Science and Civilization in China

These volumes are the first two of seven projected in a detailed and exhaustive history of Chinese science and its relation to general Chinese culture and to the evolution of modern science. Joseph Needham is one of the world’s leading biochemists and biologists. He has lived for many years in China, knows the language and literature, has a deep sympathy for the people and their ways, an incredible knowledge of the literature of his subject, and of Sinology generally.

Needham’s is the sort of project which, nowadays, if it gets done at all, is done by committees of scholars drawn from all the universities of the world. Yet he moves with ease and confidence in regions where the most highly specialized committees would tread with temerity.

Great synthesizing works of scholarship have an aesthetic appeal, different from but often as great as great works of art. Perhaps because history is itself an art (one of the Muses, said the Greeks), few books are more moving than a vast philosophical history. This is true even when, as in Ignatius Donnelly, Spengler or Arnold Toynbee, the guiding ideas, the philosophy and even the facts, are mistaken, false or wrongheaded. Who is likely to forget those excited nights of adolescence spent with The Golden Bough or The Decline of the West, or, even in maturity, the impact of the first three volumes of Toynbee? Yet hobbyhorses and foolhardiness do not make for the most enduring qualities in the aesthetics of history. Gibbon’s Decline is probably the greatest achievement of eighteenth-century Europe; it is also one of the ten great prose works of all time, ranking just below Thucydides, Genji and Don Quixote. It is also singularly correct and exhaustive. Joseph Needham may not be Gibbon, but he is a very remarkable man, and he has written what is already, less than a third completed, a major monument of historical scholarship, surpassing the science histories of Sarton and Thorndike and Sigerist. In some ways, notably in prose style and organizing ability, in sheer interest and lucidity, it is the superior of any history of science and related subjects since Heath’s great work on Greek mathematics.

Science and Civilisation in China is not just an exciting book; its effect is stunning, and this not least because excitement is so unexpected in a field given over, alas, to the worst sort of finicking. For more than twenty years American Sinology has been dominated by individuals and traditions from the old Tsarist academy, where Far Eastern studies were essentially part of the curriculum of military policy, with the resultant narrowness, formularization and bigotry. Considerable work of breadth has been done in recent years, but without exception by scholars independent of the school dominant in the United States, often by persons the academicians consider amateurs and upstarts. This has not been true in Great Britain, but then, Arthur Waley, E.R. Hughes, even Needham himself are dilettantes in the eyes of our Sinologists. I think it is important to explain this to the lay public because it has all sorts of practical consequences in this period when it is a matter of life and death that we grow in understanding of the Far East.

It is hard to think of a better way to approach an alien culture than by a study of its science. Religious concepts, by slight tricks of mistranslation, can be perverted. Confucianism can be assimilated to the demented fascism of Ezra Pound, Taoism to Mary Baker Eddy, Buddhism to Theosophy; but the statement that the five elements are Fire, Water, Wood, Metal and Earth, has a salutary indigestibility about it. Our scientific provincialism is appalling. This is true not only of the layman whose notions of scientific infallibility come from advertising pictures of wise men in laboratory coats inspecting test tubes full of canned beans. It is found at the very top. The physicist Heisenberg, father of the dubious “principle of indeterminacy,” says in a recent book that the difference between “our” scientific theories and Newton’s or Kepler’s is that ours are “correct.” If true, it is frightening to look ahead to the onrushing centuries of ever-growing scientific unemployment. This is the worst sort of learned smugness, and nothing is better for it than a long quiet voyage among totally foreign scientific landscapes. Chinese science, both speculative and empiric, is radically, fundamentally different, and demands a willed, sympathetic reorientation of perspective on the nature of Nature.

Too often works of scholarship in fields as remote as this are technically inaccessible to the common reader. Needham’s book is not. Although the high scholarship, not just in Sinology, but in dozens of related fields, is patent, it is never oppressive, and it explains itself as it goes along. Furthermore, Needham writes English prose, not the professional thieves’ cant of the typical academic “paper.”

The first volume is introductory. It has chapters on bibliography, special problems of the Chinese language, written and spoken, geography, geology, history and prehistory and the diffusion, migration and interaction of ideas and inventions between China and the West. Not one of these subjects but is full of booby traps for the rash. Volumes of nonsense have been written, especially by American poets, about the Chinese written character. (Chinese culture has been derived from Egypt, the characters from cuneiform; the Mayan and Inca cultures have been derived from China, even the geography and geology of China have attracted those with more notions than sense.) Needham avoids every pitfall. In almost every instance of dispute he is about as near right, about as judicious a guide, as the uninitiated could wish.

True, he seems to be a Marxist — or at least not unsympathetic. This leads him to give considerable space to the influence of waterworks, canals and dams for drainage and irrigation, and of the system of “ever-normal granaries” on Chinese history and social structure. This is a popular interpretation in China just now and it is unquestionably fruitful. On the other hand the controversy over the nature of Chinese society — is it feudal or feudal-bureaucratic? — is due to the limited vocabulary of Engels, Morgan and Hegel.

It is simply not true that for four thousand years before Mao Tse-tung China was “feudal.” This is like nothing so much as the old factional dispute among the Trotskyites over the nature of the Russian state. Needham settles for “feudal-bureaucratic” and passes on to point out that really it is unique and specifically Chinese. Again, when Mao controlled only the Northwest it was the custom to lavish praise on the cultural contributions of the Northern Barbarian Dynasties and to attack the Confucian legitimism of, for instance, the Southern Sung. Now that the Communists control all of China, they have mellowed into a measure of Confucian patriotism. Actually the first position is more nearly correct. Needham wavers, but at this crux quotes Lattimore, written some years back. Similarly, there is little doubt that, Confucian theories to the contrary, China has been greatest when it was a federated empire with considerable autonomy of the parts. On this point contemporary theory is shifting and ambiguous. Needham avoids the issue, perhaps wisely. I am familiar with the wilder Marxist perversions of Chinese history and philosophy. I didn’t notice them in Needham. In fact, I feel about his Marxism pretty much the way Lincoln felt about Grant’s whisky.

I am going to make a rash statement. I think the second volume is about the best guide to Chinese philosophy in English, or for that matter in any language, including the Chinese. Possibly this is because it fits my own predilections, but then, there is not much to compare. Wilhelm is elementary and sometimes wrong, Wieger is a Roman Catholic and often unsympathetic, Waley and Hughes deal only with the classical period, Fung Yu-lan tends to see all Chinese philosophy as a preparation for his own — and so on. Needham approaches each thinker and school primarily, but not exclusively, in terms of reference to the growth of scientific thought — valid understanding of the world. There are chapters on each of the major schools, but he is most sympathetic to Taoism and Sung Neo-Confucianism. I should say that his interpretation of the latter is radical and stimulating, if not necessarily indisputable. There is a chapter on the basic ideas of Chinese science which completely supersedes Forke’s famous World Conception of the Chinese, long the standard work.

Finally there is a section on human law and natural law in China and the West which is a masterpiece. Needham’s point is that ideas of creation out of nothing, of a divine legislator, are unknown or repugnant to Chinese philosophy, as codified law is unknown to Chinese jurisprudence, and that therefore Chinese scientific thought has been far more organic than mechanical, permissive than authoritarian in its interpretation of Nature’s ways. The dominant influence in this volume seems to be the organic philosophy of Whitehead, shorn of its Platonic excrescences. This has been an influence almost entirely for the good. It serves as an available bridge to the comprehension of a world in which Nature works by “doing nothing” instead of by passing laws, in which the universe moves as a great web of interrelatedness of which man and his imperatives are only part. That is basically a true picture of the Chinese universe. It is a universe full of strange and wonderful things. It is a universe Western man is going to have to understand if we are all going to survive happily together on a planet where, whether we like it or not, as Confucius said, “All men are brothers.”

* * *

One of the more foolish controversies of our day was the Two Cultures slanging match between Charles Snow and F.R. Leavis. Snow’s opening point seems to have been that physicists seldom got invited to stately home weekends by poetic duchesses, or poets by physical duchesses, and that modern civilization was becoming so overspecialized that it could no longer produce Leonardo da Vincis or Goethes, and that the social ambience from cocktail parties to employment agencies was dead set against the “generalist.” Leavis responded like an outraged high school teacher whose favorite sports were chanting H.D.’s “The Orchard” to tittering adolescents, going to poetry readings at the Y, and having nice discussions about what the book reviews in the Kenyon Review really meant.

All the assumptions were false. All around Charles Snow at Cambridge were men of far broader scientific and humanistic culture than a dozen Goethes and Leonardo da Vincis rolled into one. Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, Joseph Needham’s mentor, or J.D. Bernal and his many descendants, or the radical cosmologist Fred Hoyle and all his associates — dozens of others (is Bronowski a Cambridge man?). Cambridge swarms with generalists. And of course the term generalists itself is American business administration argot invented by the top boys in the personnel department who are always on the lookout for them. It is easier to get a job at the top of some businesses today with a Greek distich than with a slipstick. Somehow Charles Snow had not noticed the seller’s market in generalists. He hadn’t noticed Caius College either. It’s the smallest at Cambridge, and easily overlooked, but it houses Joseph Needham who knows well about a hundred more different things than ever did Leonardo da Vinci.

It is important to start talking about Joseph Needham in these terms, because his masterpiece, the history of science and civilization in China, is itself a great and vastly significant generalization made up of innumerable particulars and specificities, which, as it is evolving at present, promises to run to 10,000 pages. This is the set of Joseph Needham’s mind — “What is the overall significance of the minute particulars?” He is engaged in what is called an encyclopedic work, but it is an encyclopedia like Diderot’s or the Ninth Britannica, in, literally, the last analysis, its own synthesis — engkyklios paideia — wisdom gained from a tour of the whole circle of knowledge, using Werner Jaeger’s sense of paideia.

But this is the way Needham’s mind has always worked. He began to come to the attention of the public some forty years or so ago with essays on what used to be called emergent evolution. The appearance of novelty in a universe assumed to be mechanistic. The change from fact to value, from quantity to quality. In 1926 he contributed an essay, “Biochemistry and Mental Phenomena,” to Canon Raven’s The Creator Spirit, subtitled “A survey of Christian doctrine in the light of biology, psychology and mysticism”; in 1925 he edited a symposium, Science, Religion and Reality, with a similar essay by himself, “Mechanistic Biology and the Religious Consciousness,” reprinted with his approval in 1955. In a new introductory essay to that volume, George Sarton closes with a quotation from Canon Streeter, “Science is the great cleanser of the human spirit, it makes impossible any religion but the highest,” and a statement by Einstein that mysticism is the sower of all true art and science. So Joseph Needham appears first with what used to be called natural theology, seeking the synthesis that lies at the end of all analysis — what is the significance of infinite fact, the meaning of meaning? He was a biologist and biochemist, and it is not surprising that his evolving philosophy should resemble Alfred North Whitehead’s metaphysical, or should we say, ontological, “organism.”

Reading over these old essays one cannot fail to be impressed by how immensely learned Needham was as a very young man. How had he found time in a scientific and medical education to read Tertullian, Lao-tze and Lotze, Sir Thomas Browne, the pre-Socratic philosophers, Paracelcus, Driesch, Ralph Cudworth, along with a wide variety of the founding fathers of modern biology? Since his essays were quasi-historical, he managed to do this without parading names. What he says is always illuminating, and original. The originality lies in his overall philosophy, which already begins to emerge as occupying a special region between Whitehead’s organic philosophy and a highly refined dialectical materialism.

Until he undertook the vast China book Needham was best known for his classic works, Chemical Embryology, Biochemistry and Morphogenesis, and especially his History of Embryology, “a truly magisterial work, not soon to be superseded,” to use reviewers’ jargon, but accurately and justly. Again, what is impressive about these books is their synthesizing vision, and Needham’s abiding sense that the details of the history of a science add up to profound meanings.

Distance lends perspective. Perspective synthesizes and deepens meaning. If a perfectly competent human being with a profound mind were to write a 10,000-page work on the science and civilization of the great plasma animals who in science fiction inhabit the sun, he would come up with something that from the human point of view would be a novel philosophy, a new meaning of meaning. The Chinese aren’t all that different, but different they are, enough so that in understanding their value system our own Western scale, or rather lattice, of value subtly shifts, never to be quite the same again. This is what Needham has accomplished and he is only halfway through.

There is nothing like the general history of another culture to provide us, in our own time and space province, with a novel synthesis that restates and revalues our own basic cultural assumptions. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, almost half of it concerned with the history of Byzantine civilization, as unlike eighteenth-century Europe as might be imagined, is in fact the most perfect and comprehensive statement of “the eighteenth-century worldview,” and probably also that period’s greatest work of art. Needham’s book has the same stunning relevance. There is no work on Chinese civilization in any language that will remotely compare with it once it is finished, and there are few works which better show our own culture at its best, or which raise those best qualities to newer heights. Those new heights are reached by forcing us to discard all the baggage of our own conceit. Not the least of Needham’s accomplishments has been his effect upon official, academic Sinology, a narrow, nitpicking “discipline” if ever there was one. It has taken more than ten years for him to be widely accepted in the Sinological academy, who at first seemed to think they would be able to sniff him away. Partly this has been due to the cold war and the yellow peril. Needham has always been a defender of the People’s Republic and even worse, more or less a Marxist, although of an unorthodox kind — a kind that would not be accepted, by the way, if he were a Chinese professor in Peking. The only equivocation in all his work is his dodging of the orthodox dogma that China was “feudal” up until 1948. Needham politely goes his own way, avoiding the blind alleys of the wilder Maoist interpretations of Chinese philosophy and history which change with the exigencies of the moment.

The first volume is introductory. It has chapters on bibliography, on special problems of the Chinese language, geography, geology, history and prehistory, and the diffusion, migration and interaction of ideas and inventions between China and the West. Not one of these subjects but is full of booby traps for the rash. Needham avoids them all.

The second volume is the best guide to Chinese philosophy in any language, including Chinese. This judgment may be influenced by my own taste. I too am sympathetic to philosophical Taoism. The volume concludes with a section on human law and natural law in China and the West, embodying a basic judgment which pervades the entire work: that ideas of creation out of nothing, of a divine legislator, of Absolute Being over against utter contingency, are unknown or repugnant to Chinese philosophy, even to Chinese Buddhism, as codified law is unknown to Chinese jurisprudence, and that therefore Chinese scientific and social thought has been far more organic than mechanical, permissive than authoritarian, in its interpretation of nature’s ways.

Volume 3 was Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and the Earth. Volume 4 has so far run to three separate books — Part I, Physics; Part II, Mechanical Engineering; Part III, Civil Engineering and Nautics — a total of 2124 pages devoted to physics and technology alone. Still to come is Part IV, at least another book devoted to military technology, textiles, paper and printing. Then will come Volume V, Chemistry and Industrial Chemistry; Volume VI, Biology, Agriculture and Medicine; Volume VII, The Social Background. How many pages this will run to cannot even be guessed, for the works swells as it grows. Each section turns out to be bigger than planned. It will be, when completed, far bigger than any of the committee-written Cambridge Histories. Yet unlike them, it is continuously interesting to any literate person, and it is written in a luminous expository prose. I for one await each volume the way I wait for the biennial utterances of Georges Simenon, and I certainly find Needham equally absorbing, although I cannot say that I ever had a passionate interest in the technical details of shipbuilding or the operation of bullock-powered mills. I certainly gained such interest in the pages of Needham. Some of Needham’s information is intrinsically exciting — for instance, the story of mammoth Chinese ships cruising the east coast of Africa and turning the Cape of Good Hope and venturing into the Atlantic before ever Vasco da Gama came the other way.

Too much of the chauvinistic struggles for “firsts” prevails in the history of science. The combative claims of the Russians in the years just before the death of Stalin to have invented everything from the safety pin to the computer are a good example of this kind of national inferiority complex. Needham has no need to be controversial. He has the evidence. The Chinese were the first accurate astronomical observers anywhere before the High Renaissance. Systematic records of solar eclipses begin in 1361 BC; of Halley’s comet in 467 BC; of sunspots in 28 BC. In addition there are records of the appearance of novas and supernovas which may date back to the beginnings of Chinese civilization. Accurate measurement of time with an escapement to control the release of energy was perfected by 723 AD. The Chinese first discovered a sculling oar, essential a propeller, and had treadmill-operated paddle wheel vessels at least as early as the fifteenth century AD. Chinese junks were the first to have rigging that would sail into the wind, and the first sternpost rudders. As is well known, the Chinese were the first to use the mariner’s compass, but they were already experimenting with magnetism at the beginning of the Christian era. Needham has yet to publish what may be the most exciting volume of all, on medicine, but Clerks and Craftsmen and The Grand Titration, especially the former, describe the ancient Chinese treatment of deficiency diseases with vitamin-rich diet, of the use of iodine-rich seaweed for the treatment of goiter, of placental preparations for hormonal disorders, and of androgens and estrogens purified from urine for sexual deficiencies. Ancient Chinese pharmacy included Ephedra sinica, the source of ephedrine, and Rauwolfia, the source of a number of modern tranquilizers, as well as an extensive armamentarium of metallic salts long before such preparations were introduced in Europe by Paracelsus in the sixteenth century. The list goes on and on — the wheelbarrow, porcelain, silk technology, the mill wheel, the paddle wheel, paper making, the windmill, gunpowder, cast iron (perfected by the Chinese before the Christian era), printing from movable types, the iron chain suspension bridge, deep well drilling, an efficient horse harness and the modern horse collar, and of course acupuncture, suddenly become a Western fad. There are other marginally scientific activities like alchemy which the Chinese may have invented, both the physical and spiritual varieties, and the geomantic location of buildings — a subject by no means as superstitious as it might seem. In addition there is the immense achievement of hydraulic engineering — canals for navigation, drainage and irrigation — far surpassing anything known in the West until the mid-nineteenth century, and, intimately related to the canal system, a regional and provincial hierarchy of “ever normal granaries” which, until its breakdown in modern times, insured the Chinese against the worst effects of their erratic climate.

People who started to read Science and Civilisation as it came out are lucky. Already, sitting down to read through the four volumes is a formidable, intimidating prospect. Nevertheless, anyone who wishes to call himself a Sinologist is going to be compelled to, and anyone who really wants to understand China would be well advised to do so. Once settled in to the task, it should be anything but boring. Other people may find the collections of lectures and articles that have been spun off from the main work less frightening — Within the Four Seas, The Grand Titration and Clerks and Craftsmen in China and the West. Some of these papers are at least as technical as the history, but most of them are popular expositions of widely assorted aspects of Chinese culture, or are essays in general conclusions. Each is separate and self-contained and can be read at one sitting. So the collections form a satisfying introduction. It’s a little like reading a book of Balzac’s short stories. There is an irresistible temptation to go on, to set aside a winter’s evening and read the Com├ędie Humaine from end to end. Needham incidentally is far better at short essays than Balzac was at short stories. Finally, Volume II of Science and Civilisation, on the history of scientific thought and philosophy, is an essential part of the education of everyone interested in China, philosophy, science, religion or thought — it comes close to providing a universally negotiable life philosophy.

1956 & 1972


The first essay, a review of the first two volumes of Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China, originally appeared in The Nation (10 November 1956) and was reprinted in Rexroth’s Assays (1961). The second essay, a review of Volume 4 of the same work plus three other related Needham books, appeared in The Nation (13 November 1972) and was never reprinted. The two essays are copyrighted their respective dates and are reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Other Rexroth Essays