Dr Joseph Needham

20150626_110827What you see above is a mural of Joseph Needham, “one of the most fascinating men that ever lived” according to Simon Winchester. It is this “Scientist, Historian, and Sinologist” who I will be talking about in today’s post.

That particular mural is from a wall in the science corridor of the college I attended. I walked passed it a lot thinking it looked like Gastby or a character from Bugsy Malone, but one day I suddenly realised that I vaguely knew the character on the wall. I recognised his name from research I conducted to prepare me for university interviews; however I decided that I wanted to build on my vague understanding of who he is and figure out why his face was pasted on the wall opposite my form room.

Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham, or 李约瑟 (Lǐ Yuēsè) in Chinese, was a Scientist also known as a Historian and Sinologist because he studied the history of Chinese science. [Sinologist is a term coined by the French and refers to someone who pursues academic study on areas of Chinese] Needham contributed greatly to our current understanding of Chinese science and warfare through his extensive documentations of Chinese science, technology and medicine (with particular emphasis on their origins and historical usage). He changed the way that scholars perceive the history of Chinese culture, and his research also caused academics to question the origin of great inventions such as gunpowder that were long assumed to have been invented by the West.

The photographs Needham took whenever he found a camera at hand during his roughly three year stay in China (from 1943) also provided the West with an invaluable understanding of the state of China during its invasion by the Japanese. 但是 Needham was of great aid not only to the West, but to China as well. For instance in 1943 he also supported the war efforts in Southwest China as he was sent by the British council to provide laboratory equipment and scientific books and journals to Chinese scientists. During the early 1940s Needham went on many expeditions in China (mainly in areas not occupied by the Japanese) and was either given historical scientific journals or purchased scientific books that were then shipped to Britain through diplomatic channels. He even got to know Zhou Enlai (the first Prime Minister of Communist China) who commissioned him to study the claim that the US was engaging in biological warfare; as well as other notable Chinese figures such as renowned Chinese scholars, painters, meteorologists and scientists like himself.

It was in 1937 when Needham was 37 years of age that Needham had began taking an interest in Chinese. During this time, three Chinese scientists came to Cambridge to be taught by his wife Dorothy (a biochemist like himself). One of the students was a 33 year old woman called Lu Gwei-djen/鲁桂珍, a biochemist who was conducting her postgraduate studies under his wife, Dorothy Needham (aged 41 at the time). As you may have guessed, Needham soon fell in love with Gwei-djen. As Needham quickly became fascinated with Gwei-djen’s love for traditional Chinese science and foreign Chinese culture, a year after their meeting she taught him both written and spoken Chinese. Due to this, Gwei-djen can also be accredited for the success that resulted from Needham’s competency with the Chinese language. Gwei-djen was also the co-author of Needham’s major works, his book: Science and Civilisation in China (1954-2008).

After the war, Needham was invited by a friend to work with UNESCO in Paris. Soon after, he returned to Cambridge with plans to share with the world his findings of Chinese history and planned to answer what is since known as the ‘Needham question’. The Needham question refers to a question posed by Needham asking why the West had overtaken China in the development of technology in the recent centuries despite the fact that China was one of the clear founders of modern science. In other words, why had there not been a scientific revolution in China (but indeed in Europe) despite the immense achievements of scientific discovery in traditional China? This led to Needham completing his book Science and Civilisation in China which was initially an idea sparked around 1939 by Needham and his Chinese friends who wanted to compile a series of writings about the history of Chinese invention and technology. By 1948 Needham proposed his project to Cambridge University Press who initially agreed to publish one volume, but eventually published the remaining seven volumes (the fourth volume was split into three parts). The book offers an in depth analysis of the history of Chinese science, technology and medicine and is known as the greatest work of our time regarding China. To date there are two condensations of Needham’s work that have also been produced. The first is a one-volume history book by Robert Temple entitled The Genius of China and the other is a five-volume condensation by Colin Ronan, The Shorter Science and Civilisation.

In answer to the Needham question, some hypotheses argue that the traditional China’s shunning of individual development is what had stunted the country’s technological growth, whilst others similarly blame the totalitarian nature of the old China for inhibiting intellectual creativity. Therefore we are to assume that the Needham question has no distinct answer. In the final volume of his book Needham himself suggests “A continuing general and scientific progress manifested itself in traditional Chinese society but this was violently overtaken by the exponential growth of modern science after the Renaissance in Europe. China was homeostatic, but never stagnant.”

Whilst the book did reap much praise, it has still been criticised in several aspects. One reader says that it reads like a series of dull lectures given by Needham, and even dismisses a particular episode as “Chinese government propaganda” in a chapter where Needham relays an instance of open heart surgery proceeding with no anaesthesia besides Chinese acupuncture. Other academics and critics alike offer a similar view stating that whilst Needham’s views are certainly insightful, his writing sometimes exaggerates Chinese achievements; thus reminding us to be critical whilst reading.

Learning more about Joseph Needham has invited me to learn about other interesting figures that surrounded his life. Although he was married to Dorothy Moyle, Joseph did also fell in love with Lu Gwei-djen/鲁桂珍 (it should be noted that Dorothy was apparently accepting of his feelings and the three of them eventually lived on the same road in Cambridge). Gwei-djen is famously known as Joseph’s muse who taught him Chinese, however her own life was also quite inspiring as she was a prominent figure in Chinese medicine and was rather secretive in revealing her identity to the world. If you are interested in learning more about her I have found the perfect (short) video series for you!

Another key figure I looked in to is Simon Winchester. Winchester is a (currently seventy one year old) British author and journalist. He read Geology at the University of Oxford, and has previously worked for The Guardian newspaper; 然而the achievement I am most interested in however is his book entitled “The man who loved China”. The title of his book was not a reference to himself, but none other than Joseph Needham. It offers a biographical account of Needham’s fascination with what makes China…China. Something I plan to read some day不过现在没有机会. Winchester also presented lectures and talks where he discussed his book and talked more about Needham, one of which can be found here which you can check out if you would prefer to listen than read about his book.

In addition to everything I have already shown you, if you would like to see the original photography Needham shot whilst he was in China in the 1940s (which I highly recommend if you are as interested in photography as I am) click here.

Of course I could not cover the entirety of Needham’s accomplishments, but I’m sure you now know the 大意 (main idea) of who he was through this extensive post. Some smaller facts include that Needham was politically a left wing (to the shock of his father), a chain smoker, and he also practiced gymnosophy. Needham also frequently engaged in activism with his first wife Dorothy, as he did in fact marry Gwei-djen after Dorothy’s death. If you would still like to know more, I did come across a detailed but concise biography you can read here.

If you decide to learn more about an influential figure in an area of interest, good luck 世界。

从欣妍 – From Xinyan.