Everybody nowadays knows that the Chinese invented damn near everything: printing, gunpowder, compasses, wheelbarrows, the stirrup, wrought iron, navigation, chess, perfumed toilet paper … the list could go on for pages. What is incredible is that our knowledge of Chinese ingenuity relies on one man and one Herculean effort barely 50 years ago: the remarkable Joseph Needham and his colossal work Science and Civilisation in China.
An internationally recognised biochemist, Needham became a Fellow of the Royal Society and married the stoical, sympathetic Dorothy. Here his story may have faded from history, had he not met and fell in love with Lu Gwei-djen, who joined the Needhams as a friend and Joseph’s mistress. With the introduction of Lu Gwei-djen – accepted by the enlightened Dorothy – Joseph developed delight in everything Chinese. He taught himself the language and gained a diplomatic appointment in wartime China, where he undertook expeditions that make the adventures of Indiana Jones appear tame.
During this time, Needham realised the extent of China’s history in innovation. This was so vast and varied he wondered why it had suddenly stopped. It would become his life quest to answer this question.
But then the Korean War erupted as an aftershock of World War II. Suddenly the Americans were accused of perpetrating germ warfare: raining rats laced with plague onto the heads of villagers near the borders between Korea and China. Needham was hauled out of his industrious seclusion, where he was working on his magnum opus, and persuaded to go back to China to lead the investigation. His report, affirming that deadly rodents were thrown from American planes, was met with derision. He was ostracised at his college; the great work was in serious jeopardy.
Winchester’s account of Needham’s climb back from this abject situation and his eventual restoration to the peak of acclaim is a thrilling story.
Needham’s work was a triumph. “Needham pointed out,” Winchester writes, “that in every century the Chinese dreamed up nearly fifteen new scientific ideas – a pace of inventiveness unmatched by the world’s other ancient civilisations, including the Greeks…and like no other time in history”.