One reason I have posted so little in recent days is that I have been lost in this splendid biography. Joseph Needham, Companion of Honour, Fellow of the Royal Society, Fellow of the British Academy and holder of the Chinese Order of the Brilliant Star was the sort of magnificent eccentric that England occasionally produces. He will be remembered for the Needham Question; for writing almost single-handedly the encyclopaedic 17-volume work Science and Civilisation in China and for the institute that bears his name at Cambridge University. In his day however he was rightly scorned as a Communist stooge (having led a scientific delegation which was fooled by Chinese and Russians intelligence agencies into believing America was dropping infected small mammals onto the enemy during the Korean War). As his biographer drily notes;
Needham was intellectually in love with communism; and yet communist spymasters and agents, it turned out, had pitilessly duped him
He was a nudist, a Morris Dancer, a pre-hippy proponent of free love and "open marriage" and an uncritical supporter of every left-wing cause. As Master of Gonville & Caius College, he once passed a note out of the window of his office to the '68ers "sitting-in" outside, in which he simply said that he agreed with all their aims. He was also a close friend of Zhou Enlai and an acquaintance and admirer of history's greatest mass-murderer, Mao Zedung. Politically, the man was a startling idiot - a total naif. Yet he was also an undoubted genius.
A biochemist by training, he became fascinated by China when he fell in love with his lifelong mistress Lu-Gwei-djen who shared a menage a trois with Needham and his wife and whom he married when the latter died. He learned to speak and write Chinese fluently, so that he was able to research his monumental work from the original sources. A visiting Russian academic, disturbing him at his labours, enquired if Needham knew who had translated one of his academic books into English. Only when he consulted the book, did Needham remember that he had done it himself when he was an undergraduate. He was perfectly capable of such feats in German, French, Greek, Italian and of course Chinese. The book is a sobering reminder that it is never safe to assume a man a fool in all respects because he is in one.
Needham may seem, from the above, to be hardly the sort of chap I might admire. And yet, having read this well-written biography by Simon Winchester, I most certainly do. To be fair, almost all of us are fools in some respects yet very few are as brilliant as Needham was in others. As the Royal Society wrote when he was made a Companion of Honour ("About time!" he is said to have remarked just out of the Queen's hearing at the ceremony);
Joseph Needham, CH, FRS, FBA ... one can count the number of living holders of those three titles on one finger of one hand
Winchester's account of Needham's tireless energy in almost completing a work which, in the end, he had to accept was too great for one man, puts the stresses of lesser mortals into context. His fluency in so many languages (not taxi/restaurant "fluency" but a grasp of a language so great as to permit serious study of its ancient texts) puts our faltering steps across language barriers in the shade. it is impossible not to admire such a man, however annoying one might have found him in person.
The Needham Question or Needham's Grand Question asks why China, which led the world in science for centuries, suddenly stopped inventing in about 1500. Up until that point, the country's intellectuals were (Needham estimated) averaging 15 major scientific discoveries a century. The first outline of his 17-volume masterpiece was simply a long list of Chinese innovations, most previously thought to have originated in the West. Needham explained the effect of Confucianism and Taoism in promoting scientific development, but could never explain why the effect stopped working to the extent that China was overtaken by a Europe where religion was much more inclined to impede science. Some say it is a stupid question. China's progress didn't stop; that of Europe simply speeded up. Others have sought to answer it in a variety of ways.
By 1500, China was secure and at peace, whereas Europe's warring statelets were in constant contention. Perhaps European technological advances were driven by military needs, rather as 20th Century space technology was driven by the Cold War? Others speculate that China's political stability was to blame. The brightest young people took the examinations that led them into the Imperial bureaucracy. Life as a mandarin was better than life as a scientist and thus the springs of creativity were dammed and diverted. †French Enarques might like to give that theory some thought.
Whatever the truth it is a fascinating question that needs an answer, for the good of all mankind. I am ashamed that I never heard of this man while he was alive. He died in 1995, which is not so long ago and so was still pottering around Cambridge when I lived there. He transformed the West's arrogant view of China as irretrievably poor and backward. He also explained China's arrogant attitude, even at her poorest and weakest, to the West; an attitude exemplified by Emperor Qianlong's observation to Lord Macartney, leading a British delegation in 1792;
We possess all things ... I have no use for your country's manufactures
Few men have changed Europe's view of history as much as this eccentric leftist naif. His life reminds us that no man's ability to contribute should be lightly dismissed, however mad he may seem in some respects! It should also remind us, by way of corollary, that no man's views on a given topic should be given more weight because of his undoubted brilliance in other fields. Those inclined to be influenced by the political or religious views of actors, singers and other celebrities - however talented - would do well to bear that in mind.