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Industrial China and Europe in “Needham Puzzle”

The article under discussion analyzed and explained the notion of the “Needham puzzle.” The puzzle is about China’s growth and evolution: its tempo, its perspective, and the reason why China failed to become the country of the industrial revolution, although the capability of its evolution and growth was high even back in the fourteenth century. In short, the “Needham puzzle” compares the industrial growth capability of China in the fourteenth century to the actual industrial revolution of the eighteenth century in Europe.

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Justin Yifu Lin, the author of the analyzed article, tries to show various examples and shares the presuppositions of scientists and historians who, in different periods, tried to explain why China developing fast in the early years then stagnated compared to the rest of the evolving world, especially, in terms of innovations and technologies. The number of hypotheses is large, but Lin argues almost all of them. His main presupposition is that there is a great difference between the empirical methods of China and Europe. As innovators, Chinese specialists are still the users of trial and error methods. Most of the technological inventions are based on an accidental experiment and its consequences, no matter if it is successful or not. European and Western methods are the planned scientific experiments observed, analyzed, and modified according to the transitional results.

It is also noteworthy that Lin admits the great influence of the political and cultural background on the speed and methods of industrial development in China, both in modern and earlier periods. Being a nation of a deep and strong traditional belief and having quite a large population, China seems to use inner intellectual resources more than correlate it with outward knowledge. In other words, creativity was not widely-spread in premodern China. In modern history, the country relies more on the inner economic resources for innovations, using little of the existing world experience. This fact concludes that the industrial revolution occurred not in China of the fourteenth century, but in Europe and much later, because of the low research capacity inside the country.

Basing the economic system on agriculture and smaller inner markets in premodern times, China’s inventions were breaking for the acute problem solving; they continued using this pattern despite the development of the scientific experiment in Europe. As a result, it led to a stagnant industrial position, compared to the rest developing world. It is also possible to mention that the large population usually leads to the developmental stages in a country in terms of economy. Nevertheless, in the eighteenth century with its industrial development, the large population of China no longer played the leading innovative role because the world scientific and industrial evolution put education in the first place and made it the turning point for acquiring knowledge (Lin, 1995).


Lin, J.Y. (1995). The Needham Puzzle: Why the industrial revolution did not originate in China. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 43(2). Web.

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