China's Greatest Student

Joseph Needham, 1992
Joseph Needham, 1992 (David Levenson - Getty Images)
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Reviewed by Judith Shapiro
Sunday, May 25, 2008


The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric

Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries

Of the Middle Kingdom

By Simon Winchester

Harper. 316 pp. $27.95

The great Sinologist Joseph Needham (1900-1995) is a legend for his Science and Civilization in China, an encyclopedic account of China's achievements in science and technology. But it is the famous "Needham question," which asks why the country failed to industrialize when Europe did, despite its prior achievements in printing, explosives, navigation, hydraulics, ceramics and statecraft, that may revive his legacy and compel re-reading of his 24-volume masterwork. As China transforms into an industrial powerhouse, we may ask the inverse question: Why is China now booming after centuries of relative stagnation, and on what traditions will it draw?

In The Man Who Loved China, Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman, builds on his success in writing about eccentric British intellectuals. Needham makes a great subject. A Cambridge University polymath who made his youthful mark as a biochemist, he was also a nudist, a performer of English folk dances involving ankle bells and sticks, an accordion player and an active Communist. His happy marriage to chemist Dorothy Needham survived his lifelong passion for his mistress, Lu Gwei-djen, the biochemist who taught him Chinese and collaborated with him on his master project. Their "peculiarly organized love life" was so cordial that the three lived on the same Cambridge street and often took tea together. Above all, Needham was an indefatigable researcher, whether he was stranded by a broken truck in northwest China's desert or working long hours in his Cambridge study so crammed with materials that assistants were sometimes chosen for their small size.

Needham's career shifted dramatically in 1943, when his government tapped him to establish a Sino-British cultural and scientific exchange behind the front lines of Japanese-occupied China. From Chongqing, a base in the interior to which the Nationalist government had fled, Needham provided struggling Chinese scientists with laboratory equipment and textbooks while pursuing his research on Chinese inventions.

Needham's notable side trips included one to the Dunhuang caves in Western China, where the woodblock Diamond Sutra (868 A.D.), the world's first printed book, had been discovered. Along the way, he stopped at Dujiangyan, the great diversion dam project, built around 250 B.C., which was recently in the news because it lies near the epicenter of the horrific Sichuan earthquake. (Miraculously, it seems to have survived.) Needham's journey to southeastern Fujian province was cut short when the Japanese moved in, bombing bridges as he fled back to Chongqing. His intellectual curiosity and energy turned every hair's-breadth wartime escape into an opportunity to gather the materials that would inform his life's work. He kept impeccable notes and shipped out antique manuscripts by the crate.

On his return to Cambridge in 1948 after two years at UNESCO, Needham began cataloguing and writing up his findings. When Science and Civilization in China started to appear in 1954, it was intended to fill two volumes. But the project expanded -- first to the consternation, later to the pride of Cambridge University Press -- to reach 18 volumes by his death in 1995. It continues to grow today as his collaborators complete work on topics such as ceramics and metallurgy.

The volumes, some of which were co-authored with Lu Gwei-djen and other Chinese researchers, cover mechanical engineering, paper and printing, alchemy, chemistry and military technology. The classic Civil Engineering and Nautics details inventions designed to harness nature; the Chinese were masters at building bridges, walls, canals and boats, and also designed "anchors, moorings, dock and lights, towing and tracking, caulking, hull-sheathing and pumps, diving and pearling, the ram, armor plating, grappling irons, and the tactics of firing naval projectiles." Other Chinese innovations of interest to Needham ranged from wheelbarrows to fishing reels, "the umbrella, the spinning wheel, the kite . . . playing cards, tuned drums, fine porcelain, perfumed toilet paper, the game of chess."

During the McCarthy years, the staunchly pro-communist Needham was barred from the United States and shunned in England, in part because he supported charges that U.S. forces had dropped plague-infested rodents on northeast China during the Korean War. As head of an investigative commission of international scientists, he interviewed Chinese people who reported outbreaks of vermin and disease, which convinced him of a biological warfare campaign. Winchester reports that Needham was hoodwinked. If, however, Needham was correct, that puts a different slant on his disgrace, which in any event was temporary. As the political climate shifted and his books collected accolades, he was made master of Caius College at Cambridge, where he enjoyed decades of honors and respect. Two years after his wife's death at 92 from Alzheimer's, he married Lu Gwei-djen in a union of elderly soul mates; she passed away shortly thereafter.

Despite Winchester's extraordinary narrative skills, he gets some details wrong. The assertion that China became "more stable" after the Japanese defeat in 1945 is a surprising clunker given his masterful depiction of war-torn China. (A footnote mentions the civil war between Nationalists and Communists.) More troubling is the depiction of the Yangtze River as the only unchanged feature of modern Chongqing. As the author of an excellent book on the Yangtze, Winchester should have known better than to ignore the devastating changes wrought by the Three Gorges Dam, which has profoundly altered the flow of that great river.

The importance of Needham's work lies not only in the mega-projects for which China is most famous but also in the small-scale technologies that he lovingly detailed. If China follows the model of the industrialized West (and if we ourselves persist on our current path), the exploitation of fossil fuels, minerals, forests and other resources may push the Earth past the tipping point. In retelling Needham's story, Winchester focuses on the inventiveness of the Chinese people, whose creativity once surpassed that of all other civilizations. If this resourcefulness can be renewed and harnessed in the service of sustainability, then perhaps there is hope not only for China but for the planet. ยท

Judith Shapiro, the author of "Mao's War against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China," teaches at American University's School of International Service.

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