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Ripping yarn of the oddball genius who uncovered China’s greatest secrets

by Stephen Mansfield

BOMB, BOOK & COMPASS: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China, by Simon Winchester. Penguin, 317 pp., ¥2,100 (hardcover)

There are certain extraordinary people whose lives are by no means pre-ordained. Joseph Needham was one such person. One of the world’s leading biochemists, he would go on to become a renowned China scholar. Needham was a product of the Cambridge of the 1930s, a sexually tolerant, socially progressive world that was happy to accommodate his academic shifts, studied eccentricity and leftwing activism.

Needham enjoyed a privileged life there, a degree of license inconceivable to the average British person in an age when it was still possible in some circles to cause outrage by voicing support for Darwinian theories. If you were sufficiently brilliant at what you did, though, it was possible to be both a scholar and Bohemian at Cambridge without ruffling too many of its gerontocracy’s feathers. An advocate of sexual liberation, he would enjoy an “open marriage” with his equally tolerant partner, while simultaneously maintaining a Chinese mistress and a number of other dalliances.

In 1954, the bespectacled and owlish Needham would publish the first volume of his masterpiece “Science and Civilization in China,” a work regarded as the foremost explication of China ever produced. The transition from biochemist to celebrated Sinologist did not happen overnight, but at a pace that will leave the reader of Simon Winchester’s account reeling.

Needham’s sedulous character allowed him to work unnaturally long hours, doggedly punching away at the keys of his old Remington typewriter. The range of his interests — the British press described him at one time as a latter-day Erasmus — implied an eclectic mind and a massive capacity for learning, just the sort of person to undertake a task of such monumentality as not.

Needham was smitten with China even before his first trip there in 1943 on a mission funded by the British government. It was a felicitous one. Tasked with finding out what Chinese scientists and academics needed to continue their work in a country torn apart by war, this unlikely Cambridge don was flown over the dangerous air bridge between China and India known as the Hump, and dropped into Chongqing, the proxy capital of a country at war with Japan. The China mission provided him with the perfect opportunity to collect material for his book.

In executing his commission, he hoped to operate independently from the type of foreigners who infested the country at the time: the missionaries, expatriate bureaucrats, businessmen, and execrable “old China hands.”

The Chinese scientific community was clearly in dire straits. Needham had heard accounts of the resourcefulness of those working in laboratories in rural areas, the recycling and repairing, the improvisations that spoke of their poverty.

The assistance that Britain gave was invaluable but also, perhaps, an opportunity to redeem itself. Quite what long-term impact Britain’s largess had on improving its image as a former colonial land-grabber, disseminator of opium and sacker of the summer palace outside of Beijing, though, is difficult to measure. The mission at least was one of its less ignoble dealings with the Middle Kingdom.

Winchester’s long years as a correspondent in Asia make him an astute interpreter of Needham and China, and his subject’s theory that the West’s inflated cultural view of itself meant the appropriation of many “firsts” that rightly belonged to Asia. Winchester’s latest book, though, is far from being a work of dry erudition or historical verification. Combining biography, discovery and travel in writing about the life and times of a fierce and eminent scholar, Winchester avoids any whiff of academia in a work likely to reach a broad spectrum of readers.

Needham’s research unearthed some interesting facts that would almost single-handedly place China at the forefront of human civilization. Among these was the revelation that printing was a common practice in China at least six centuries before its purported invention in Gutenberg, and that the Chinese were early on able to cast iron and smelt it with coal, allowing for the making of much more durable pots, pans and tools. Their invention of the chain led to the first construction of iron and suspension bridges. Three hundred years later, thanks to assiduous notes made by Marco Polo, the Italians would reproduce the segmented arch bridge, another Chinese first.

Needham was able to establish that the Chinese invented, among other things, the abacus, magnetic compass, the wheelbarrow, fishing reel, kite, umbrella, calipers and gunpowder. Other inventions like playing cards, fireworks, perfumed toilet paper and fine porcelain were created for pleasure and graceful living. Massive contributions to architecture, painting, agriculture, metallurgy, biochemistry, pharmacology, medicine, and the science of nutrition were authenticated.

Arguably, Needham’s ultimate achievement was not simply to restore Chinese science and civilization to its rightful place, but to confront the venomous mix of racial aversion and cultural arrogance that formed the basis of the West’s conviction of its intellectual and cultural supremacy.

Originally planned as a single volume, “Science and Civilization in China” grew into an opus magnum that continues to expand today. Needham once wrote, “I sometimes despair that we will ever find our way successfully through the inchoate mass of ideas and facts.” Remarkably, he did.