Joseph Needham: Eccentric scholar devoted his life to documenting the brilliant innovations of Chinese civilization

For reasons lost to history, my late uncle decided at some point in the early 1970s to purchase, one by one, volume after volume of Joseph Needham's magisterial work, "Science and Civilisation in China." My uncle was no China scholar, never visited Asia, and rarely discussed what he had learned from perusing Needham. I don't even know for sure that he did read the books, though perhaps, like me, the eventual inheritor of the volumes, he dipped in from time to time to dabble in the industrial uses of bamboo during the Tang Dynasty, or to freshen up on the techniques of porcelain manufacture in the kilns of Jingdezhen, or to marvel that the Chinese invented the wheelbarrow a full thousand years before the Europeans got around to the job.

Or perhaps, also like me, my uncle hoped that if one day he did manage to read Needham's epic from start to finish, he would learn the answer to the famous "Needham question": How did it come to pass that a civilization with such an astounding history of inventiveness and scholarship and intellectual curiosity failed to make the leap into the modern world of science? Where did China go wrong? Why did the industrial revolution take off in Europe, and not China?

Or maybe all that was required was a casual glance at one of the many fulsome blurbs on the back cover of Vol. I, "Introductions and Orientations" -- "Perhaps the greatest single act of historical synthesis and intercultural communication ever attempted by one man" -- and my uncle decided that no home library could be complete without such a masterpiece. In any event, a failure to read every word of the 15 volumes that my uncle ultimately assembled is understandable: "Science and Civilisation in China" is a work so massive and so detailed it is almost impossible to imagine reading all of it, much less writing it, even if it does rank, as Needham biographer Simon Winchester writes in "The Man Who Loved China," "among the great intellectual accomplishments of all time."

Those 15 volumes, plus another that I purchased myself (918 pages on ceramic technology!), now sit in my bedroom occupying pride of place on their own dedicated bookcase. Because while my uncle never displayed much in the way of overt sino-philia, my own story is different. I began studying Chinese in college and headed to Asia a few months after graduation. I have spent countless hours tracking down the elusive secrets of the Chinese written language through scores of dictionaries, and fallen into equally deep infatuations with Ming Dynasty Neo-Confucian poet-sages and the spiciness of Sichuan pork slivers stir-fried in "the style of fish."...

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Randll Reese Besch - 5/25/2008

Some of the massive and complex and modern devices used both in industry and warfare. It must have been psychological not technological that stopped the Chinese from influencing the entire world.

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