Chinese claims that they were responsible for hundreds of mankind's most familiar inventions -- including explosives, printing, the compass, hydraulics, ceramics, suspension bridges and even toilet paper -- were long viewed with skepticism by Westerners who were smugly certain that these ancient people were incapable of such advanced innovations.
That was until Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham came along.
The story of how Needham confirmed the provenance of many of these inventions is told to great effect in The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom by bestselling author Simon Winchester. The story of Needham himself is almost as good.
Needham was no cloistered Cambridge don, and in fact was precisely the sort of person who could have pulled off such a stunning feat: A freethinking intellectual, folkdancer, practicing nudist, lower case "c" communist and married womanizer who fell in love with Lu Gwei-djen, a visiting Chinese student and then with China itself.
Although a biochemist by training, Needham is best known for his extraordinary Science and Civilization in China, a 24-volume encyclopedia cataloging the breathtaking range of China's achievements in science and technology.
Needham left behind the comfy confines of Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge in 1943 when he was tapped, probably on the order of Winston Churchill himself, to establish a Sino-British cultural and scientific exchange behind the lines in Japanese-occupied China.
Balancing the interests of the Nationalist government and emerging Communist Army, he provided struggling scientists with laboratory equipment and textbooks while taking a series of lengthy trips, some of them under daunting and dangerous circumstances.
These included a months-long trek to the Dunhuang caves in Western China where he was first inspired to undertake the encyclopedia project. This is where the Diamond Sutra, a woodblock book printed six centuries before come latelies Johannes Gutenberg and William Caxton cranked out their first books, was discovered in 1907 by Marc Aurel Stein, a trailblazing archaeologist deservedly vilified in China for his extraordinary plundering of the sutra and other great treasures.
Winchester writes that by the time Needham left China at the end of the war:
"[H]e had visited 296 Chinese institutes, universities, and research establishments; he had arranged for the delivery of thousands of tons of equipment and chemical and scientific journals; he would read, endlessly and voraciously, the various thousands of documents which he had collected and which he felt certain would enhance his knowledge of China; and he spent much of his final months laying the foundations for a diplomatically privileged organization to support Chinese science -- an organization that would continue to function without him long after he had left."
After a two-year stopover in Paris to help start UNESCO, Needham returned to Cambridge and began work on the encyclopedia, which was originally intended to be a mere two volumes. It had reached 18 volumes by the time of his death in 1995 and has sprouted six more volumes since, and while Lu Gwei-djen and others collaborated with Needham, he surely was the greatest one-man encyclopedist ever.
As Needham himself wrote:
"What a cave of glittering treasures was opened up! My friends among the older generation of sinologists had thought that we should find nothing -- but how wrong they were. One after another, extraordinary inventions and discoveries clearly appeared in Chinese literature, archaeological evidence or pictorial witness, often, indeed generally, long preceeding the parallel, or adopted inventions and discoveries of Europe. Whether it was the array of binominal coefficients, or the standard method of interconversion of rotary and longitudinal motion, or the first of all clockwork escapements, or the ploughshare of malleable cast iron, or the beginning of geo-botany and soil science, or cutaneous-visceral reflexes, or the finding of smallpox inoculation -- wherever one looked, there was 'first' after 'first.' "
But before the first volume of the encyclopedia was published, Needham's legendary scientific detachment failed him and he temporarily fell into disgrace when as head of an international investigative commission he was hoodwinked by the Communist regime into believing that the U.S. had dropped plague-infested rodents on northeast China during the Korean War.
Needham's usual detachment likewise left him in his unquestioning support of the Communist takeover, which was cemented by a close friendship with Zhou Enlai that had been fostered during his time in China and subsequent return visits.
It was not until Needham traveled to China in 1972 and saw the horrific violence and suffering visited upon his beloved Chinese as a result of the Cultural Revolution that he finally began to have second thoughts. He would later write -- although well after Mao Zedong's death -- that the great leader's policies toward science had been "disastrous."
Winchester also writes of an oddly chilling coda to a visit Needham made to Northwestern University in 1978 where he gave a lecture on the origins and uses of gunpowder.
Among those in the audience was a wild-haired loner by the name of Ted Kaczynski, who all likelihood was inspired to fashion an explosive device made of gunpowder and match heads six weeks later that injured a Northwestern campus security guard in the first blast in the so-called Unibomber's 27-year reign of terror.* * * * *The Man Who Loved China is not one of Winchester's best works.
I would reserve that honor for his book about two other eccentric British intellectuals, the marvelous The Professor and the Madman. But The Man Who Loved China is a solid and easy read, in the Winchester tradition is not a particularly long one, and the sections on Needham's travels through China are riveting. No surprise here since Winchester is an old China hand himself.
While Needham's greatest achievement is Science and Civilization, it is the so-called Needham Question that makes his legacy even more important 13 years after his death.
Why, Needham asked, for all of its achievements in science and technology, did China fail to industrialize when Europe did? The short answer is that the Chinese took a diffusionist approach because of the impact that Confucianism and Taoism had on the pace of discovery as opposed to the independent inventiveness of the West.
Which begs a most contemporary question: As China becomes an industrial powerhouse after centuries of stagnation, will it draw on the traditions that Needham unearthed?
Or as Winchester puts it in the closing pages of The Man Who Loved China:
"How quickly and competently will the new China now manage to capitalize on its early, historical promise? Needham expressed the greatest confidence that in time it would. And he always knew that the great strength of his books lay precisely in their ability to catalog what that early promise was, and so to indicate to a fascinated world just where and how the new China and the new Chinese will now seek their best advantage."