Sunday, November 09, 2008

Joseph Needham -"The man departs - there remains his shadow"

This simple quote is inscribed in Chinese calligraphy to the side of the fireplace mantel of K-1 Caius College, Cambridge University – testament to the lifelong residence of Joseph Needham, brilliant British scientist turned Sinologist. A friend’s father lent me The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester (HarperCollins, 2008) for some unexplainable reason. I dove into it and found a love story coupled with deep and curious intellectual inquiry and political intrigue – all explaining the incredible array of scientific and technological contributions China has made throughout its history.

Joseph Needham started a brilliant academic career in the early 20th century, contributing primarily through scientific discovery and publication of his findings which resulted in his invitation to join the Caius faculty as a young intellectual. He was eccentric to say the least and was supported by his wife, Dorothy, for over 70 years until her death, although he traveled extensively, had another lifetime lover, and many other encounters along the way. His love of Lu Gwei-djen (begun in 1937 and resulting in their eventual marriage in 1989) caused him to abandon the direct study of science to begin a journey of understanding how China had contributed so much across the ages. His series of books, Science and Civilization in China, are considered the essential documented record of Chinese innovation. In addition to documenting this history, Needham helped to preserve Chinese universities during the spread of Japanese dominance in the 1930s, he helped found UNESCO, and he created several Chinese-Western intellectual and friendship exchanges and partnerships.

Needham’s story is beautifully written and so enjoyable that it’s hard to put down. Aside from the biographical detail that drew me in, I was fascinated to have a first introduction to China, its past glories, and its growing role in our contemporary world. The “Needham question” that lingers throughout the book is how, after so many centuries of sustained contributions to scientific creativity, could China have fallen asleep in the 16th century when the Western world began to rise? Ultimately, there is no answer to the question other than one speculated to simply be that China “stopped trying” (p. 260). Maybe it was the lack of a mercantile class, perhaps political and bureaucratic systems that thwarted individual effort, or the sheer size of the country and its people. Regardless, Needham lived to see the beginnings of what we now know will be one of the greatest economic and political forces of the 21st century. Testament to China’s aspiration is a billboard posted on the outskirts of Jiuquan, the new city exploding at the border of the Gobi Desert and home to China’s space program. The billboard reads in both Chinese and English – Without Haste. Without Fear. We Conquer the World.

Chilling? Maybe… More than anything, Needham's testament and scholarship is a call for Westerners to understand and embrace the role that China is beginning to play in the 21st century. Needham’s story, and his lifelong mission of understanding China, provides a model seldom matched in academe but hopefully increasingly found in everyday life as we seek to understand the global community we are becoming.

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