The man who discovered China

Bomb, book and compass Simon Winchester

Or perhaps more accurately, the man who discovered China was not simply an exotic ‘oriental despotism’ mired in superstition and backwardness and prone to self destructive civil wars; but rather an ancient, advanced civilisation which had managed to independently develop a significant catalogue of scientific, technological and intellectual advances well ahead of their supposed ‘discovery’ in the west. This book is Simon Winchester’s tribute to Joseph Needham and the massive impact he has had both east and west in recovering for us the imposing history of Chinese science and technology.

In 1937 Lu Gwei-djen of Nanjing first met Joseph Needham, a precocious biochemist at Cambridge University. They began a lifelong affair, with his wife Dorothy Needham’s acceptance, which continued until Dorothy’s death 50 years later when they were free to marry at last. Lu inspired Needham to learn Chinese and this then set him up to be appointed as a British special emissary to the Chinese scientific community during WWII. Needham’s official duties involved keeping spirits up among the Chinese scientists by maintaining contact with the outside world and arranging the delivery of urgently needed supplies and correspondence during the war. While he was undertaking a number of arduous journeys around the backblocks of China Needham was consulting with a wide array of Chinese scientists and collecting a vast quantity of scientific and technical literature which he shipped back to Cambridge.

Once back at Cambridge, after a detour helping to set up UNESCO in Paris, Needham developed his plan for a book explaining China’s scientific contributions throughout history. Early on in the planning stage it became apparent that the book would run to more than one volume, so the project was expanded to seven volumes. The first volumes were published in 1954 to general acclaim and the project continued to grow to the stage where over the last 57 years 27 volumes have been published with more to come to complete the final specification of the original project. Needham himself was involved in writing 15 of the volumes and Lu Gwei-djen assisted him on 8 volumes. By the early 1970’s Needham realised that he would not complete the entire project himself and he began subcontracting the writing task which has continued since his death in 1994 at the Needham Research Institute.

This truly is a magnificent academic project which has helped to revise attitudes to China since the racist days of the yellow peril and western “Treaty Ports”. The establishment of a strong Chinese state by Mao Zedong and the communists after a century of chaos involving the cession of Treaty Ports to Europeans and Japanese invasion has enabled China to once more resume a place among the scientifically advanced nations. Needham’s contribution to our understanding of China’s scientific legacy cannot be underestimated.
And the story of Needham himself, his complex love life, his academic feuds, and his political journey as a fellow traveller duped into co-authoring a report claiming that America used biological weapons during the Korean War is a fascinating one.

The one slight quibble I have with the book is that Winchester could have read more of the economics literature on development. Having said that, Winchester does acknowledge that it is difficult to prove a negative – why did China not develop its scientific and technological capacity? The more relevant question is why the west developed; and the answers are to be sought in the west, in the geography and the institutions developed there and in the rise of Europe within global trading networks.

Winchester’s conclusion that China is now capable of developing science and contributing to world development is a strong and positive one, and one that he says Needham had foreseen ahead of almost everyone in the west. Any view of China and its history needs to be a long view as Zhou Enlai reputedly reminded us when asked for a comment on the impact of the French Revolution: “It’s too early to say.” Joseph Needham helped the non Chinese world to develop a longer term perspective on the achievements of Chinese civilisation and Simon Winchester written a fine book outlining this achievement.


About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
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