Wednesday, June 28, 2017

My Log 549 June 28 2017: For 50 cents I pick up a wondrous book by Simon Winchester about a marvellous man, Joseph Needham

The Man Who Loved China: the fantastic story of the eccentric scientist who unlocked the mysteries of the Middle Kingdom, by Simon Winchester, published by Harper Collins, 2008, pps 315.

The other day I picked up for 50 cents from my favorite bookstore, The Word, on Milton street, Montreal, a wonderful book about one of the most amazing characters ever to have graced this world. The book is called The Man Who Loved China, and it is a biography by the excellent British writer Simon Winchester, of Joseph Needham, a Cambridge University biochemist who was born in 1900, as Winchester writes, “as the only child of a mother and father who were ineluctably shackled in a spectacularly disastrous Edwardian marriage.”
This was the sort of disaster that might have thrown most children off kilter into a hopelessly ill-starred life, but this child turned out to have one of those astonishingly brilliant intellects that appear very occasionally in human life, a man so clever, so intuitive, so single-minded, emotional and determined, that nothing could stop him from becoming recognized, again as Winchester writes in the same sentence as that already quoted, “as a man highly regarded for his ability as a builder of bridges --- between science and faith, privilege and poverty, the Old World and the New, and most famously of all, between China and the West.”
He was already a scholar recognized as a global leader in his field, whose fame attracted aspiring young people from around the world, when he was, at the age of 37, joined at Cambridge by a young woman from China, Lu Gwei-djen. They fell head over heels in love, a relationship to which his wife Dorothy acquiesced, and that lasted for the next 55 years, until Lu’s death . Lu taught him to read and speak the Chinese language --- no mean feat in itself --- and as his interest in her country deepened, she urged him to go to China to experience it for himself.  This aspiration was somewhat delayed by the onset of the Second World War, and by the fact that China had been invaded in 1937 by a particularly brutal Japanese army, making conditions of life chaotic for everyone. But the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour brought Britain formally into an allied relationship with the tottering old country, and when a group of leading intellectuals in England learned that some 50 of the 100 colleges in China had been destroyed by the Japanese, a movement was launched that ended in Needham being chosen as the best man to go to China with the duty to “find out exactly what was wanted by the Chinese --- textbooks, laboratory equipment, re-agents, visiting experts,”  so that whatever was needed could be sent from Britain in an effort to shore up Chinese intellectual life in its moment of crisis.  Formally he was to head up a new body to be called the Sino-British Scientific Cooperation Office, which would be attached to the British embassy in Chongqing, the temporary capital of the Nationalist Chinese government headed by Chiang Kai-shek.
As Needham, delighted even by the many hardships he had to undergo --- made his way in battered old cars to his new headquarters, no one could have imagined that for the rest of his life he would be engaged in  collecting the information about the amazing facts of China’s ancient pre-eminence in scientific and intellectual endeavour that would eventually be brought to the notice of a Western world that had become accustomed to taking an attitude of misplaced arrogance towards this ancient civilization in these decades of its decline. Or that the instrument  of this enlightenment would be a monumental seventeen volume work called Science and Civilization in China  that, from its first publication in 1954 was immediately greeted with a chorus of praise from the most rigorous stable of intellectual leaders that could be assembled by Western scholarship, whose tone can be best caught by the comment of one expert that the book was “prodigious…perhaps the greatest single act of historical synthesis and intercultural communication ever attempted by one man.” From the moment of publication of the first volume the book sold out, was repeatedly reprinted, and has never been out of print since that day.
Everything that happened to him in China was grist to his mill. He was astonished to find Chinese scholars labouring away with makeshift equipment in basements, or even in caves, as the Japanese war, and the debilitating civil war, waged around them. Needham collected information like a squirrel gathering nuts after a long winter: for example, he found a reference in an ancient document to  a geographer from the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD) who had described a technique in 1088  at least 100 years before use of a magnetic compass had been achieved anywhere else in the world. He brought to the world’s attention the first printed book, discovered at the turn of the 20th century by a British researcher, but one made generations before Gutenburg made his advances in printing. The book contains a list of 260  Chinese inventions and discoveries uncovered by Needham, that predate those usually accepted as Western inventions, and these include such homely items as stirrups, thyroid treatment, toothbrushes,  wheelbarrows,  vinegar, playing cards, printing with wood blocks, seawalls, the earliest known spinning of silk, blast furnaces, iron-chain suspension bridges, crossbows, compasses, coal briquettes,  anti-malarial drugs,  paddle-wheel boats, bombs, books (the first ever printed)….and so it goes on, in every aspect of human life.
Needham was a genuine eccentric. He was a socialist all his life, a practising nudist, a great man for the women, and a man who was never afraid to express his opinion about anything. In China he became a personal friend of Chou En-lai, the most civilized of the Chinese Communist leaders.   When, during the Korean war, accusations were made that the Americans had used biological weapons, he supported the Commission of Inquiry, whose conclusions were scornfully rejected by Western experts. And yet, given that in the Vietnam war twenty or thirty years later, they dropped Agent Orange on the forests in order to destroy every living thing, surely one can, a priori, come to the conclusion that Americans were not incapable of such behaviour in Korea.  His support for this bought down on his head the calumny of the Western establishment. His colleagues at the University did not spare him, and he was for a period --- the period coinciding with the infamous behaviour of Senator Joseph McCarthy --- he was ostracised by polite company, and by the Western media.
 One thing that pleases me about Winchester’s book is that he gives a full account of Needham’s close friendship with a boyhood hero of mine, the New Zealander Rewi Alley, who arrived in China in 1929 and spent the rest of his life there, working at educating Chinese youth for leadership roles.  In later years Alley became a propagandist for the Communist government, and he told me when I met him in Beijing in 1978 that he had a tough time of it during the Cultural Revolution, when his travels and writing were severely restricted.  But he never lost faith in the cause, and when he turned 80 he was honoured with a lavish banquet given by the leaders of the government, who were in personal attendance.  Winchester reveals something I didn’t know, but might have guessed if I had given it any thought, that Alley was a homosexual, but he had to restrict this after the Communist takeover, because homosexuality, even its very existence, was denied by the new government.
Needham managed to outlive these difficult days of his ostracization, and he died full of honours, received at least 14 honorary doctorates from seven different countries, and was said by the noted critic George Steiner to have been “literally recreating, recomposing an ancient China, a China forgotten in some degree by Chinese scholars themselves and all but ignored by the West. The alchemists and metal-workers, the surveyors and court astronomers, the mystics and military engineers of a lost world come to life, through an intensity of recapture, of empathic  insight which is the attribute of a great historian,  even of a great artist.”
The irony of all this is that he was neither an historian, nor an expert on China, academically speaking, and this ruffled the feathers from time to time of the historians and sinologists. Steiner compared his books with Proust’s great work, “for both Proust and Needham have made of remembrance both an act of moral justice and of high art.”
His wife, herself a woman of great intellectual and artistic attainments, died in 1987 at the age of 92. Two years later Needham and his Chinese muse Lu Gwei-djen were married, but their marriage lasted for only 800 days befoe she died in 1991 at the age of 87. He had always been entranced by women, young women in his earlier years, and after Lu’s death he tried to get three women, one after the other, to marry him, but all refused.
Winchester, in an epilogue, reflects on certain characteristics of the Chinese that have remained unchanged through all their years of decline: it is, he says, something that can be “described only as an attitude: it is a Chinese state of mind… which outsiders may occasionally find infuriating and insufferable, but which certainly exists….It is an attitude, one might argue, that has been born of the very achievement which Joseph Needham attempted to catalogue and describe in his series of books. It is an attitude of ineluctable and self-knowing Chinese superiority, and it results from the antiquity and the longevity of the Chinese people’s endeavours.
Winchester says Needham worried all his life as to why the Chinese with such a record of technological achievements, did not succeed in creating modern science? His conclusion is that, around the year 1500 AD, they simply stopped trying.
Well, I suppose it is as good a guess as any other.
But one thing that is certain is that Needham’s great work --- it is said to number 20 volumes now, all based on his mountainous research --- began the process by which the Western view of China was transformed from one based on ignorance and arrogance, to one that today seems to be rather worried about what the future might hold for us all.

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