I knew Joseph Needham (1900-1995). Or at least, for three years in the late 1980s while an undergraduate at Gonville and Caius College, the Cambridge College he was based at most of his life, I would see him, slowly moving by in his black gown to the Fellows’ table at dinner. I never spoke to him directly. Just saw him. And heard others speaking of him as this legendary figure – a sinologist, scientist, polymath.

At that time, I had no idea I would ever become a Sinologist myself. I wasn’t studying Chinese. The closest I had ever been to the country at that time was Israel! China was a place of tremendous mystery and remoteness. It was only a few years later that I started to gravitate towards this place, visit it, learn its language, and start to link my life with it.
As a result of this, later Needham became important symbolically. A great British China expert. Someone who proved that one could come to know and to some extent understand the very different culture and worldview of this place. He himself wrote of the encounter with China as a liberation, an exposure to a wholly different perspective on the world. He did this despite speaking of a place under atheist Communist rule while he was a devout Anglican. Here was hybridity in the flesh, a great humanist celebrating the common bonds that linked disparate parts of humanity together.
Needham’s great work (and the use of the word `great’ here is almost something that has to go with the title of the series of books itself regardless of their real value) `Science and Civilisation in China’ (https://www.cambridge.org/gb/academic/subjects/history/history-science-general-interest/series/science-and-civilisation-china) was something I was aware of even at Caius. I borrowed a few volumes from the library there. They intrigued me, with their distinctive covers. They had a monumentality about them. They were heavy and bulky, almost embodying the vast scholarship they contained. But to me at the time, despite a brief valiant attempt, they were also unreadable. Their theme, their layout and sets of references were ones wholly unfamiliar to me. They referred to a history, and intellectual tradition, I didn’t have the most basic means to understand. They were, in that sense, truly a closed book. All reading them did was to end exposing and illuminating my own ignorance.
It is embarrassing that I have not till very recently ever properly come back to them. Sonorously declaring at a dinner while a diplomat in China in the early 2000s of how Needham had showed that the Chinese traditions of scientific exploration and innovation were ones that actually belonged to a common humanity, I would have been hard pressed to give a fuller explanation of this by anyone there who had read the books. Luckily no one had. I became very familiar with the Needham question – why, despite being a place rich in empirical, scientific enquiry from the earliest dynasties had China never experienced the modern industrial revolution? What had that happened in the West? But I really wasn’t familiar with Needham’s treatment of this, and only relayed it almost as though by hearsay.

Reading through the first volume of Needham’s magnum opus, as I have recently, is a chance to reflect more critically on the Needham phenomenon. He is, it is true, the ultimate intimidating hard core sinologist. His work is written on an epic subject in an epic style. There are few if any concessions. The account his first volume gives of Chinese history, language, and culture are things I know enough about however to assess. For a book that is nearly seven decades old, it is not surprising to report that this material is deeply out of date. Its references are to an earlier, almost ancient tradition of mostly European sinology that would hardly be referred to now. This gives the book a sort of musty, archaic flavour.

`Science and Civilisation’, for all its intimidating exterior, is, at heart, built on a straightforward design. It is a linear, temporal narrative of Chinese history. In subsequent volumes it then focuses on particular niche areas. Engineering, chemistry, biology. As an act of rediscovery of the heritage of certain lines of thought in one language to that of another, it is a monumental work. But it cannot be described as a particularly complex one. Its complexity comes from the range of different subjects it covers, and the amount of material, not from any intellectual framework it supplies.
That being the case, it is strange that Needham has been called the most important intellectual figure Europe has produced since Erasmus. Leaving aside the fact that Erasmus himself hardly had anything like the impact of a figure like Adam Smith, Karl Marx, or Charles Darwin, I question the contribution that Needham made. He created a work of encyclopaedic vastness, for sure. But his work is the epitome of inaccessibility. This is a huge pity, because the basic story Needham tells is not a remotely complicated one, and one that deserves being listened to widely. It is just that very few would have the time to extricate it from the somewhat terrifying edifice that it is currently contained it.
It is true that what claimed to be an abridged version of the `Science and Civilisation’ series did appear. But they were actually complete rewritings by another author. Needham’s work therefore is as much the monument to a kind of tradition of sinology as it is to the subject it addresses – a sinology which is largely now fading away.
It is a harsh, and perhaps a disappointing thing to say, particularly after having these works as part of my mental world for more than half my life, but Needham’s work is not like the Diderot Encyclopaedia in the mid 18th century, or a work of that order, fundamentally reordering and redesigning the basis of human knowledge. It addresses a very specific issue, using a very specific and conventional tradition of historiography. It did it in a monumental, and almost self-defeatingly intimidating way. Needham is the patron saint of a kind of study of China which has `Do Not Enter unless you are the Elect’ plastered all the way around it. I may be wrong about this. I hope I am. I am happy to be corrected. But this is the way things look for now.


One thought on “Appraising Joseph Needham: Intimidated No More?

  1. This is something that has been on my mind, because I have a couple Needham volumes here, looking for topics we should be including in the Encyclopedia of Chinese Cuisines. I’ve long thought that this kind of information needed to be accessible – which it is certainly not, in the CUP volumes. What a timely and thought-provoking review by Kerry Brown! I hope it leads to a lot of discussion because I will benefit, as a reader and as a publisher :-).


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