Book review Simon Winchester's book retraces the rugged path taken by the world's foremost authority on China.
Journey to the East
Bomb, Book & Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China Simon Winchester Penguin Dh95 from www.amazon.co.uk
It was when the Chinese research assistant Lu Gwei-djen wrote down the Chinese characters for the word 'cigarette' that the Cambridge biochemist Joseph Needham fell in love with her, and with China. In all, it was 19 strokes of the pen, "all signifying something that he realised was infinitely more lovely in its construction than its banal equivalent Anglicism: fragrant smoke." Night after night over the following two years, from 1938 until 1939, Needham, already a distinguished scientist, committed himself to becoming fluent in the language, developing a complex and eccentric system of cross-referencing to aid his studies. Formidably intelligent, learning Chinese was, for Needham, "a liberation, like going for a swim on a hot day, for it got you entirely out of the prison of alphabetical words, and into the glittering crystalline world of ideographic characters."
So the author Simon Winchester tells us in his new book Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China. The title comes from Francis Bacon's selection of the three Chinese inventions which changed the world. But as Needham discovered in his three years as director of the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office in Chongqing from 1943 to 1946, this was just the start. China was, he discovered, the birthplace for hundreds of other inventions including the abacus, the crossbow, the toothbrush and several types of bridge. Winchester's book is the first biography of the man to date, an extraordinary fact given that Needham, who died in 1995, is still the western world's foremost authority on the country, having written the 15,000-page, three-million-word, 24-volume Science and Civilisation in China, which began publication in 1954.
Winchester, speaking from London, said that despite being an elected fellow of both the Royal Society and the British Academy, Needham was shunned for many years by the Western establishment because of his Communist beliefs. "He got into trouble in the 1950s for saying that the United States used biological weapons in Korea and was banned from America for 25 years," he said. "There was this view in England that he was 'unsound' and he had to get his reputation back. The funny thing is that while hardly anyone has heard of him in England, everyone knows him in China and there he is known by his Chinese name, Li Yue-se."
Winchester, a British author and journalist who was a foreign correspondent for more than 30 years, living in Africa, India, Asia and now the United States, got the idea for writing a book about Needham while researching another book in China 15 years ago, The River at the Centre of the World: a Journey up the Yangtze. "Needham did these immensely long travels, from the Western Desert to the Burmese Border, and I did most of the big trips he did in 2006," Winchester said.
It was Gwei-djen, a 33-year-old scientist from Nanjing, who "had suggested long before that he [Needham] travel to China to see for himself what a truly astonishing country it was - so different, she kept insisting, from the barbaric and enigmatic empire most westerners believed it to be." But travel was merely the vehicle for Needham's main achievement in China, which was to tirelessly document the country's history of invention. After he had learned the language, visiting China was essential to Needham's understanding of its culture and scientific significance. "Once he became proficient in the language he realised that he really had to go there," Winchester said. "It's just like being a foreign correspondent - you realise you have to actually go out and meet people to find things out."
And this is precisely what Needham did. His first travel epiphany, Winchester says, came the day he arrived in Kunming in February 1943. In his second chapter, the author quotes from one of Needham's letters how he observed "an old Chinese gardener ... periodically performing elaborate grafting techniques on the plum trees." After taking notes on the gardener's technique and researching old Chinese books on botany - "which he could now read with ease" - Winchester describes how Needham set about proving that the old man's technique was possibly thousands of years old. Winchester said: "When Needham realised that this process of grafting was at least six centuries older [than the techniques used in the West], he started looking for all the other inventions. All travellers, if they are intelligent and thoughtful, look for the things that are significantly different from the ways of doing things at home and will consider that if their way of doing things is older, perhaps it is better."
In the book, Winchester notes how Needham recalled a treatise by the American missionary S. Wells Williams, which declared: "Botany, in the scientific sense of the word, is wholly unknown to the Chinese." "Such a statement, Needham was to write later, 'could only have been made by one of a generation totally ignorant of the history and pre-history of science'. Needham felt he needed to write his new book largely to overcome ignorance like this."
Needham used a similarly methodical technique of taking notes and comparing encyclopedic quantities of Chinese and English-language texts to document hundreds of Chinese inventions and discoveries, all of which he came across on his travels. "Everything he was about to see - how a Chinese farmer ploughed, how a Chinese bridge was built, how iron was smelted in China, what pills a Chinese doctor handed out, what kind of kites were found in a Chinese playground, what a Chinese siege cannon looked like, how a dam, a brick, a haystack or a harness was built in China - was useful to him."
Bomb, Book and Compass does an excellent job of imagining Needham's experience and re-creating his journeys. When he arrived in Chongqing in March 1943, Winchester writes, Needham was "perspiring heavily ... Chonqing was one of the country's three 'great furnaces'... blisteringly hot, the air like bundles of heated cotton wool, thick and barely breathable." In the centre of the city, he writes, Needham heard "the boom of a siren from a passing cargo ship, the constant jangle of rickshaw bells in the streets beside him, the ceaseless barrage of cries and shouted arguments from within the tenements...and then the smells, of incense smoke, car exhaust, hot cooking oil, a particularly acrid kind of pepper, human waste, oleander, and jasmine..."
Yet Needham was a patient and phlegmatic traveller. On his first and most daring overland journey, Needham's Northwestern Expedition from Chonqing to Dunhuang ran into trouble near Huxian on the Yellow River. Every day the group, travelling in an old army truck, was held up because of broken gaskets, oil leaks, transmission problems and flat tires, yet Needham and his group retained their morale. "So accustomed were the travellers to mechanical upsets that a fractured piston or two seemed a mere bagatelle, and Needham met each episode with equanimity and good spirits," Winchester writes. "'Bought nice peaches', he [Needham] would write." The lowest point was reached when his group was forced to abandon their vehicle and disband. Needham and his assistant "hitchhiked...on top of an unstable clutch of petrol drums in the back of an army transport: it rained and was intensely cold and the pair huddled miserably under a tarpaulin - Needham wishing, no doubt, for a cosy fire and tea and crumpets in his rooms at Caius."