‘Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China’ by Simon Winchester

2009, 336 p.

I must confess that I had never heard of ‘Science and Civilisation in China’, a 24-volume (and counting) series described by its publisher, Cambridge University Press, as “one of the most remarkable works of scholarship in the twentieth century”. Nor had I heard of Joseph Needham, its original author. When I saw the title of this book Bomb, Book and Compass, I immediately thought of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and expected that I would be reading a history of Chinese invention and technology. Joseph Needham, I assumed, would be a missionary/explorer type, perhaps from the 1840s after the Opium Wars, when China was opened up to British trade. But I was wrong on many counts. This is a biography of Joseph Needham, the Cambridge biochemist, who arrived in China in 1943 (100 years after I expected!) and began the research that led to this huge multi-volume work on China which is still continuing, even after his death.

Born in 1900, Joseph Needham was already established as a biochemist and academic at Gonville and Caius College Cambridge when three Chinese postgraduate students arrived at the university in 1936. One of them, Lu Gwei-djen, became his lover and through his fascination with the Chinese language and writing, he was chosen to be a director of the Sino-British Scientific Cooperation Office in Chongquing. This organisation, with its aim to provide practical academic support to Chinese universities during the Sino-Japanese War, gave him the opportunity to travel around central China to remote areas, collecting books and materials and exposing him to the history of invention and technological development in China which had been largely ignored by the Western World. On returning to Cambridge, he embarked on writing a book which expanded into a ten-year seven volume project, that ended up occupying him for the next six decades.

Tall, handsome, driven and charismatic, Needham also enjoyed nudism, morris-dancing and a radical form of Anglicanism at Thaxted parish church. That was not all that was radical about him. His wife, Dorothy, a fellow bio-chemist and his mistress Lu Gwei-Djen lived just a few doors from each other in a congenial relationship. Winchester seems rather sceptical that this relationship was warmly embraced by all three protagonists, but I suspect that this is his own morality at work here, and not necessarily that of Joseph, Dorothy and Lu Gwei-Djen. The arrangement seemed to be open knowledge.

Not only was Needham imbued with a very healthy ego (flattered no doubt by the women with whom he flirted throughout his life) but he also was observant and curious. He plunged headlong into learning Chinese, devising his own rigorous and methodical way of learning a difficult language. On watching a Chinese gardener grafting a plum tree on his first day in China, he recalled that an American missionary had confidently claimed that botany was wholly unknown to the Chinese. This, he realized was one of hundreds of techniques that the Western world discounted:

Needham felt he needed to write his new book largely to overcome ignorance like this and to purge the western world of prejudices against the Chinese that were based on such a wholesale lack of knowledge and understanding. Should a book ever be published, then observations like this, and the scores of others he now knew he would make…would be sure to be included….Everything he was about to see- how a Chinese farmer plowed, how a Chinese bridge was built, how iron was smelted in China, what pills a Chinese doctor handed out, which kinds of kites were to be found in a Chinese playground, what a Chinese siege cannon looked like, how a dam, a haystack, or a harness was built in China- was useful to him….The Chinese, he kept discovering again and again, had the longest imaginable history of invention, creation and the generation of new ideas.

p. 66-67

Certainly China gave Needham the experiences and practical examples to develop his project, but this was not a one-way street. He perused markets and purchased books and documents, and sent home a steady stream of documentation -some rare, some freely available- in diplomatic bags. Once he had returned home, he was the recipient of other material, sent to him from a supporter in China. He was aware that some of this material was sold out of desperation, and there is an element of safe-keeping, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. But part of me wonders whether this is not another form of Western culture-stripping, and whether any of it has been the subject of repatriation demands.

So what was his plan for all this material? The original proposal, reprinted in Bomb, Book and Compass, was for a book addressed to

all educated people whether themselves scientists or not, who are interested in the history of science, scientific thought and technology, in relation to the general history of civilisation, and especially the comparative development of Asia and Europe

p. 171

He identified his question early:

STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM. What exactly did the Chinese contribute in the various historical periods to the development of Science, Scientific Thought and Technology? Why did their science always remain empirical and restricted to theories of primitive or mediaeval type? What were the inhibiting factors in their civilisation which prevented the rise of modern science in Asia? It is suggested that, apart from numerous theoretical and psychological factors which demand attention, the concrete factors which moulded asiatic civilisation differently from that of Europe are: a) geographical b) hydrological c) social d) economic

p. 171

I think that it’s important to remember that Needham was a biochemist, not a historian. The way that he went about answering his question, I believe, reflects this. He decided initially to make a historical list of every mechanical invention and abstract idea that had been first conceived and made in China. It took him five years. They were, as Winchester notes, “all about detail. They were assembled with a painstaking concern for even the smallest facts of Chinese life.”

The larger question, since dubbed “The Needham Question” was not answered in his own work. As Winchester notes:

Joseph Needham never fully worked out the answers. Perhaps it was because he was too close to the topic, seeing many trees but not enough forest. And though he makes an attempt at offering some answers in his final volume, he never seems fully convinced of his own arguments and never fully explains his reasons. It has been left to others to take up the challenge in his place.

p. 260

The initial volumes received acclaim even though there were many who, resentful of his discipline-hopping, willed them to fail. His work was seen by many as an eccentric folly, but this view was tempered once they became the jewel in the Cambridge University Press catalogue.

In many ways, the initial volumes salvaged his reputation, which had plummetted in the early 1950s. His interest and language skills may have snagged him the position with the Sino-British Scientific Cooperation Office in the first place, but he was now widely acknowledged as a China Expert. In 1952 he led an International Commission delegated by the World Peace Council to investigate the alleged use of chemical warfare by the US during the Korean War. A committed Socialist throughout his life, and a supporter of the Communist Party, he confirmed the Chinese claim that they had been the targets of American bacteriological weapons. The response of the Establishment was swift. He was declared persona non grata in the United States, his academic position became more tenuous, and the senior members of his college at Cambridge froze him out. He was excoriated in the press, denounced in Parliament and shunned by many.

His reputation was rehabilitated largely on the strength of Science and Civilisation in China, and he continued to champion left-wing causes. Even though he was dismayed by the drabness and conformity in Mao’s China when he visited in 1952, he does not seem to have gone through the same crisis of the soul that many left-wing supporters of the Russian Communist Party suffered when news of Stalin’s activities reached the West.

Simon Winchester is a master story-teller, and it comes through in this book. It is as if Winchester has walked around Joseph Needham, describing him from different perspectives: as an academic, as a sexual being, as a political activist, as a researcher. The maps are right where you need them, and they show you just want you want to know. The text is interspersed with photographs of Joseph Needham, which help you to fix him in your mind’s eye. However, I was a little alarmed at Winchester’s blithe acceptance that the Chinese ‘discovered’ Australia, mentioned in passing and without reference to Gavin Menzies, whom I am assuming Winchester is citing. Without footnotes – beyond his quirky asides at the bottom of some pages – the reader needs to put her trust in Winchester alone, something which never sits well with me.

However, both Needham and Winchester were prescient in asking about China’s historical role, and Winchester’s contribution to a better knowledge of it- especially since China is now so prominent in Australians’ sense of security. I found this book fascinating, exposing me to a person and his research that were completely unknown to me. A prolific popular historian/journalist Winchester, is obviously drawn to men who devote their lives to a passion – e.g. James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary in The Surgeon of Crowthorne and William Smith in The Map that Changed the World. Joseph Needham was one such man, and I’m glad that Winchester introduced him to me.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: CAE Bookgroups. I read this with my face-to-face bookgroup.

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