The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China: 3

Joseph Needham

Cambridge University Press 1986
A book review by Danny Yee © 2000
It would be nice to have a spare six months to read Joseph Needham's mammoth Science and Civilisation in China, but I fear a few volumes of Ronan's abridgement are as much as I will ever manage. This volume, abridged from volume IV parts 1 and 3, covers matters nautical: electricity and magnetism (because of their connection with the compass), ship design and its historical evolution, exploration, navigation, propulsion, and so forth. Needham sets this in a broadly comparative overview, ranging from ancient Egypt to premodern Europe (his approach is strongly "diffusionist", reflecting the early 1960s date).

Although the first unequivocal evidence for Chinese compasses is tenth century, predating European compasses by only a few centuries, Needham demonstrates that magnetic needles are much older and that compasses probably are as well. In any event an east-west transmission is likely, possibly overland rather than by sea. Chinese knowledge of magnetism was connected with geomancy and divination and, reaching back further in history, with the game of chess.

Turning to nautical technology, Needham describes in detail some typical Chinese ships, illustrating characteristic features such as flat bottoms, watertight bulkheads, and square prows and stems; in a general typology of boats, he places them as descendants of the raft. This is followed by a nautical history of China, from earliest antiquity down to the Ching, drawing on evidence from archaeology and literature.

Chapter three, covering Chinese voyages of exploration, probably has the broadest appeal. Needham concentrates on the Indian Ocean and the great Ming treasure fleets, which reached as far as southern Africa (half a century before the Portuguese), but also considers the possibility of voyages to Australia and the Americas.

Three chapters cover navigation, propulsion, and steering. Needham describes navigational theory and practice (astronomy, mathematics, instrumentation, and mapping), the fore-and-aft rig, oars and the self-feathering "propeller", the balanced axial rudder, and other key technologies. A final chapter deals with miscellaneous topics: anchors and lighthouses, diving (pearling), rams and grappling irons, and the long-standing preference of the Chinese for projectile weapons (and defensive armouring) afloat.

January 2000

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%T The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China: 3
%A Needham, Joseph
%E Ronan, Colin A.
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 1986
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0521315603
%P 298pp