Article ID: CBB439761114

Joseph Needham in Korea, and Korea’s Position in the History of East Asian Science (June 2020)


As they were in other East Asian countries, Joseph Needham and his monumental works were warmly received by Korean historians of science in the late twentieth century. Korean historians appreciated both Needham’s pioneering research on the history of Chinese science and his praise of Korea’s contribution to East Asian scientific tradition, as expressed, for example, in the addenda to volume 3 of Science and Civilisation in China. But the Koreans’ praise of Needham was not unqualified. Needham’s largely favorable remarks on Korean science invited criticism from several prominent Korean historians who noted many factual errors, particularly relating to Korea’s priority over China in several technological inventions. They regarded those errors as indicative of Needham’s deep-rooted historiographical bias, his view of Korea as a mere tributary of China’s scientific tradition. But the Koreans’ criticism of Needham ironically shows that they agreed with the central tenets of Needham’s methodology of crediting scientific achievements to different civilizations, whereby to measure China’s contribution to what Needham termed “universal modern science.” The Koreans only scaled down the scope of comparison from the world of civilizations to a smaller region called East Asia, whereby to compare Korea’s share with that of China. This article thus takes the Korean criticism of Needham as an illuminating case, which invites us to think over a less explored issue in the history of East Asian science: how to write a balanced history of science in a region that is characterized by a stark disparity in power, resources, and achievements between China and its smaller neighbors.

Included in

Article Pingyi Chu (June 2020) Needham in Taiwan: Translating Science and Civilisation in China as Politics of Modernity and Identity. East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal (pp. 379-392). unapi

Article Togo Tsukahara; Jianjun Mei (June 2020) Putting Joseph Needham in the East Asian Context: Commentaries on Papers about the Reception of Needham’s Works in Korea and Taiwan. East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal (pp. 403-410). unapi

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Authors & Contributors
Nieto-Galan, Agustí
Nordmann, Alfred
Sobolev, V. S.
Weingart, Peter
Amir, Sulfikar
Nugroho, Yanuar
East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal
Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte
Neusis: The Greek Journal for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology
Nuncius: Annali di Storia della Scienza
VIET: Voprosy Istorii Estestvoznaniia i Tekhniki
Minerva: A Review of Science, Learning and Policy
Shin Yo Sha
Edition: Taibei Shi : Guo li Taiwan da xue chu ban zhong xin
University of Chicago Press
Yoda Press
History of science, as a discipline
Discipline formation
Technoscience; science and technology studies
Philosophy of science
Needham, Joseph
Yoichiro, Murakami
Li-fu Chen
Time Periods
20th century
21st century
19th century
18th century
17th century
16th century
East Asia
Moscow Society for the Study and Advancement of the History of Science
Rossiiskaia Akademiia Nauk

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