compass, why didn’t China industrialize long before the West?”

My Comments

While I believe that the causes are more complex than Lin presents, I do agree with his overall conclusion. I believe that China is an excellent example of how the competition of political and economic institutions is a key to progress.

Key Take-aways

  • China developed many key technologies early because it had a large population, which gave it a greater variety of new ideas than in lesser populated countries.
  • China, unlike the West, never experienced a Scientific Revolution, which gave birth to the experimental method. This experimental method enabled the West to develop far more complex pieces of technology, which were key to the Industrial Revolution.
  • China could not do so because it had a:
    • Strong centralized imperial bureaucracy
    • One dominant ideology: Confucianism
    • An exam system which indoctrinated all upwardly-mobile Chinese into this ideology.
    • Intolerance for differing viewpoints because they threatened to undermine imperial authority
  • The Western model of competing nations with widely differing religions/ideologies was far more likely to result in the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.

Important Quotes from Book

Why did the Industrial Revolution not occur in China in the fourteenth century? At that time, almost every element that economists and historians usually considered to be a major contributing factor to the Industrial Revolution in late eighteenth-century England also existed in China.

The hypothesis I propose as a likely explanation to the Needham puzzle is as follows: in premodern times, technological invention basically stems from experience, whereas in modern times, it mainly results from experiment cum science. China had an early lead in technology because in the experience-based technological invention process the size of population is an important determinant of the rate of invention. China fell behind the West in modern times because China did not make the shift from the experience-based process of invention to the experiment cum science-based innovation, while Europe did so through the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century.

It is important for our discussion to distinguish two types of trial and error: one is experience based and the other is experiment based. Experience-based trial and error refers to spontaneous activity that a peasant, artisan, or tinker performs in the course of production. Experiment-based trial and error refers to deliberate, intense activity of an inventor for the explicit purpose of inventing new technology. New technology obtained from experience is virtually free, while that obtained through experiment is costly. However, in a single production period an artisan or farmer can have only one trial, while an inventor can perform many trials by experiment.

By the several implications that can be drawn from this simple model: (1) The likelihood of inventing a better technology is a positive function of the number of trials. (2) The probability of inventing a better technology is a negative function of the highest productivity of previous draws from the invention distribution-the level of existing technology. (3) Increases in the stock of scientific knowledge and improvements in the quality of available materials raise an inventor’s likelihood of finding a better technology.

The first hypothesis from the above model predicts that, when experience is the major source of technological invention, the size of population in an economy is an important factor in determining the rate of invention and the level of technology in that economy.

The pattern of Chinese agriculture that was practiced up to modern times essentially was established by the Song dynasty (960-1279).

In the eighth to twelfth century, the burst of inventions in China probably was due partly to the increase in population and partly to the shift of population from the north to the south. Accompanying this shift was the transition from dryland crops to wetland rice, which with suitable technology brought a much higher yield than dryland crops.

The second hypothesis predicts that, given an invention distribution curve, the marginal re-turns to the probability of invention from a larger population will eventually diminish. The post-fourteenth-century experience in China seems to support the implication of the second hypothesis.

During the period of experience-based technological invention, Europe was at a comparative disadvantage due to its smaller population-a smaller population means a smaller number of trials. However, this disadvantage was countered by the shift to experiment-based technological invention and the closer integration of science and technology arising from the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century.

The experimental method removes the constraints of population size on technological invention. The number of trials that an inventor can perform in a laboratory within a year may be as many as thousands of farmers or artisans could perform in their lifetimes.

Therefore, more important than the popularization of the experimental method is the continuous shift to the right of the invention distribution function by the increasing integration of science with technology.

The sustained acceleration in the rate of technological innovation that is a major characteristic of modern economic growth is made possible only by the continuous rightward shift of the invention curve brought about by the continuous progress in science.

Needham’s explanation is that China had a “bureaucratic system,” which arose from the need of maintaining its vast array of irrigation systems, while Europe had an “aristocratic feudalism,” which was relatively more favorable to the emergence of a mercantile class. When the aristocracy decayed, it gave birth to capitalism and modern science. The bureaucratic system in China at first was favorable to the growth of science. However, it inhibited the emergence of mercantilistic values and Wen-yuan Qian and others argue that it was China’s imperial and ideological unification that prohibited the growth of modern science. In their view, intolerance was common to all premodern societies. In Europe, however, there were competitions between church and state, between church and church, and between state and state, which made the resistance to new basic ideas less effective. Therefore, Europe’s cluster of more or less independent states created favorable conditions for scientific development. China, on the other hand, was ruled by one dominant ideological system backed by absolute political power, and no genuine public dispute was allowed. As a result, despite the fact that “the Chinese people have been innovative in mechanical skills and technologies, traditional China’s politico-ideological inhibitions kept Chinese.

I agree with Needham, Qian, and others that China’s failure to make the transition from premodern science to modern science probably had something to do with China’s sociopolitical system. However, the key to the question is not so much that this system prohibited intellectual creativity, as they argued, but rather that the incentive structure of the system diverted the intelligentsia away from scientific endeavors, especially from the mathematization of hypotheses about nature and controlled experimentation.

Because of the incentive system created by the specific form of civil service examination and officialdom, fewer of the gifted in China than those in Europe were interested in acquiring the human capital essential for the scientific revolution. Therefore, despite her early lead in scientific achievement, China failed to have an indigenous scientific revolution.

Several policy implications for economic development are in order. However, many empirical studies have found that the success or failure of technology transfers crucially depends on the domestic ability to follow up with adaptive innovations on the imported technology, which in turn depends on domestic scientific research capacity. Therefore, in modern times a large population is no longer an endowment for economic development. More important than the size of the population is education with an emphasis on modem curriculum.

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