Joseph Needham

Joseph Needham

Joseph Needham (1900-1995) on the right in this photograph, meets Hu Dingyi Chinese Ambassador and Xie Heng. Dr Needham founded SACU in 1965 along with Ernest Roberts, Mary Adams, Derek Bryan and W. Luckin. He was President of the society for many years and the most eminent of Western scholars of Chinese science and civilization. A Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University for over seventy years.

Here is an obituary by Derek Bryan that was first printed in our journal China Now in Spring 1995.

In one of many remarkable obituaries revoked by Joseph Needham's death, the late Professor Mansel Davies ('Independent', March 27, 1995) quoted from a review of Needham's 16 volume 'Science and Civilisation in China': '...he has been the supreme spokesman of the universal "scientific culture" of this century... and contemporaries may well be proud to have lived in an age adorned by a man of such intellectual stature'.

Scientist, intellectual or neither, anyone concerned with contemporary China who has known Needham in person or through his writings has been fortunate indeed. It is a wonderful thing for people all over the world that the protean genius of a scholar, who by the age of 30 was already one of the outstanding scientists of his generation, should at that point have turned to China, and made it his life's work.

This decisive turning point came about through the influence of three Chinese biochemists working in Cambridge in the 1930s, one of whom, Lu Gwei-Djen, became a lifelong collaborator and companion, and eventually Needham's second wife. (Already in 1924 he had married a fellow Cambridge biochemist Dorothy Moyle; their close union lasted for 62 years until her death in 1987. For over half century the two of them and Gwei-Dien were the closest of colleagues, in a companionship marvelled at and admired by countless friends).

Through Gwei-Djen and the other two biochemists (Shen Shi-Chang and Wang Ying-Lai), and later with the guidance of the then Professor of Chinese at Cambridge Gustav Haloun, Needham acquired a good reading knowledge of the language, preparing the ground for the project which eventually became 'Science and Civilisation in China'. This was conceived about the beginning of World War II. In February 1943 Needham went to China on a war time cultural and a scientific mission, and stayed there till 1946. In the course of his work he travelled very widely, bringing practical aid and moral support to beleaguered and isolated Chinese scientists. Crucially for his historical work, many of them were able to put him in touch with unique and invaluable sources.

During World War II, that part of China which had not been entered by the Chinese Red Armies or Japanese invaders, known in the West as 'Free China', was loosely governed by the Nationalist Government headed by Chiang Kai-Shek. As many of Needham's writings (especially 'Science Outpost', London 1948) show, he gained through his travels and his human contacts in this period a far deeper and wider knowledge of both country and people than he could have done if his first visit had been made after 1949, under official guidance and tutelage.

Those whose first contact with Needham was through China were often later surprised to learn of his political and religious side. The scholar who had spent two years as a novice in an Anglo-Catholic religious house, and worshipped for many decades at Thaxted in Cambridgeshire, had no difficulty reconciling Christianity with communism, shocking in the process orthodox churchmen, old-fashioned atheists, dogmatic Marxists and the Labour Party hierarchy.

Active in radical politics in Cambridge in the 1920s and 1930s, he wrote and spoke widely. Perhaps fearful that professional colleagues would look askance at his straying so far from the scientific fold, he published in 1939 an important historical work, 'The Levellers and the English Revolution', under the pen-name of Henry Holorenshaw.

In his introduction to 'Time: The Refreshing River' (1943) Needham explained how his scientific work led him to politics. When compiling two earlier volumes of essays and addresses 'The Sceptical Biologist' (1929) and 'The Great Amphibium' (1931) attempting to differentiate 'the great forms of human experience: science, philosophy, religion, history and art', he had arrived at 'a fairly systematic position in the philosophy of science' but had always been 'uncomfortable about the position of ethics'. This difficulty resolved itself when the one form of experience he had not previously taken into account 'came and forced itself more and more upon my attention, namely politics.... The process of socialisation of my outlook... really began with the General Strike of 1926 and was completed by the rise to power of Hitlerite fascism in 1933.'

Needham never wavered in his religion or in his socialism. His immense learning and the extra-ordinary catholicity of his thought are a salutary corrective to the vulgar individualist materialism that passes for political philosophy nowadays, in an age that mistakenly holds that socialism is dead.

Needham returned from China early in 1946 at the urgent insistence of Julian Huxley, first Director General of UNESCO, to head its Science Department. (But for Needham's insistence it would have been simply UNECO, with no reference to science, as the British establishment would have preferred). He stayed in Paris at UNESCO until 1948, returning then to Cambridge, where he for the first time embarked systematically on 'Science and Civilisation in China'. The first volume came out, to general acclaim, just as a world congress of Orientalists was being held in Cambridge in 1954.

In China, Chiang Kai-shek's final attempt to 'wipe out the communists' had ended in 1949 with disaster for him and withdrawal to Taiwan. When the new government was set up in Beijing in October, a Britain-China Friendship Association was started in London by British sympathisers, and Needham became its first President. Despite the difficulties of the Cold War, and the Korean War, this worked well at least in left-wing circles, for some years. In the Sino-Soviet dispute of the early 1960s, however, it refused to put the Chinese point of view, and consequently lost all credibility, at a time when British interest in China was increasing. (see 'CHINA NOW' No. 51, May 1975).

In 1965 Needham became founding Chairman of the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding. This started off as a much broader organisation than BCFA and, as his inaugural address (reprinted in 'Within the Four Seas: the Dialogue of East and West' London 1969) shows, might well have remained so had China not been plunged by Mao Zedong into the Cultural Revolution.

In 1952 Joseph Needham's support of the Chinese scientists who claimed that the US had experimented with germ warfare in Korea, (vindicated many years later when American files were opened), had earned him opprobrium and some degree of ostracism in Cambridge circles. By comparison, right-wing attacks through SACU in 1965-66 were small beer; even through the difficult and painful years of the Cultural Revolution he never went back on his support of the Chinese. He spoke out against the massacres of June 4, 1989 and later, after the collapse of Soviet power, wrote 'how right the students were in wanting more democracy in China'. After all, almost 40 years earlier he had written that 'I came to the belief I now hold, that, in a sense, in any doubtful case, 'the people are never wrong; through all the ages of oppression since the first beginnings of private property men have been struggling for political freedom, and everything which assists this struggle is right.'

The contrast between Needham's breadth of vision and largeness of heart and the petty way he was treated by the orthodox is noteworthy. I shall never forget, at the launch party for the multi-volume 'Cambridge History of China', listening with growing amazement as the occasion passed without even a polite passing reference to Needham and his work, even though several volumes of this had already been published by the same press. The reasons for this were known to many at the time; a younger generation of Sinologists may find them hard to credit today.

Rationalist Anglican, Confucian, Daoist, Needham was sometimes an elusive personality. But he was often endearingly open, almost childlike. At SACU meetings, if he had nothing to say while others were discussing, he habitually corrected proofs. Nobody minded. 1 remember one afternoon 40 years ago having tea with Dophi (his wife Dorothy) in their home when he appeared in the doorway and announced 'I had a very nice time in the Library today'. Dophi did not immediately break off her conversation with me, so Joseph repeated his announcement word for word, not once but twice, before gaining her full attention. Another favourite memory of that period is of lunching in a Cambridge cafe with Joseph and the economist Sol Adler, each of them talking away to the other without stopping, and each following what the other was saying. Sol may have been the better talker; Joseph was certainly the better listener.

Joseph Needham, Christian, humanist and socialist, scientist, sinologist and historian, might well have said with the character in one of the Roman writer Terence's plays: 'I am a man and reckon nothing human is alien to me.' He was a great and marvellous human being. We shall not see his like again.

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