The Man Who Loved China

June 14, 2010

(from the endpiece of The Man Who Loved China) “What do you know about Joseph Needham?”

Probably nothing. And that answer is both curious and sad because not only was Needham “surely the most famous good Englishman ever to live in China,” he was also an incredibly multi-faceted, if not bizarre, character. A brilliant scientist, Cambridge prof, and member of the Royal Society, he was also a Morris dancer, a “committed socialist, much drawn to radical Christianity, an energetic hiker, a dedicated nudist, an accomplished linguist, and an impulsive womanizer”. It doesn’t seem much of an exaggeration to say that his interests seemed to span all of human history, while his actual life spanned the globe and the entire 20th century (b. 1900, d. 1995).

Simon Winchester (Krakatoa, The Map that Changed the World) tells the story of Needham’s life with a pen so expert that one almost has the feeling that Needham never lived a boring or unimportant moment. This can’t be true, of course, but there are so many extraordinarily interesting moments in Needham’s long life that it must have been excruciatingly difficult to decide what to put in the book and what to leave out.

If you want to get a quick taste of Needham’s life, just look at Wikipedia and the New York Review of Books (August, 2008). You might also visit the Needham Research Institute or linger over some of the pages of his magnum opus, “Science and Civilization in China”. Some of the material that appealed to me most included the following:

On Morris dancing. (p. 30) “At Thaxted, Needham also became an eager practitioner of the peculiarly English country ritual of morris dancing. … He loved the flamboyance and the merriment; the feeling of liberation and joy; the men dressed in loose white fustian with colored baldrics crossing over their chests and backs, bells on their ankles, and flower-ornamented hats; the handkerchiefs waved and sticks whacked against one another; the pipe and tabor played tunelessly, but hauntingly, in the background. … He danced for most of this adult life, learned the accordion so he could accompany his fellow academic dancers, …”.

OK. So Needham and I have Morris dancing in common, but that’s where we part. I have always found Morris a mixed bag, while Needham was unabashedly enthusiastic. For example, after Needham arrived at Rewi Alley‘s Baillie School in Shuangshipu, we get,

(p. 116) “Needham took the stage and sang a medley of English folk songs, his thin, high voice clear in the evening air. After concluding from the applause that it all had gone well, he decided to forget how foolish he might look in front of the children, ripped off his army jacket, rolled up his sleeves, picked up a heavy stick — and for thirteen breathless minutes performed a series of particularly wild and whirling old English morris dances, singing lustily all the while. To all who saw his performance that August evening the image of morris dancing in China remained profoundly haunting. It left the schoolboys open-mouthed with astonishment and, Needham later assumed immodestly, delight.”

On China. (p. 107) “Then finally the blue range of mountains … with the Min River coursing out of a chasm. … The Min fell 12,000 feet from its headwaters in only 400 miles, so that it flowed down an average gradient of thirty feet every mile … In 250 B.C. the redoubtable Li Bing had worked to tame and harness the Min, creating the structure that … visitors before and since have felt should be listed as one of the wonders of the world. The site is called Dujiangyan [Unesco site, China Tour site]. As an irrigation project, it may not seem to deserve being ranked alongside the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal, but it is actually one of mankind’s more extraordinary achievements. Needham liked to quote, approvingly, the ancient Roman engineer Sextus Julius Frontinus, who wrote famously in the first century after Christ that his aqueducts were indispensable, and would be remembered long after ‘the idle pyramids, or the useless, though famous, works of the Greeks.’ Needham liked this quotation not simply because Frontinus was right about the Egyptians and the Greeks but also because his achievements in Rome had been made three full centuries after those of Li Bing in China. Moreover, unlike the highfalutin monuments beside the Nile and the Yamuna, Dujiangyan had been made purely for the common good, and it still works today just as it was designed to work, whereas many Roman aqueducts lie in ruins.”

On China. (Epilogue) “Four thousand years ago, when we couldn’t even read, the Chinese knew all the absolutely useful things we boast about today.” –Voltaire, 1764

On ‘gung ho’. (p. 112) In response to Japan’s destruction of Chinese factories during World War II, a plan to rebuild small, movable factories that could avoid destruction was hatched. “Since the Chinese military response to the mighty invading army was based on guerrilla tactics of harassment and surprise, why not organize guerrilla industry too? Why not build hundreds of factories which were light, flexible, and perhaps even mobile? … The idea was immediately and widely accepted as brilliant. The Chinese government chipped in some money; international appeals were launched to ask for more; and an organization known as Indusco, or the Chinese Industrial Cooperative (CIC) was formally set up. By happenstance the first two characters of this new organization’s Chinese name were gung ho – and though there was no linguistic connection, the two words were very soon afterward adopted as a motto by a friend of (Rewi) Alley’s in the U.S. Marines. They became the battle cry of this marine unit, and such were the unit’s successes on the battlefield that the phrase slipped into the American English lexicon.”

A final comment: I read the Harper Perennial paperback version of this book in summer 2009. The endpiece of this publication contains several must-read pieces, including “A Coincidence Most Curious and Telling” and information about the copy of the Diamond Sutra that was found in the Mogao cave complex at Dunhuang in the western Chinese desert (see International Dunhuang Project)

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