The Man Who Loved China

China is not only vast in extent and population but in history and culture as well. For any one individual to try bringing this tumult of data into coherent form is rather like attempting to cross the Pacific in a canoe. But the determined and extraordinary polymath Joseph Needham decided to do it, and the result is one of the greatest monuments of scholarship ever: his many-volumed Science and Civilisation in China.

If that sounds like hyperbole, Simon Winchester?s biography of Needham will prove that it is not. When Needham embarked on his exploration of China?s cultural and scientific history he did not know just how much he would find. Winchester lists some of the more significant Chinese inventions and discoveries Needham recorded: from anti-malaria drugs in the 3rd century B.C.E. through astronomical clock drives (1st century C.E.), the distinction between arterial and venous blood (2nd century), folding chairs (3rd century), printing and coinage (9th century), the magnetic compass (11th century) — the list goes on and on for pages, encompassing far more than the ?gunpowder, compass and printing? trilogy usually mentioned.

It took an extraordinary person to find this out and write the history of it. Winchester?s admiration for Needham is both understandable and justified. Some of a disapproving turn will dislike the idea of Needham?s lifelong commitment to socialism, his support for Mao Zedong, his energetic womanizing despite marriage and an apparently strong Christian loyalty; but the intellectual achievement and the determination and persistence that underwrote it are magnificent.

Needham came from the British professional middle class and was educated at a public school and at Cambridge University, where he studied chemistry. He made significant discoveries in biochemistry while working in the famous laboratory of Sir Frederick Hopkins, and his first two books, on embryology and morphogenesis, respectively, earned him a fellowship of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and a fellowship of the Royal Society. He was therefore established as an academic when, in his mid-30s, he became the dissertation supervisor of a graduate student who had come to Cambridge from China. She was Lu Gwei-djen, a native of Shanghai who became his lifelong lover and finally, in very old age and therefore only briefly, his second wife.

Lu was the reason for Needham?s conversion to Sinology and history. It began with the study of Mandarin, which fascinated him. Lu was his first teacher, but he soon progressed to a formidable command of the language, in both its ancient and modern forms, and to a delight in Chinese calligraphy.

It is possible that Needham?s love of things Chinese might have confined itself to Lu Gwei-djen and Mandarin, but at the height of the Second World War he was employed by the British government to go to Chungking, then nationalist China?s wartime capital. While preparing for his arduous journey he was struck with the idea of writing about the history of Chinese science. As so often happens, he at first thought merely of writing an essay on the topic; then he thought he might write a book about it. That book has turned into 20 books, divided into seven volumes, most of which have a number of separately published parts, most of them written or partly written by Needham himself.

Needham?s travels in China during the war — the first of many in the decades to follow — confirmed his determination to record China?s achievements in science and technology. He visited Dunhuang, where half a century before Aurel Stein had discovered the famous treasure trove of Buddhist manuscripts, including the Diamond Sutra, showing that China had invented printing six centuries before Europe. It was a long time before this remarkable fact received full treatment in Needham?s magnum opus; Volume V, Part I of Science and Civilisation in China, published in 1985, deals with paper and printing, and it is the first in the series not to be wholly or partly authored by Needham himself.

Although Needham eventually received many honors for his work, acquiring the rare distinction of being elected a fellow of both the Royal Society (for scientists) and the British Academy (for students of the humanities), and being made a Companion of Honor by the queen, he was not always admired. For a time during the Cold War?s first decade he was regarded with suspicion even in his own Cambridge college because of his socialist views and his Maoist sympathies.

In the 1960s, by which time matters had so changed that he had been elected master of his college, Needham was still a radical, and he sympathized with the student revolts that gripped universities from America to France. And although his views moderated somewhat as the full horrors of the Cultural Revolution became apparent after Mao?s death, he remained committed to his principles about social justice to the end of his life.

Winchester shows that although this persistence and consistency might have seemed equivocal to those who disagreed with him politically, it was exactly what was required for the huge project Needham had undertaken. Science and Civilisation in China begins with an overview of Chinese history and culture, followed by a conspectus history of Chinese science. In the succeeding volumes more specific accounts are given of mathematics, astronomy, physics, engineering, the range of technologies from paper and textiles to military inventions, metallurgy, ceramics, mining, biology, agriculture, medicine, food science, society, language, and logic. The scope is tremendous, the scholarship remarkable — hence the achievement reaches the status of the monumental.

Winchester?s biography is highly readable, somewhat — though understandably — hagiographical, and not spoiled by the occasional minor errors (e.g., someone is knighted and Winchester calls him a baronet; a vicar is described as a prelate; German planes “appear over England in 1939”). The sheer fascination of Needham?s life and work is enough to excuse any number of such slips.