Needham’s Grand Question

Reviews / by Peter Dizikes /

As China reemerges on the science frontier, Simon Winchester offers a vivid account of one man's mission to illuminate its innovative past.

Until recent decades Westerners were blissfully unaware that China, not Europe, was the civilization behind scores of history’s great inventions, from gunpowder to mechanical printing and the magnetic compass. It was in the 1950s that perceptions began changing, largely due to the work of one distinctive figure: Joseph Needham, an English biologist, diplomat, explorer, libertine, and, not least, historian of science.

Indeed, Needham’s remarkable multivolume work, Science and Civilization in China, upended traditional views of historical development. Gone, or at least receding, was the image of China as a scientific backwater throughout the long arc of history. In its place was the “Needham Question,” a scholarly riddle: Given that the Chinese developed so many technologies so many centuries ago, why did their culture of innovation stagnate within the past 500 years, while the West jumped ahead?

That lingering question has helped ensure Needham’s legacy since his death in 1995. Now he is the focus of Simon Winchester’s revealing biography, The Man Who Loved China. This seems a natural fit for Winchester, who has written extensively about Asia, science, and — in The Professor and the Madman, his book about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary — herculean attempts to assemble and order human knowledge. In Needham he has a subject who was not only a prodigious scholar but a scientist and Sinophile as well.

The result is a vivid portrayal that enlivens the ranks of the science biography. Winchester depicts Needham as a “bespectacled, owlish, fearless adventurer,” a studious academic with a romantic vision of the Chinese. Using letters, notes, and other archival documents, Winchester smoothly weaves together the threads of a life that includes an early period of scientific stardom, an intense phase of cultural exploration in wartime China, and a return to England, where Needham transformed himself into an eminent historian.

Needham’s initial career gave few hints about this trajectory. Born in 1900, he was a precocious biologist who became a fellow at Caius College, Cambridge. Needham produced a well-regarded book in 1931, Chemical Embryology, was elected to the Royal Society in 1941, and attracted students from around the world. One of them, Lu Gwei-djen, a biochemistry researcher from Nanjing, China, became Needham’s lifelong mistress after arriving in the late 1930s; Needham’s wife, Dorothy, herself a biochemist, apparently tolerated the situation due to what Winchester terms a “sexually liberal style of living.”

As Winchester tells it, Lu Gwei-djen quickly sparked Needham’s fascination with Chinese language, culture, and history, and even deserves credit for “hammering into his head” the idea “that China had made an immensely greater contribution to the world of science and technology than anyone in the West had ever acknowledged.” By 1942 Needham left for China on a government mission to help Sino-British relations by reaching out to Chinese scientists. He would stay about four years, continually journeying and querying scholars about China’s scientific heritage.

These voyages form a cinematic travelogue at the heart of the book, as Needham roams from the East China Sea to the Silk Road, hunting for clues to the country’s technological past in texts or structures like bridges and ancient dams. Admittedly, Needham’s most bravura travel exploits did not produce his best finds. He uncovered little in a daring trip to Dunhuang, near the Gobi Desert, where in 1907 explorers had found the “Diamond Sutra,” a Buddhist document from 868 proving that printing (with wooden blocks) preceded Gutenberg. By contrast, scholars in Lizhuang, a sleepy Sichuan town, simply plied Needham with documents showing China’s early development of firecrackers (the 2nd century) and gunpowder (at least 1076, two centuries ahead of the West).

Back in Cambridge, Needham (with assistants) began publishing Science and Civilization in China in 1954, writing 10 of its roughly two-dozen volumes. Here Winchester speaks of Needham in heroic terms, saying the work is “among the great intellectual accomplishments of all time.” He is more skeptical of Needham’s communist sympathies: Relating Needham’s assertion, after a 1952 inspection trip to China, that the United States had used biological weapons in Korea, Winchester says Needham was “pitilessly duped” by Chinese officials.

Almost every biography must achieve a judicious blend of its subject’s life and work, but the science biography carries an additional burden of explanation. Good scientific biographies require a vibrant depiction of people who are often not instantly familiar to us. We find them relevant because they produced world-altering work, lasting questions, or intellectual communities, all of which deserve elucidation too.

Winchester successfully depicts Needham as a complex and driven man, with enviably diverse talents, boundless curiosity, charm, and a few foibles. And he rightly underscores Needham’s view that science and technology are integral parts of civic life, not autonomous forces thrus t upon society; he even digs up the biochemist’s 1948 proposal for Science and Civilization in China, which aims to reach “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 civilization.” (He might have added that a decade later, C.P. Snow used his own Cambridge experiences to argue that science and the humanities were “two cultures.” Yet, just down the road, Needham was exploring their deep links.)

However, Winchester spends little time substantively grappling with Needham’s work, intellectual milieu, or influence, beyond making clear that Needham brought a mountain of new knowledge to the West. Only briefly does he describe a few volumes and their critical reception, noting that Needham “never fully worked out the answers” to his own grand question. If Needham was sui generis, his work created a larger intellectual discussion; minimizing this part of the story seems a pity, and is a bit ironic, given Needham’s own interest in the transmission of knowledge. By the 1960s scholars were contesting various Needham claims (for instance, that the Chinese developed ancient antecedents of wave and field theories). In the 1980s historian David Landes convincingly deflated Needham’s assertion that China’s water-powered astronomical clocks were the forerunners of Europe’s mechanical time clocks, underscoring a larger point: That China got there first does not mean the country’s innovations begat those of Europe. Winchester does not reference this debate and is inconsistent about this principle, stating China was “possibly the fount of just about everything else important that was known to the outside world,” while later agreeing that the Western development of steel, for example, was “entirely homegrown.”

While some scholars have therefore questioned the extent of China’s influence on the world, or perceive greater differences between East and West than did Needham, these disagreements show why Needham matters. In confronting his work, we are forced to define science across cultures, say how it relates to technology, and consider how each is entangled with political, economic, or religious forces.

Thus one might accept, as Winchester does, Needham’s claim that China once produced “fifteen major inventions a century.” Or not: Which inventions count, and why? Some scholars have attributed China’s scientific stagnation to the lack of state competition Europe had. Others have recast the issue by arguing that China possessed technology but never enjoyed a tradition of math-based scientific inquiry. In either case, discussing Needham’s legacy of cross-cultural investigation would have strengthened this otherwise compelling tale and made it more relevant today.

After all, as Winchester notes in closing, China’s currently spectacular growth has transfixed the West. In the future, he suggests, the stagnation that puzzled Needham may be “a hiccup in China’s long history.” Perhaps. In the meantime, his book should stir our interest in China’s glorious past.

Originally published December 15, 2008

Tags history identity time

Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More


  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.


Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM