Dr Joseph Needham and his intellectual heritage

China Studies Centre Monthly Seminar, University of Sydney

Dr Joseph Needham and his intellectual heritage
Professor Jianjun Mei

11:30am-1:00pm, Wednesday 12 April
CCANESA Boardroom, Madsen Building(F09), the University of Sydney


Dr. Joseph Needham is well known for his monumental series Science and Civilisation in China (SCC), which presents a systematic and thorough examination of the development of science and technology in ancient China. As a founder of the field of East Asian history of science, technology and medicine, Needham left a distinct imprint on the field, and his intellectual influence has been profound. As is well known, from the outset Needham wanted to explore why the scientific and industrial revolutions took place in Western Europe, not in China. This is the so-called Needham Question, which has aroused considerable research interest over the past fifty years across the world, especially in China. In this talk, I wish to reflect on Needham’s intellectual heritage, its impact on understanding the world history of knowledge circulation, and its broad influence on generations of scholars. I shall present two case studies of paktong and iron/steel to show what Needham himself achieved and what recent progress has been made. I shall argue that Needham’s intellectual heritage is unique, substantial and multi-dimensional, reaching well beyond the so-called Needham Question and surely continuing to encourage and inspire new generations of inquisitive minds.

Professor Mei specialises in Historical Metallurgy and Materials. Jianjun Mei graduated from Beijing University of Iron and Steel Technology in 1984 with a B. Eng in Metallurgical Chemistry. He obtained a M. Sc in History of Science and Technology in 1988. He first came to Cambridge in 1994 as Li Foundation scholar working at the Needham Research Institute. In 1995 he began his PhD study at the Department of Archaeology, Cambridge University with a scholarship offered by the East Asian History of Science Foundation, Hong Kong. He was awarded a PhD in archaeology in 2000. After postdoctoral work in Tokyo and Cambridge he returned to China in 2004 as Professor at the Institute of Historical Metallurgy and Materials, University of Science and Technology Beijing, where he is currently Director. In recent years Professor Mei has been a leading member of the team formed to write the volume on non-ferrous metallurgy for the Science and Civilisation in China series, founded by the great British sinologist and historian of science Joseph Needham (1900-1995). He is active in a number of international research groups, and is currently President of the International Society for the History of East Asian Science, Technology and Medicine. In February 2013, he was appointed as Director of the Needham Research Institute.