Following a Chinese Star

Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China,by Simon Winchester. Viking, 2008, $32.95.

One of the great synoptic works of developmental biology is a three-volume work that was published by Cambridge University Press in 1931. Over 2000 pages long, Chemical Embryology provides not only an exhaustive account of changes in the embryo and placenta (osmotic pressure, pH, respiratory gradients, metabolic processes) but a descriptive history of the egg from its earliest mythic beginnings. “Practically nothing was left out,” wrote its author—one Joseph Needham, born 1900, only son of a Harley Street physician specialising in anaesthetics and an erratic, high-strung mother (who so seldom saw eye to eye with her husband that she called her son by a different Christian name).

Joseph Needham was the leading light of the Cambridge Biochemical Laboratory. Already he was being hailed as the new Erasmus, so impressive were his intellectual reach and vigour. He did have the benefits of a photographic memory. His wife Dorothy—“Dophi”—Moyle, herself a noted biochemist, recalled him lying awake in bed, energised by the work he had been doing—“mentally visualising the book’s page proofs, and then correcting in a notebook any errors or infelicities”.

Needham liked bringing things between covers, and it wasn’t always writings on biology. Wayward driver of an Armstrong-Siddeley Tourer, brazen gymnosophist (skinny-dipper), radical activist, forbearing Anglo-Catholic and keen morris dancer, he was also acquiring a considerable reputation as a skirt-chaser. Being an eccentric in Cambridge went with the turf; being unsound was to invite social ostracism. But Needham knew how to toe the line: he just had to be brilliant. Then in 1936, three Chinese research assistants came to work in his lab. He began a relationship with the female member of the team, Lu Gwei-djen, a physiologist from Nanjing: their affair was to last, with the complaisance of Dophi, for the next half-century. All three spent many a jolly evening together in the local pub discussing the biomechanics of muscle tissue.

Theirs was to be a significant encounter in another way. Lighting a post-coital Player’s for her one evening in 1938, Needham casually asked her how “cigarette” would be written in Mandarin. Gwei-djen guided his hand, inscribing the ideogram that seemed far more poetic in literal translation than the English word: fragrant smoke. A cigarette had been the catalyst: “I must learn this language—or bust!” he told her. Within a couple of years Needham had produced a series of homemade notebooks detailing 6000 characters indexed in terms of their radicals and cross-referenced to English words. The task of learning Chinese made him, in his own words, “almost delirious with happiness”. (He was still spending the days as a biochemist.)

With the war in its third year, and large parts of China under Japanese control, a member of the Royal Society (of which Needham was now a fellow) suggested that a senior figure connected with British research should be airlifted into China—as head of a new body with quasi-diplomatic status to be called the Sino-British Scientific Cooperation Office (SBSCO). Needham was the obvious choice. His duties were to include organising help for Chinese scholars fleeing the Japanese invaders, who were advancing into the inner provinces. Equipped with a Webley service revolver and diplomatic papers, he was flown in February 1943 into China over the notorious Hump, the Himalayan airbridge out of India. He had just seen his second major work through the press, Biology and Morphogenesis (1942). His base would be Chongqing, the capital of unoccupied China, at the humid confluence of the Yangzi and the Jialing: it is now the world’s biggest city with a population of well over 35 million.

It was a dangerous mission, full of hair-raising logistical difficulties, but Needham had a genius for improvisation and an “imperturbable persistence”. The scholarly Grand Panjandrum had derring-do, and Simon Winchester devotes nearly half of his entertaining and companionable book to the three years in China (the only major flaw in the book is the inclusion of a map showing the furthest extent of the Japanese invasion on a postwar map of Asia). Needham was hardly ever in his office in Chongqing. He made no less than eleven sorties on behalf of the SBSCO, some of them fact-gathering excursions but others epic undertakings that were risky and, in one case, which involved crossing the frontline south-west to Fuzhou, “downright foolhardy”.

The most spectacular excursion of them all—Needham’s own Long March—involved driving two Chevrolet trucks northwards to what was then called Chinese Turkestan. This trip allowed him to inspect the irrigation project set up at Dujiangyan in 250 BC on the orders of Li Bing, governor of the province, when water engineering was first proving to be crucial for the welfare of the imperial system. The fact that it was still working brought him to a pitch of high excitement. Two months later they reached the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang, an oasis on the edge of the western Gobi Desert and the repository of the world’s oldest printed book, the Diamond Sutra, and thousands of other rare scrolls. The man who had found the library in 1907 and inspired Needham to make the trip, the famous explorer Sir Aurel Stein, was actually lying on his death-bed, just a few hundred miles away in Kabul. Needham found out only later; there’s no telling what he might have done had he known.

When he left China in 1946, Needham had visited 296 Chinese institutes and universities. He helped lay the foundations for organisations to support Chinese science. It was not the only organisation he helped to establish: he was the administrator in Paris who, as his admirers later said, “put the ‘S’ into Unesco”. Two years later, glad to be back at his rooms in Gonville and Caius, he began opening the hundreds of boxes and crates he had sent back to his college during the war. In 1948 he addressed a proposal to the Syndics of Cambridge University Press: it was the outline of the work which would make him famous: Science and Civilisation in China.

In spite of a few querulous souls at the press who felt Needham ought to be doing what he was there for—teaching embryology and doing experimental work into the chemistry of early life (specifically inisotol levels in the chicken embryo)—he was given leave of teaching duties. From then on he was able, with the help of his assistant, the Chinese historian Wang Ling, to “follow [his] star without distraction”. (This is all the more remarkable when it is borne in mind that Needham had no academic standing in the actual department of Oriental Studies.) Soon, some of the discoveries he had made in China—on the abacus, dam-making and plum-grafting techniques—were being supplemented by the results of methodical reading and judicious probing of Chinese sources.

Needham had already been awarded one of the Republic’s highest honours, but had close ties with the new rulers too. In fact, he was so close to Zhou Enlai, Mao’s foreign minister, as to be blind to the nature of the new regime: the Patriotic Hygiene Campaign under the communists would, he believed, be China’s saving. Loyalty to the communists led Needham to put his entire career in jeopardy: in 1952 he took part in a Chinese-led inquiry into alleged use of germ warfare by the Americans during the Korean War. Hoaxed (it would appear) by a Soviet-inspired disinformation campaign, the inquiry’s findings accused the Americans of dropping cholera-infected rats on northern villages. The entire British establishment, including parliament, the Royal Society and his own college, vented its fury on him—“some people called him a dupe, others a traitor, a few simply a crank”. And most inconveniently for his career, the State Department in the USA blacklisted him until well into the 1970s. Like a long list of British intellectuals he had been naive enough to think that politics worked on the same impartial principles as science. Where intentions were good, acts would be good too.

Ending up persona non grata saved him for his work. Needham had read enough to start writing. Seven volumes were initially planned, of which volume five would be devoted to what has since become known, even in Mandarin, as the Needham question (Li Yuese nanti): if the Chinese were so technologically inventive why did they not come up with modern science? “Sci[ience] in general in China—why [did it] not develop?” was the original entry in his notebook. Wherever Needham looked, the Chinese had been there first: fitting stirrups, steering with compasses, casting iron, inoculating against smallpox, recognising beri-beri, distilling mercury, making maps, ball-bearings, umbrellas and clockwork escapements … Yet just at the time when the Renaissance was in full flow in Europe the creative passions of the Celestial Kingdom were drying up.

Needham was unsure. Perhaps his question was back-to-front: perhaps it ought to be “Why Europe (of all places)?” Was it related to mathematics, capitalism, or the peculiar “doubleness” of the European mind—

“oscillating for ever unhappily between the heavenly host on one side and the “atoms and the void” on the other; while the Chinese, wise before their time, worked out an organic theory of the universe which included Nature and man, church and the state, and all things past, present, and to come. It may well be that here, at this point of tension, lies some of the secret of the specific European creativeness when the time was ripe.”

The question is still open.

When the first volume, Introductory Orientations, appeared in 1954, it was a critical success. Even Needham’s bitterest enemies praised it in unstinting terms. The initial print-run sold out, and it has been regularly reprinted since. When the second volume, History of Scientific Thought, appeared two years later, it was apparent to everybody that Needham’s magnum opus was going to be something remarkable. Literary voices joined in the chorus of praise. George Steiner, no slouch himself, wrote that it was the modern work which came closest to Marcel Proust’s fictional attempt to recreate an entire society and past. He thought Needham was empathically reconstituting a country of the imagination forgotten by Chinese scholars themselves:

“Proust on the altering focus of the steeple at Martinville and Needham on man’s realisation, across centuries and cultures, of the true shape of the snow crystal are exactly comparable exercises in total imaginative penetration.”

Science and Civilisation in China was a giant reciprocator in the river of time.

Things were looking up in Needham’s life too. Lu Gwei-djen was living close by again, just a few yards away from the house he shared with his wife, in an arrangement that evidently suited all parties. In 1959, he was elected to the presidency of the fellows at Caius, an almost unimaginable reversal of events earlier in the decade. Later to become master of the college, he proved to be a traditionalist while remaining perfectly liberal in his support for the Progressive League, the New Left Review Club and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. But he was slow to criticise Mao, even though his correspondents and scholars generally were suffering most from the harshness of the Cultural Revolution.

Surrounded by a forest of documents, Needham began to realise that he might not manage to recreate ancient Chinese society in its entirety within his lifetime. Some of the seven volumes were calving fascicles. He brought in collaborators, and the work is still going strong: publication proceeds under the guidance of the Needham Research Institute, which has just released part eleven of volume five, on ferrous metallurgy. The institute was set up at Cambridge by the ailing sinologist in 1987, after years on the fund-raising circuit. His library had to be housed somewhere after all.

Needham’s ailing wife died that year too, fifteen years after publishing her own magnum opus, Machina Carnis, an account of the biochemistry of muscular contraction. In September 1989, in a small ceremony at the college chapel, an ancient figure married the woman whose love had inspired him so many years before. Lu Gwei-djen, aged eighty-seven, was to die not long after, and Needham himself, now a Companion of Honour, as old as the century, in 1995.

Needham would hardly be surprised at the dynamic explosion of wealth and creativity in China, even in the decade or so since his death, since that creativity was implicit in his “discovery” of China itself. He was chronicling a cultural self-confidence as well as a technological past that had been completely hidden—“the unique degree of self-knowledge that helps to make China China”. However, it should be said that not all sinologists or historians agree with Needham’s categories, which are Western ones, nor with his diffusionist belief, which awards precedence to China on the basis of the historiographic record and then sets out to affirm how the consequent technology spread across the world. Diffusionism makes no allowance for the possibility that innovations may be punctual or parallel, occurring independently of the social faith we call progress, which Needham had aplenty. Besides, relying so heavily on historiography scants the achievements of other ancient civilisations, such as India’s, which left fewer records.

It remains to be seen whether China, which has travelled so many dynastic cycles and been bureaucratic since its feudal beginnings, will absorb the twenty-first century into its own history, or whether, in undergoing the industrial revolution’s war on Nature speeded up a hundredfold, it has left its ancient cosmology behind and been infected by that European hunger for the ends of things.

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