The birth of the problem
In the summer of 1937, a Chinese woman named Lu Guizhen set off from Shanghai and arrived in London by boat. Lu Guizhen studies animal muscle contraction and is interested in biochemistry. On this trip, he went to the University of Cambridge to apprehend the biochemist Joseph Needham. Two young scientists accompanied her, Shen Shizhang and Wang Yinglai.
Regarding the first meeting between her and Needham, Lu Guizhen wrote in her memoirs that she was expecting an “old man with a white beard” to appear, but the one standing in front of her was “young, black-haired, The biochemist panting because of running around, wearing a white overalls with many holes, was poured acid during the experiment.” Later, Needham asked Lu Guizhen to be his Chinese teacher, and decided to learn Chinese characters from a zero foundation.
With the deepening of the understanding of these Chinese students, especially Lu Guizhen, Needham discovered that “our mastery of science and our insight into knowledge are exactly the same.” This led him to a psychic question: Why did science only originated in the West? There is also a saying that these three Chinese students asked him why “modern science only originated in Europe”. Later, he recalled that he started to write a systematic and objective monograph to discuss the history of science, scientific thought, technology and medicine in the Chinese cultural area. The question he noticed at the time was: Why did modern science only develop in European civilization, but not in Chinese or Indian civilization? This question later became a motivation for his writing of the masterpiece “Science and Civilization in China” (also translated as “History of Science and Technology in China”), and also constituted half of the famous “Needham Question”.
In the spring and summer of 1938, Needham worked hard in the biochemical laboratory during the day and stared at the dictionary intently at night. In the autumn, when he was able to use and read and write Chinese proficiently, he enlisted the help of Gustav Haron, a Chinese professor at Cambridge University. In the late autumn of 1939, “World War II” swept Europe. Before Britain entered the war, Needham had become a British celebrity and the most powerful propagator of China.
In the spring of 1942, Needham officially received a letter from the British Council to prepare him for his trip to Chongqing. Before leaving, he went to the United States and told Lu Guizhen in person about the incident. She was transferring from Berkeley to Columbia University in New York to do research. During the days when he was together in New York, he asked Lu Guizhen to give some suggestions on his trip to China.
In February 1943, Needham arrived in Kunming. He went to the Professor’s Guest House of Southwest Associated University in Beimen Street, where he met many professors who “absolutely believed in their sincerity”. His typical day is like this: giving a speech at an open-air stone forum on the campus of Southwest Associated University, visiting the instruments of the Department of Physics, going to the principal Mei Yiqi’s house for dinner; or, visiting the Institute of Chemistry of the “Academia Sinica”, and then Boating to the village by the lake for dinner. Although typhoid fever and cholera are raging, he loves everything. He can discuss the history of Chinese mathematics with Hua Luogeng, and discuss with Jing Libin how to prevent malaria. He also likes the gowns and reservedness of Chinese scholars. He went to Chongqing and Lizhuang, the Shaanxi-Gansu-Ningxia border area and southern Shaanxi, etc., to inspect various disciplines of Chinese science and technology research.
In the anti-Japanese national salvation, some Chinese scientists are actually thinking about similar questions: Why is China’s experimental science underdeveloped? Zhu Kezhen wrote in an article in 1945: “Modern material civilization in Europe and the United States was cultivated with the seeds of experimental science. The most important tool of experimental science is people’s two hands. No hands, no matter what experiment is rare. Do.” In Chinese culture, “contempt for work is a traditional concept of ancient sages”, “the one who works hard, the one who works is the one who works.”
In contrast to such reflections, Needham observed a different cross-section. In the midst of the war, he was moved by the attitude of the Chinese who still tried their best to do things in isolation. In his travel notes, he recorded the sophisticated measuring machine hidden in the cave, and recorded the use of German Zeiss lenses and imperial Griffin and Tulloc balances at a depth of 100 meters underground, and patiently doing titration, calibration and weighing. Scientists also recorded that in a jungle environment like Yunnan, scholars in the Crystal Physics Laboratory made their own quartz crystals for radio vacuum tubes and receivers, and even technicians made their own microscopes and telescopes from raw materials.
As Needham learned about Chinese society, he gradually realized that “at least there is another question that is equally important: Why did Chinese civilization acquire natural knowledge and apply it to humans from the 1st century BC to the 15th century AD? In terms of actual needs, it is more effective than Western civilization?” Needham tried to trace the origins of ancient times to find the origin of almost all inventions in China, which was something he was persistent in the rest of his life.
When visiting the “Academic Research Institute” History and Language Institute in Lizhuang, Nanxi, Sichuan in 1943, Needham raised many questions about the history of science, causing “general commotion.” According to his diary, many members of the institute dug around for interesting information they could find, “such as records of firecrackers in the 2nd century, large-scale explosions, and the edict prohibiting the sale of gunpowder to the Tatars in 1076. This is more than usual. It is believed that the West invented gunpowder two centuries earlier.” He also found evidence that China was the first country to use magnetic compasses for maritime navigation. So he further asked: Why did China have technological inventions of empirical science, but did not produce modern theoretical science? He felt that the reason why scientific breakthroughs only occurred in Europe was related to the special social, ideological, and economic conditions that prevailed during the Renaissance. The defects of the Chinese ideological and philosophical tradition alone cannot be explained. He even believes that the Chinese people’s ideological and philosophical tradition is more in line with modern science than the Christian worldview.
In 1944, Needham began to put the answers to his own questions into words. He initially thought that a book could answer this question, but eventually he continued to expand. In 1954, the first volume was published. By 1992, 15 volumes of “Science and Civilization in China” had been published, with many contributions from Chinese scholars.
However, in books written by Western scholars and writers, Needham’s image is quite controversial. His leftist position has been questioned at Cambridge University.
According to Needham’s writings, there are five main sciences passed from China to the West: magnetism, alchemy, observational astronomy, cosmology, and time measurement. In the eyes of some Western historians of science, the calm fact description is that the development of Western science has not benefited from China’s contribution as a whole. Only the Islamic world and Western Europe, two closely related scientific systems, have had fruitful interactions. Technological elements can spread widely in the ancient world, but scientific elements usually failed to do so. One fact that can show that there is a huge gap between Chinese and European science is that after Euclid’s “Geometric Yuan” in the 17th century was translated into Chinese, it has been shelved in the Royal Library.
However, if it were not for the research done by Needham, our understanding of Chinese civilization today might be completely different. When Francis Bacon referred to the compass, printing, and gunpowder as the beginning of the new scientific era, if we did not realize that they were all invented in China, Bacon would take these inventions as his own when tracing history back. Needham recreated and assembled an ancient Chinese memory palace in it, allowing alchemists and blacksmiths, surveyors and court astronomers, occult and military engineers to resurrect from the lost world.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Needham’s control over his huge Chinese science and technology work began to weaken in his later years, and critics began to increase criticism. But he worked until the end of his life, with his new doubts about China and his unchanging love.
In the early autumn of 1989, Needham and Lu Guizhen, who had known each other for more than half a century, had their wedding in Cambridge. Since the two people met in 1937, they have always been affectionate for each other. Lu Guizhen reciprocated more, she gave Needham a gift of incalculable value: China.