BA Film Studies and East Asian Studies / Course details

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
Science and Civilisation in East Asia

Unit code JAPA23002
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Japanese Studies
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


Why are Japanese people obsessed with being punctual? Why did only China adopt such a drastic population measure as the ‘one-child policy’? Why did the South Korean professor Hwang Woo-suk fabricate his biomedical research and why did this become a global scandal? This unit adopts the perspectives of social and cultural history to ask questions of this kind, and examines key issues – e.g. colonialism, nation building and globalisation – by exploring the interactions between science, culture and civilisation in East Asia.


We start the unit by asking the question proposed more than half a century ago by Joseph Needham, British biologist, first head of the science division of UNESCO and one of the greatest Sinologists of the 20th century. He asked why modern science only developed in Europe even though Chinese civilisation was more efficient in applying natural knowledge to practical human needs between the 1st century BC and the 15th century AD. The unit then explores how modern science, technology and medicine did eventually emerge in East Asia during the 19th century and examines their sociopolitical, cultural and economic backgrounds, as well as what the notion of civilisations and modernity meant for East Asia. The unit also looks at contemporary issues, and aims to find out particular ways in which East Asian societies have engaged with the issues around science and technology.



The unit addresses some of the major issues relating to the relationships between science and civilisation in East Asia. It introduces major concepts necessary to develop an understanding of how scientific endeavours were influenced by culture and societies in East Asia.


Learning outcomes

On successful completion of the unit, you will be able to:

  • Describe key historical events underlying the development of science, technology and medicine in East Asia
  • Analyse how history, society and culture influence engagement with science and how it is practiced and applied
  • Apply your own intellectual interests and cultural awareness to areas beyond English-speaking countries
  • Demonstrate skills in academic writing, in particular reviewing academic literature including primary sources

In addition, for 20 credits:

  • Research and write a scholarly review, integrating a range of disciplines



  • Science and civilisation in East Asia: the Needham Question
  • Punctuality obsession: technologies of time
  • Western science in the East?
  • Science of birth and death
  •  Missionary position: The role of missionaries in science, technology and medicine
  • Science, empire and war
  •  Shinkansen: Trains and modern dreams
  • Cold War science and population control of Asia
  •  Humanitarian science and medicine? The role of science for disaster relief
  • Science, state and global competition

Teaching and learning methods

Lectures and class discussion of the readings

A review session on paper-writing formalities

Feedback and assessment of oral and written work

Knowledge and understanding

  • Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of key issues pertaining to science and civilization in East Asia.
  • Demonstrate critical understanding of key analytical concepts related to the study of the history of science, technology and medicine in East Asia (HEASTM).

Intellectual skills

  • Broaden intellectual interests and nurture cultural awareness for areas beyond English-speaking countries.
  • Read critically.
  • Write analytically.

Practical skills

  • Improve their skills to approach primary sources about regions in East Asia.
  • Improve basic skills for academic writing, in particular reviewing academic literature.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Have honed their skills for reasoned presentation, discussion and argument.
  • Develop personal qualities of independence of mind in order to make ethical judgments.
  • Have been encouraged to confront their own values as global citizens

Assessment methods

1.     Creation of 10 multiple choice questions on a particular theme, accompanied by a 1500 word scholarly commentary on the chosen theme (40%)

2.  10 multiple choice activities (10%)

3.     3000 word review essay (50%)


Feedback methods

  • Written feedback for essay
  • Additional one-to-one feedback (during the consultation hour or by making an appointment)

Recommended reading

Science and Civilization in China Series (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954-2004), in particular Vol. I. Introductory Orientations. Joseph Needham, with the research assistance of Wang Ling (1954).

DiMoia, John. Reconstructing Bodies: Biomedicine, Health, and Nation-Building in South Korea Since 1945. Stanford University Press, 2013.

Elman, Benjamin A. ‘New Directions in the History of Modern Science in China: Global Science and Comparative History’, Isis (2007) 98(3): 517-23.

Fan, Fa-ti. British Naturalists in Qing China: Science, Empire, and Cultural Encounter. Harvard University Press, 2004.

Fu, Daiwei, ‘How Far Can East Asian STS Go?: A position paper’, East Asian Science, Technology and Society (2007) 1(1): 1-14.

Nakayama, Shigeru et al. eds. A Social History of Science and Technology in Contemporary Japan, Vols. 1-4. Melbourne: Trans Pacific press, 2001-2006.

Hashimoto, Takehiko. Historical Essays on Japanese Technology Tokyo: The University of Tokyo Center for Philosophy, 2009. Available at

Low, Morris ed. Building a Modern Japan New York: Palgrave, 2005.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Lectures 22
Seminars 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 165

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Aya Homei Unit coordinator

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