The Passions of Joseph Needham

The Passions of Joseph Needham

It is now a little over four hundred years since a scattering of Westerners first began to try to learn the Chinese language. Across that long span, the number of scholars studying Chinese has grown, but their responses to the challenges of Chinese script have been generally consistent. Most have just slogged away, with reasonable success, and treated the task as an intellectual challenge on a par with many others. But at pretty much any period, one can trace two other groupings whose views are far more extreme. One such group contained those who came to hate and despise the Chinese language; they found it unlearnable, and grew convinced that the whole language was some kind of plot to snare the unwary, and even to drive poor foreigners mad.

The other group was composed of those whose first encounter with Chinese writing filled them with excitement and joy, and as they started to write and learn the correct strokes that composed each character, their fascination grew ever stronger. Which grouping any given seeker after knowledge might fall into was partly a matter of inclination and partly chance. One’s first teacher could kindle a passion for the language that would never fade, or could drive one forever from the flowery paths of learning.

Simon Winchester leaves us in no doubt that Joseph Needham, the subject of his latest book, was one of those who fell in love with the Chinese language. It was this love for China and its culture that came to color his entire life, and led Needham to create his astonishing and enduring study, Science and Civilisation in China. It may not be exactly true that Needham “unlocked the mysteries of the Middle Kingdom,” as Winchester’s subtitle so boldly declares, but there is no doubt that Needham was indeed a true “eccentric” and that the story of his intellectual adventuring did indeed have “fantastic” elements.

The first thirty years or so of Needham’s story, as Winchester relates it, were on a fairly predictable trajectory of British success. Born in 1900 to flamboyantly unhappy parents, Joseph Needham found ways to get the most out of his physician father and his unusual circle of friends, and was introduced at the age of nine by a friend of his father to the world of surgical procedures, operations, and anesthesia. These experiences combined with fine and personally enlightening schooling at Oundle to send him winging his way to Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge, where his love of scientific study was strengthened by brilliant and demanding teachers, who fostered his fascination with the emerging field of biochemistry. Needham was also a committed socialist, much drawn to radical Christianity, as well as an energetic hiker, a dedicated nudist, an accomplished linguist, and an impulsive womanizer.

At age twenty-four, Needham was awarded a fellowship at Caius, and married a talented biochemist, Dorothy Moyle. Five years older than Needham, Dorothy was a distinguished scholar in her own right, devoting a lifetime of study to the cells of animal muscles. She was named a fellow of the Royal Society in 1948, seven years after her husband received the same honor. The couple never had children. Needham’s own first major book, a three-volume study in embryology, published in 1931, was widely known and admired. Everything seemed in place for him to lead an energized but predictable life as a politically radical Cambridge don.

Needham was involved in scores of civil-libertarian causes, and the list of those on the left who Winchester tells us “became [Needham’s] firm friends” is indeed an amazing roster, still powerful and poignant after sixty-five years:

E.M. Forster, Clement Attlee, Nye Bevan, Havelock Ellis, Dingle Foot, Victor Gollancz, A.P. Herbert, Julian Huxley, George Lansbury, Harold Laski, David Low, Kingsley Martin, A.A. Milne, J.B. Priestly, Hannen Swaffer (a former neighbor in south London), R.H. Tawney, H.G. Wells, Rebecca West, and Amabel Williams-Ellis.

Yet at the same time Needham apparently found opportunity to flirt with, and pursue, other young women from the group of talented biochemical researchers whom Winchester rather mischievously calls a “biochemical seraglio.”

* * *

How much should we know or care about Joseph Needham’s private life? The answer would normally be “not very much,” but Winchester is convinced—and convincing—that from diaries and letters we can be definite that in the fall of 1937 Needham became very close to an unusually talented Chinese biochemist from Ginling College in Nanjing who had come to work with him and his wife Dorothy in their Cambridge laboratory. The name of this visitor was Lu Gwei-djen, and in February 1938 she and Needham became lovers in his Caius rooms. It was in this intimate context that Needham asked Lu to teach him Chinese, and she began to do so—on the spot. The two continued their passionate relationship—and Needham plunged into a tenacious learning frenzy with the Chinese language—until in the summer of 1939 Lu left Cambridge to accept a teaching post at the University of California at Berkeley. The distance between the two mattered little, according to Winchester: “The affair continued, at long distance, its ardor undiminished, with just the logistics making matters a little more trying.”

Needham’s career as a biochemist continued to flourish, and so did his devotion to other pressing left-wing causes, including support of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Needham also became a passionate critic of Japan’s invasion of China and a determined advocate of the need to help China’s scientists now that most of the major universities there had been forced to move to the impoverished Chinese hinterland, losing their laboratories, equipment, and libraries. In this period of debate and protest, Needham became known as one of the beleaguered Chinese scholars’ most articulate and determined advocates. After lengthy years of discussion in Whitehall and with the British Council and the Chinese embassy, in late 1942 Needham was finally named counselor at the British wartime embassy in Chongqing, where he arrived, after having flown across the Himalayas on the celebrated and dangerous “Hump” air route, in March 1943. It was there that he began his formal work for the modestly funded but grandly named Sino-British Science Cooperation Office.

It was on a number of trips on battered trucks deep into the rural vastness of Sichuan and Gansu that Needham began to sharpen his knowledge of the Chinese people and their language, and to get some deeper sense of how amazingly advanced and complex early Chinese scientific thinking and its practical applications had been. In the exiled university and research communities in the Chinese far west, he met a brilliant young Chinese history student named Wang Ling and a twenty-three-year-old technical school science teacher, “H.T.” Huang, who became Needham’s main guide and assistant on his China travels. Both of these scholars, many years later, were to play major parts in the compilation of the many volumes in Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China, which became his great legacy. And working either alone or in close collaboration, the three men began to assemble the rich supplies of technical scientific data that would make the huge project possible.

Before leaving for China, Needham had been able to make a detour to New York, which gave him an opportunity to see Lu Gwei-djen again, since she had recently moved to Columbia University from Berkeley. While they were together in a Manhattan hotel room, Needham shared with her some ideas he was beginning to formulate on the nature of Chinese science, and on the lack of knowledge of China’s scientific sophistication that was prevalent both in China and in the West as a whole. And with that went a corollary question: If Chinese science had been so advanced, why had it failed so dismally to develop further in the later periods of its history? Before she left Nanjing, Lu Gwei-djen’s father, an apothecary, had often discussed this question with his daughter, and she in turn discussed it with Needham.

* * *

Thus on arrival in China in 1943, Needham was primed to explore the early texts as well as the tools and techniques of agriculture and handicrafts that he could observe all around him in the countryside—all of which, as he began to explore, seemed freighted with ingenuity from the past. Everywhere he went in western China, he bought books, which he shipped off to England by air whenever he had the chance—for books were cheap with so many scholars forced to flee their universities, and with the cost of food rising daily as inflation spiraled steadily upward in the areas of “Free China” where Needham was stationed. With the books went reams of his own notes, or suggestions for further work gleaned from Wang Ling or H.T. as they hunted the libraries on their own.

In all, between 1943 and his departure in 1946, Needham visited 296 Chinese colleges and research institutes. He was also able to assemble some rare items for the Chinese scholars and scientists in return, and to maintain cordial relations with the Chinese Communist diplomats—among them Zhou Enlai, who was stationed during this same period as liaison officer with the Nationalist government in Chongqing. Though there was no precise focus yet to Needham’s exploration and travels, a kind of pattern was beginning to emerge, one that immeasurably deepened his knowledge of Chinese culture and Chinese science in the distant past.

Near the end of the war, his wife Dorothy was permitted to come out to China and join him; and Lu Gwei-djen also came, for Needham had created a nonexistent job for her, as British Council “nutrition expert.” This left some of the senior British civil servants furious. One dramatic memo, sent back to the British Council in London and written by a brilliant colleague of Needham’s, the biophysicist and ethnomusicologist Laurence Picken, is quoted at some length by Winchester, and it opens a small window into Needham’s more private world. As Picken put it:

[Needham] has talked the Science Department into appointing a Chinese nutrition expert to the staff. God knows what she will do (she will be drawing a salary bigger than I or Sanders). But the real reason for the arrangement seems to be that she is one of his mistresses. You would scarcely credit it, but her personal file (on which are all papers relevant to her appointment) contains letters otherwise official from Needham to her with marginalia in JN’s dog Chinese such as Little Joseph Longs for Younger Sister’s Fragrant Body. Dophi [Needham’s wife] reads these letters but does not understand Chinese! Usually Joseph keeps these locked up, but it had to be consulted the other day in his absence.

Such a memo would have ruined most careers, but when Needham saw a copy, he responded with a blistering attack of his own in which he informed London that Picken was “disagreeable” and “inexplicable,” adding “the man’s going mad.” Needham could not resist the sly comment that the cause of Picken’s outburst was “possibly some disappointment in the affairs of the heart.”

* * *

Needham stayed in southwest China, busy with his research, into 1946, for there was so much to seek and to ponder. But when he and Lu received postings to the UNESCO offices in Paris, they both were ready to return to Europe. Perhaps typically, it was Needham who wearied of the bureaucratic procedures first, and after a few Paris months, he returned to his old rooms at Caius College, where he set about bringing order to his new library of rare texts and his vast amounts of scientific booty. He was immeasurably aided in this task by his academic colleagues’ agreement that he be spared all teaching duties, and need not even attend any future biochemistry department meetings. One of his first official acts in 1948 was to arrange a Trinity fellowship for Wang Ling, and have him come to Cambridge. Lu, however, stayed on at UNESCO, only returning to Cambridge in 1957. By then, the first volume of Science and Civilisation in China had been completed and published.

Winchester fills in the sequence of events that led to its publication with clarity and economy. In May 1948 Needham had arranged a one-volume contract with Cambridge University Press, which it accepted without demur, after only one week of consultation. At Caius College, he had managed to parlay his growing prominence as a biochemist and his renown as a China scholar—though not accepted by all—into an ideal work environment, and Winchester reproduces the first pages of the short document Needham sent the press, into which he had clearly condensed his previous decade of reading and traveling. His goal, he told the press, was 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 civilisation, and especially the comparative development of Asia and Europe.

This was followed by Needham’s brief “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 the 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

Needham planned to develop each of these vast categories in turn.

Between the years 1946 and 1951, Needham and Wang Ling (with advice from Lu Gwei-djen in Paris, who read every draft chapter) kept up an incessant pattern of intense and disciplined work, often continuing late into the night. These work patterns left Wang Ling exhausted and often hungry, since Needham rarely took breaks for meals, not even in his own residential college dining hall. Winchester comments that Needham and Wang Ling “became fast friends, and remained inseparable for the rest of their lives,” though this may be too idealized a view of a more complex reality.1 But certainly the work continued at a furious pace that only the most dedicated scholars could have sustained. Winchester quotes a note written in this period by Needham, which captures both the depth of emotion and the technical finesse he brought to his task:

What a case of glittering treasures was opened up! My friends among the older generations 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 preceding the parallel, or adopted inventions and discoveries of Europe. Whether it was the array of binomial 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."

To this list of Needham’s, Winchester adds scores of other examples drawn from Wang Ling, and from Needham’s own writings and research, which were filling in the outline of his new opus: the magnetized needle for direction finding, the breast-strap harness for horses, wrought iron, the chain drive for irrigation pumps, suspension bridges, the segmental arch bridge, the wheelbarrow, the fishing reel, the sternpost rudder, gimbals for use in rough seas, the umbrella, the kite, playing cards, porcelain, perfumed toilet paper, and scores more.

* * *

By 1950 Needham felt ready to pause in his reading and to embark on writing the first volume of his opus—the planned single volume had long since become seven, and was clearly going to be even more than that—when global politics forced their way into his protected college life in the form of the Korean War. In 1951, newspapers in the Soviet Union, which needed a propaganda breakthrough in its struggle with the United States in the court of world opinion, issued a broad series of charges that the United States, working within the structure of the United Nations, had been employing germ warfare in North Korea in the form of disseminating anthrax, cholera bacteria, and leprosy.

These charges were in turn elaborated on by Chinese reports early in 1952, which claimed that similar tactics were now being used in Manchuria—with the addition of some bizarre new techniques, such as disease-ridden voles dropped by US planes over Chinese territory. At the peak of the charges, the World Peace Council—Soviet-supported, and previously focused mainly on nuclear disarmament—meeting in Oslo, requested an “impartial and independent” commission to investigate the charges. In the spring of 1952 the Chinese delegate phoned Needham and asked him to join the international investigative group; Needham accepted at once, and was promptly named the leader of the fact-finders, with travel and expenses paid.

In June 1952, accordingly, Needham was back in the China that he had left in 1946—but now confronting the manipulative skills of the Communist regime. Winchester sensibly calls Needham’s decision to join the commission “the most terrible blunder” and he is surely correct in that judgment. Furthermore, Needham compounded the mistake by failing to do any serious investigation of the charges, and by putting his total faith in the panel of sixty Chinese scientists appointed to help the commission with its “fact-finding.” Many of the scientists were known to Needham, who had liked and trusted them back in the 1940s. He put “blind trust” in these men and women, Winchester comments, for twenty-three of them had American Ph.D.s and another dozen had studied in Britain. When these Chinese scientists issued their 665-page report in September 1952, charging the US with conducting bacteriological warfare, Needham endorsed their findings in the name of the commission, which he noted had moved in its investigations “from one logical step to another” even though it did so “reluctantly,” because it had not believed that the US armed forces could have used “such an inhuman technique.”2

Needham’s remarks were widely cited and he returned to London in late September to an onslaught from journalists, the British Foreign Office, and the fellows of Caius College. In the US, the reaction from the State Department and the academic world was predictably all the more hostile and Winchester comments that Needham “remained on the blacklist until well into the 1970s.” He also notes that despite his attempts to invoke the Freedom of Information Act in order to see Needham’s CIA file, it remains closed in the twenty-first century.

* * *

The negative impact on Needham’s reputation, especially in the United States, was certainly intense and enduring. The hostility was still obvious to Chinese studies graduate students in the 1960s, and Needham’s lapse of judgment and his naiveté were transferred in many minds to his research work. He remained ostracized even as scholars like Laurence Picken were welcomed to major American universities to pursue research into the musical renderings of the eighth-century Tang dynasty. Only in 1998 was it discovered by scholars doing research in Washington that the whole germ warfare scare had been carefully promoted and supervised by KGB agents.

Other scholars had a hard time making sense of Needham’s charges. One response came from Bertrand Russell, himself a pacifist and passionate believer in nuclear disarmament, who had lived and taught in China during the early 1920s. As Russell wrote in 1969 in his Autobiography:

At the time of the Korean War I had been unable to believe in the allegations brought by Professor Joseph Needham and others charging the Americans with having used that war as a proving ground for new biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction.

But with the example of the Vietnam War now available to all, wrote Russell, “I owe Professor Needham and others my sincere apologies for thinking these charges too extreme.”3

A contrasting interpretation was provided by John King Fairbank, who in the post–World War II years had been building Harvard into a global center for East Asian studies. Fairbank’s ongoing unease with Needham was still strong in 1982, when he published his memoir Chinabound. Fairbank recalled that back in 1955 he had been criticized by Needham for “underplaying the evil influence of imperialism” despite the “exciting discussions” the two men had had in Chongqing on Chinese science and technology, while they were working as opposite numbers in their respective embassies. Now, after Needham had “certified that Americans had used germ warfare in Korea,” Fairbank asked himself if Needham was becoming “more egregiously ideological” than his “massive contributions” to Science and Civilisation in China had originally suggested. “I wondered,” Fairbank wrote,

if an omnicompetent scientist, versed in the “laws” governing so many fields, was unable to confront the social scene without a similar recourse to “laws,” in fact to the “science of society,” which Marxism claimed to be. If so, it was a challenge to the rest of us to explain China’s history in our multidisciplinary manner.4

The British were, on the whole, forgiving of Needham’s political lapse, though it took some time. Nervously, Needham had retreated to rural France with Dorothy during the publication week for volume one of Science and Civilisation in China in 1954. He need not have worried. His book got some magnificent reviews—Winchester quotes Arnold Toynbee, Arthur Hummel, and even the once embittered Laurence Picken, who called the work “prodigious” and “perhaps the greatest single act of historical synthesis and intercultural communication ever attempted by one man.” All of the first printing of five thousand copies sold out, and the second volume, appearing in 1956, was also well received. The massive volume three, with its overwhelming amount of detailed analytical scholarship on mathematics and astronomy, was equally welcomed.

In the fall of 1957 Lu Gwei-djen moved from her UNESCO post in Paris to Cambridge, taking a house just a hundred yards from the Needhams. In 1959, his college elected him to the honorific post of president of the fellows, and in 1965, by a decisive vote of the fellows, he was elected to the presidency of the college, at which post he served for eleven years, until 1976. During the same period he visited China several times as a member of the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding, and also weathered the days of student rebellion in his college.

Needham traveled widely, collecting numerous honorary degrees, and was once again granted visas to visit the United States. Fund-raising for what had now become a huge project was a constant stress, and had it not been for the new Robinson College at Cambridge granting him the space and buildings for a Needham Research Center, the project might have collapsed altogether. But his books and papers were moved there safely, and a new generation of younger scholars became eager to take over individual volumes when Needham chose to let them do so.

* * *

Over the years, ever since I was a graduate student, I have tried to keep up with the lengthy series of volumes that made up Joseph Needham’s awesome opus, Science and Civilisation in China. Checking my shelves, I find that I now have fifteen volumes, occupying twenty-nine linear inches of shelf space. The volumes are all published by Cambridge University Press, span the years from 1954 to 1988, and their title pages show that they appeared with amazing regularity, with a new volume coming out every two to three years. In accord with Needhams’s original outline the volumes are grouped into five broad disciplinary categories: Introductory, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. After 1988, around the time Needham agreed that the torch must pass to other authors, my own purchases apparently ceased—but the library catalog listings tell me that at least nine more volumes have appeared since then, listed under the names of other scholars in the field who had taken on individual volumes as Needham’s strength faltered in his late eighties.

Glancing at the title pages more closely, we can see that the first six volumes, which appeared between 1954 and 1971, were all co-credited to Needham and Wang Ling. The series of volumes appearing in the 1970s and in the 1980s were coauthored by Needham and Lu Gwei-djen, joined at times by a third scholar, Ho Peng-yoke. One particular volume, 5:7, on the subcategory of “Military Technology: The Gunpowder Epic,” included under the broad rubric of “Chemistry and Chemical Technology,” was coauthored by all four of the principal scholars working together: Needham, Wang, Lu, and Ho.

In these dozens of deeply researched volumes, Needham and his collaborators did manage to cover the range of scientific inventions they had outlined to Cambridge University Press. But there was one topic—the reason for the sudden ending of China’s great scientific burst of energy from the early sixteenth century onward—that Needham never did answer. Winchester discusses the variations of this “Needham question” at some length, but he confesses that Needham never really provided a satisfactory answer, apart from the thin statement that China “basically, stopped trying,” or loved comfort too greatly, or had too powerful a state, or lacked mercantile tie-ins, or that “the energy began to ebb away and die.”

* * *

Human frailty finally took its toll on the innermost circle. Dorothy Needham, haunted for several years by Alzheimer’s disease, died in December 1987, at ninety-two. Needham was then eighty-seven, and just under two years later, in September 1989, he and Lu Gwei-djen were married in Caius College chapel. They were able to have just over two years together, before Lu had a bad fall and died of bronchial pneumonia she contracted in the hospital. (Back in 1954 the first volume of Needham’s vast project had been, perhaps startlingly for the times, dedicated to her father, though without stating their relationship: “To Lu Shih-Kuo, Merchant-Apothecary in the City of Nanking, this volume is respectfully and affectionately dedicated.”)

Needham, at the time of Lu Gweidjen’s death, was ill with Parkinson’s, but he continued to work in the study at Robinson College, until his death at ninety-four in 1995. By an engaging coincidence, the twelfth issue of the scholarly journal Chinese Science carried both Needham’s personal greetings to the journal’s founder, Nathan Sivin, as well as a brief obituary of Needham by Francesca Bray, the first younger scholar he had asked to write one of the volumes—the one on agriculture—for the great series. As Bray wrote, concisely and elegantly:

Needham’s erudition in both Eastern and Western culture is so irrepressible that many of us trying to read a volume seriously end up fluttering intoxicated from footnote to footnote, from philosophy to window-lattices, from alchemy to embroidered slippers.5

The story of Joseph Needham, Dorothy Moyle, and Lu Gwei-djen is a beguiling one, and the composition of Science and Civilisation in China is absorbing in both its broad outlines and its myriad details. It was a bold idea of Simon Winchester’s to try to tell the two stories, one intimate and the other intricate, to a wide general audience, and I was initially skeptical that the attempt could succeed. But I feel that he has pulled it off, and drawn the reader into several disparate worlds at once. Sometimes, I feel, all three of the leading protagonists resist Winchester’s attempts at interpretation, but he cannot be blamed for that. After all, across countless ages, people have marveled at love’s strange chemistry and feel at home with the idea. But here Winchester had to face a different kind of challenge: How can we describe the biochemistry of love?

  1. As a graduate student visiting the Australian National University in Canberra during 1962 and 1963, to work with the great China scholar Fang Chao-ying, I was often included in discussions among the Chinese scholars about the hardships Wang Ling had gone through during his nine years of work with Joseph Needham. For more details, see Ho Peng-yoke, Reminiscences of a Roving Scholar: Science, Humanities and Joseph Needham (in Chinese) (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co., 2006), pp. 50–51.
  2. For a careful analysis of the germ warfare charges and Needham's role, see Ruth Rogaski, "Nature, Annihilation, and Modernity: China's Korean War Germ-Warfare Experience Reconsidered," Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 61, No. 2 (May 2002), pp. 381–415.
  3. Bertrand Russell, Autobiography (London: Allen and Unwin, 1969), p. 243.
  4. John King Fairbank, Chinabound: A Fifty Year Memoir (Harper and Row), 1982), p. 373.
  5. Chinese Science, No. 12 (1995), pp. 5 and 164–165.
Jonathan D. Spence holds the position of Sterling Professor of History, Emeritus, at Yale University, and is well-known throughout the world for his insightful views on modern China. His books...

Reviewed in This Article

The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom
by Simon Winchester
Harper, 316 pp.

This article was first published in the August 14, 2008 issue of The New York Review of Books.



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