on 11 May 2009
Simon Winchester has by now established quite a reputation for popular biographies and general popular humanities writing, and as "The Man Who Loved China" shows, this is well deserved. In this book, Winchester tells the riveting story of the life of Joseph Needham, the eccentric Briton who was trained as a biologist, but would become both perhaps the greatest Sinologist of the 20th Century and one of China's most stalwart defenders.
Needham came from a solid left-leaning middle class background, becoming more and more socialist during his studies at Cambridge University, although never joining the CPGB. He developed as a biochemist an early interest in China and the Chinese, and at a time when British politics was avowedly pro-Japanese, as they would remain until 1941, Needham was one of the few voices raised in China's defence. Being a true renaissance man, Needham learned Chinese in a short period from his Chinese mistress, who is next to him one of the protagonists of the book (Needham had an open marriage, being consistently liberal in sexual matters).
It was this known pro-China sentiment that led to his charge as a diplomatic representative of the King to the Nationalist Chinese, where his task was to support the scientific efforts of the Chinese in the non-Japanese occupied areas. Despite his general sympathies to the Communist Chinese cause, he set himself on this task with vigor, expending great effort to assist Chinese science and the Chinese in general with supplies, as well as making important and useful contacts with scientists and researchers in that country. He also undertook, in association with the famous Rewi Alley, various expeditions to remote parts of that vast land to do archeological and anthropological fieldwork on his own.
It was this that led to the formation of the masterpiece of science for which Needham is justly renowned: the standardwork "Science and Civilization in China", a veritable encyclopedia of Chinese scientific history in an astounding 24 volumes (most of which not published during his lifetime). By means of this work, Needham absolutely and irrefutably established the falsity of Eurocentric theories considering the superiority of Europeans in science or abstract thought, and demonstrated that China had invented or developed many concepts and applications, almost too numerous to list, far before anyone in this part of the world did.
Needham himself was later much damaged in his reputation by the slanders and calumnies heaped upon him for his steadfast support for socialism in China, which even led to him being declared non grata in the United States, and veritably shunned in the UK, to the great damaging of his career. Nonetheless he continued both his excellent scientific and political work, and when the tide turned in the 1960s he was duly elected Master of Caius College, Cambridge, a position he then used to (unsuccesfully) agitate for allowing women into the college and for relaxing the laws against homosexuality, among other things. It is not just Needham's scientific and political life, however, that cause admiration, but also the immense brilliance of his mind, which in true 'homo universalis' style he applied to every possible subject and knowledge he came across: doing research of his own on anything that interested him, from train models to English working-class history and folk-dancing. It is rare in history that we find such universally wise people, and they almost always cause great advances in the understanding of their age; Needham was one of them.
For this reason it is unfortunate that the biography is in some places flawed. Biographer Winchester misses the essential point when he describes the topic of "Science and Civilization in China" as the question why China failed to develop after 1500; in fact, as for example historical geographer James Blaut has so often tried to impress on the public consciousness, China did not fail to develop from that period at all, and developed just as fast in technological terms between 1500 and 1800 as in the 300 years before. It was on the contrary Europe that started developing much faster than anyone else, the real question that demands explaining (and which Blaut explains by the colonization of the Americas). Winchester does the Chinese and Needham both a disservice by continuing this myth. It is also annoying to me personally how Winchester tends to downplay the historical significance of Needham's socialism, which he fortunately does not ignore, but does treat rather as an example of British academic eccentricism; and as a result, he makes all sorts of conjectures about how Needham could 'obviously' never really have supported Communist China as it became, despite the fact Needham went there several times and continued supporting Mao. Winchester is free to disagree with, but not to project upon, his subject.
Despite these flaws, however, this book is a very lively, well-written and fair biography of a fascinating and heroic engagé scientist, who truly challenged Eurocentric views of history through his own research and whose exploits make him seem almost an Indiana Jones of socialism.
on 27 December 2011
I recently listened to my first China audio-book, The Man Who Loved China, by Simon Winchester. I had heard about this book, but admit the title put me off. I wasn't aware it was written by the same author who penned The River at the Center of the World. In fact, I wasn't aware who Simon Winchester was. It turns out he's been writing since the early seventies (having begun as a travel writer) and has become very good at it, not to mention successful. He has a refined and fluid style and is apparently best-known for his The Professor and the Madman.
The subject of The Man Who Loved China is one Joseph Needham (1900-1995). Needham was many things, but first and foremost he was scientist, a biochemist at Cambridge. He was also a polyglot, a nudist, a communist, a womanizer, a chain smoker, a folk dancer, a car enthusiast (and speed freak), and a hopeless dreamer.
Needham's interest in China was born out of a relationship with one of his female students, who would become his mistress of 50 years - with his wife's grudging assent. China had been misrepresented in the West, Needham's mistress informed him, and eventually the professor decided to travel there, a sojourn that lasted four years.
As Winchester's title suggests, Needham became smitten with China and everything in it. He began to study the language and embarked on a series of cultural and scientific expeditions, recording them in his diary. It didn't take long for the Englishman to come to the conclusion that the Middle Kingdom had once been a highly advanced and scientific society, one responsible for hundreds of inventions, if not the very foundation of science. He returned to China later and began to write Science and Civilisation in China, a 17-volume endeavour chronicling these achievements. The work would go on to win great academic acclaim.
Needham's initial visit to China coincided with a rather dangerous set of circumstances: World War II, or the Second Sino-Japanese War, 1937-1945. Much of the time, Needham was stationed in Chongqing (or Chungking), the capital of Free China. Because of this, his blossoming China curiosity seems itself a curiosity. The majority of foreigners living in or visiting Chongqing, including Ernest Hemingway, reported that it was a filthy, depressing dump, full of death and disease. Raw sewage from a million inhabitants coursed into the Yangtze, the municipal water supply. Every morning, bodies had to be cleared from the streets, and hot-tempered locals made no bones about how much they disliked the foreign influx and the "downriver people" (refugees fleeing the Japanese). And this batch of unflattering descriptions says nothing of governmental venality and incompetence. British officials in Chongqing reported to London that the Nationalist government did not have "a firm grasp on the situation." Americans reporting to Washington were more blunt, stating that Chinese authorities were little better than grafters and crooks.
But none of this is mentioned in The Man Who Loved China. And none of it seemed to faze Joseph Needham - if he even noticed.
Meanwhile, the Japanese Imperial army was slaughtering whole Chinese divisions and bombing cities to smithereens. Needham might have asked himself why practically all Nationalist Army matériel was imported from the West, or why China barely had an airforce. He also might have pondered why rich Chinese were driving Japanese-made cars in between Japanese bombing raids. Faced with such unflattering facts, recorded by dozens of foreign observers, Joseph Needham retreated into the depths of imagination, conjuring a complex and idealized China, a sort of Golden Age, one that almost certainly never existed.
During one of his fact-finding expeditions, Needham discovered some "measuring instruments" in a cave sheltered from Japanese bombs. He concluded, with a childlike glee, that such instruments must have been widely disseminated, more evidence of China's scientific supremacy. We know from Needham's diaries that he made dozens of similar inferences. Someone told him the Chinese had exported a variety of chess to Europe through the Middle East, hence its origin, and Needham took it to be true. But chess originated in India. There were the usual Chinese inventions that most know about, sometimes called the "great four:" paper, moveable-type, the compass, and gunpowder, but there were dozens more. It would have been hard to fill 17 fat volumes otherwise, even if 4 volumes were given over to alchemy and 300 pages of the ceramics edition to kilns.
As someone most comfortable with science when it is written down, I have enormous respect for anyone who can construct or invent anything, and admit to still being in awe of Velcro. So, far be it from me to dismiss Science and Civilisation in China (I couldn't anyway; I haven't read it) or China's contribution to science. It seems obvious that a civilization as old and self-contained as China's would have had all kinds of thinkers: artisans, inventors, craftsmen, contractors, and so on. It wouldn't have been a civilization without them. However, it occurs to me that Needham was overreaching.
Needham became obsessed with what his biographer calls "the Needham question:" Why did China, having given the world its earliest understandings of the pure sciences, having invented printing, gunpowder, the wheelbarrow, the fishing reel, chain-pumps, the magnetic compass, and hundreds of other practical devices at a pace "unmatched by the world's other great civilizations including the Greeks" suddenly shut down in the 1500s? Why did this enormous country become isolated and xenophobic, just when modern science and industry began blosoming in the West? Needham deduced that the Chinese simply grew smug and complacent and that they forgot about their inventions, conveniently, some might say, just as Westerners began turning up on Chinese soil.
Certainly, it's impossible that an entire civilization could simply erase from memory and cease producing hundreds of its own innovations. What is more likely is that Chinese inventions remained very local, or at least were never mass produced or widely disseminated. It's also likely that sketches of inventions Needham found were just those - sketches. I used to sketch some wicked spaceships when I was a kid. They had lasers, and even eyeballs and tentacles. Not sure if anyone who found them in 2525 would attribute them to historical Maritime Canadian ingenuity, though.
And this brings us to the question: is an invention valid if it's forgotten, never catches on, or doesn't get past the design phase?
The Diamond Sutra is a much more lustrous (and concrete) example of China's lost inventions. A copy of the digest was discovered in a cave in Dunhuang in the early twentieth century and is considered by the British Library to be the "the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book," having been bound in the eighth century. That's certainly interesting, but there is no indication that printed books were in ample circulation in the centuries after that one was assembled. It was, like the "measuring instruments," discovered in a cave.
Open a book in a bookstore in China these days and you will think you are standing in the middle of a freshly painted room. They reek of chemicals and tend to be poorly put together. Content is screened by the Party and the selection is dire. Go into a bookstore in the West and see how many books you can find printed by Chinese publishing companies. Besides one or two from Hong Kong, my guess is that you couldn't find any.
In light of the present technology era, Chinese inventions seem, well, trivial. In 1978, Joseph Needham, after having had a US travel ban lifted, gave a speech in the city of Chicago. His Science and Civilisation in China had been lauded by academics worldwide, so many were eager to hear him speak. His topic? Gunpowder. The country in which he was lecturing was three years into its Viking program (sending probes to Mars) whereas Needham was talking up an accidental discovery that came about during a quest for an elixir for immortality in the ninth century.
I cannot recall being so enthralled by a book while being so put off by its subject. It's true China invented many things never properly documented or given their due in the West, but Needham has fallen into history as most Sinophiles do: as a determined embellisher. Needham may have been a scientific genius, but he was also a fool. He was used by the Communist Party in a ruse to have the world believe the Americans had used germ warfare against China (and North Korea) during the Korean War, a bogus charge China maintains.
It's hard to tell just what Simon Winchester thinks of Joseph Needham. He seems to admire him, or at least his intellect, but also seems to be aware of his excesses and overreaching. Needham certainly cut an interesting figure; he was an eccentric, and clearly Winchester chose to write about him because of that and because of all the interest lately in China. The book is not nearly critical enough of Needham, but it's a darned interesting read because Simon Winchester is a very good writer. He's so good, in fact, that I've since picked up his Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles, and hope to read others.
Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World