• Email
  • Print

A Great Explorer

Science and Civilisation in China Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part II: Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Magisteries of Gold and Immortality

by Joseph Needham, with the collaboration of Lu Gwei-Djen
Cambridge University Press, 510 pp., $35.00

The tide of printed books which floods our libraries began to rise, we imagine, around 500 years ago, when Master Gutenberg first set the Holy Bible in majestic blackletter. But there is another ocean of printed books, its shores far from most educated readers of English, Russian, or Greek. When the first Mainz Bible appeared, Chinese libraries already held editions of printed works older then than Gutenberg’s product is now. Wood blocks of whole pages cut by hand and printed on paper have made the texts of Chinese authors into a widespread literature for 1,200 years. Ambitious government-sponsored encyclopedias, and long series of classical authors carefully and uniformly edited and presented for the educated gentry, were well-known phenomena in China for more than eight centuries. Parchment was not used; and the less enduring paper was relied on there for 1,800 years, so the recorded learning of Chinese necessarily owes very much less to manuscripts than does our own. Mass production and reprinting protects the past well, but very differently from odd finds of scrolls near the Dead Sea or in the caves along the Silk Road; print has shaped Chinese scholarship for a very long time indeed.

We see a few famous texts of China from the hands of this or that Sinologist; but for every classical Book of Songs or Analects there are 10,000 printed texts from every period of China. The Imperial Encyclopedia of 1726 itself holds 10,000 chapters, many almost complete books are repeated in it; the Ocean of Jade, a thirteenth-century encyclopedia, the Taoist Patrology, a collection of 1,400 Taoist works, first printed in the early twelfth century, suggest the oddities and the richness of this treasury. Needham’s book lists over 120 such collections as references.

Joseph Needham obviously did not stand on a peak in Darien, first of all Europeans to view this other ocean. The contemporaries of Leibniz acted as our Cortez of that learning. But he is a purposeful, tireless, expressive, and perceptive voyager in the deep waters. Almost forty years ago he began an interest in China and the Chinese. He was then a well-known research biochemist at Cambridge University, already distinguished, at thirty, for his scholarship and wide philosophical interests no less than for his experiments. To his lab came three Chinese research students, one of them his present collaborator in this, the latest volume of his greatest work, a study of science and technology in that other world during a period of 2,000 years.

Dr. Lu and her friends ensnared Needham, chemist and humanist, in the thought of China. He studied Chinese with a Cambridge Sinologist until the war broke out. By 1942 he had become director of the British scientific liaison group in wartime Chungking. In 1946, loaded with books, well-traveled in China, intimate of scholar, engineer, and scientist, admirer and interrogator of many an artisan and practitioner, from kite-maker to wheelwright, he returned to his university. But he had left bio-chemistry, “seconded, as it were, to another universe.” Since then he, with a succession of colleagues, Chinese and Western, historians and specialists, all people of energy and vision, has produced his magnificent series of books. Seven big books now stand on the shelves, about 4,500 pages in thirty sections. Extrapolating from the volumes already published, in the light of the announced plan, we can expect six more books to come, another 3,000 pages, making a total of fifty sections.

What pages they are! The bibliographies alone, in three parts, old Chinese and Japanese texts, modern texts in Asian languages, and Western texts, would of themselves make a scholar’s ripe reputation. So far they amount to more than 600 pages. The learned footnotes are famous (say, on ancient skiing, or on irrigation in Ceylon) and mix insight, wit, and candor.

But the series is by no means bookish. Science and technology concern not words but worlds. They |demand study in the world itself, how things really work, what survivals remain in folk practice, in related cultures, in archaeological finds. Above all, Needham works “in the comparative spirit,” and his initial essays, now on road building—how many miles of Roman roads are there?—or again on ancient astronomy, or on sky coordinates and the story of the great masonry instruments in Delhi and Jaipur, open a remarkably valuable path into almost any domain of the field he is studying, whether it is Chinese developments or those practically anywhere else that might excite your interest. (Often there is no more accessible summary of the essential substance of some field anywhere in print than these section openings of Needham’s.)

For Needham understands a topic, or he does not write on it. He is as free as any writer can be from the limitations of symbol; his concern is with human beings, their beliefs, and the realia with which they grappled. The old Sinologists knew it was no use to translate appreciations of porcelain or cloisonné unless you were yourself a collector; the nuances go beyond any dictionaries, and the context escapes the page: “…how much more difficult to acquire an understanding of machinery, of tanning, or of pyrotechnics, if one has never handled a lathe, fitted a gear-wheel or set up a distillation.”

These books serve the eye as well. They are richly illustrated with photos and old engravings, with folk art and fine art, with maps, diagrams, flow charts, and tables. Everywhere stand the intricate characters, for no citation from Chinese is allowed to substitute transliteration for the thing itself. (Yet the text caters generously to readers innocent of any Chinese.) Here and there one finds verse, in translations often by the author; one citation from a Swahili poet illuminates contacts between the East African coast and China through the Ming. Some sections contain essays, in a polished but openly expressive style, celebratory set pieces which are welcome ornament to the meticulous weighing of evidence.

The fifth volume, published a few weeks ago, twenty years after the first, bears a subtitle whose language is as charged as any in the work. It contains one grand section, entitled Alchemy and Chemistry. The book is wide enough to include the fly-agaric in Vedic rite, the rose-pink gold sequins on King Tut’s slippers, and the wonderfully uncorrupted body of the Lady of Tai, who was interred about 186 BC and exhumed in 1972, her body resembling that of a person dead a week or two. Yet it is perhaps more unified than any previous portion of Needham’s series.

The issue in this book is alchemy. Three hopes are associated with its practice in all cultures: the faking of gold, by simulating its nature with baser mixtures, or by subtle surface treatment; the making of gold, carried out similarly, but done with the philosopher’s intent, not the counterfeiter’s, in the sure belief that “the glitter was the gold,” while the other properties, even the weight, were of lesser importance. With these metallurgical quests went a third, the search for the drug of deathlessness. This last was the specifically Chinese element; it is clear in Chinese alchemy from the fourth century BC (let us write, in Needham’s notation, the—4th century), while it enters Hellenistic alchemy, via Arabic transmission, fully by the time of Roger Bacon, +13th century. That good friar wrote: “the medicine which will remove all impurities from the lesser metals will…take off so much of the corruptibility of the body that human life may be prolonged for many centuries.”

This track is followed far indeed. Our author argues—and the marshaling of evidence, admittedly still incomplete, is a delightful tour across the millennia—that the oldest drug of deathlessness we know was the soma of the Sanskrit Vedas, the fly-agaric whose scarlet cap to this day yields the shaman his ritual ecstasies. That faith became embedded in the protometallurgy of China, on the logical basis still used by Bacon 1,500 years later. Gold was already intimately bound into the soma rites of India; it was the purest of earthly things, the semen of the god of fire. An intoxicating fragrance arose from the incense-burner of every Taoist temple in China, and the alchemical furnace seems foreshadowed in the flicker of its smoky flame.

Metallurgy and protochemistry are followed through all the ancient magisteries held in China. Needham provides a table of nearly 200 chemical substances from abraum salts to zinc sulphide, their old names, the sources of our knowledge of them, the Latin equivalents. He studies the mineral drug regimes of the worldly Chinese gentlemen and suggests how they perhaps supplied elements missing from the grain-rich diet. The ornately carved cups of yellow-orange arsenical minerals used by these men slowly dissolved over decades of use. Perhaps the ingested arsenic in fact had a prolonged aphrodisiac effect for the medieval Taoist adept, who was constrained by social obligations to maintain peace with many wives and concubines. One encounters, by the way, the demonstration that the same cupro-nickel alloy we find in our silverless coinage was first struck in Greco-Indian Bactria, 2,000 years ago, its nickel traded thence from China far across the steppe. This book is rich with strange substances and their uses, sharply seen from document and laboratory.

Finally, the discovery of the Lady of Tai proves the Taoists had something real to offer. They sought no unworldly immortality in a spiritual heaven, but a prolonged, perhaps infinite, uncorrupted floating life here, in the pure air of the mountains, or even among the stars. The first step was protection from death’s corruption. Greater adepts of the Way might eventually rise from the tomb, finally set free to travel serenely forever. (Few books can have as this one does a schematic diagram of the conceptions of immortality in the several cultures, “an eschatological balance sheet,” “one of those charts which humanists are liable to find too summary, but which it is second nature for minds trained in the natural sciences to construct.”) Death was not defeated, but the Lady of Tai gives evidence that the stories of the Taoists were not entire myth, and, as Needham observes, “adds another dimension to their doctrine of material immortality, so strange to modern minds yet so fertile historically in generating chemo-therapy through all the cultures of the world.”

Three more big sections on alchemy and chemistry remain to be issued; we await as well the feast of military technology, with gunpowder, horsearchers, crossbow, and stirrup, the key to many puzzles of European medieval history. Silk and paper are still to come, along with printing, ceramic, coal, salt. An entire volume is to deal with biology, including fermentation, agriculture, medicine, and drugs. Finally, we will receive a unifying discussion of the entire apparatus of the work and a boldly promised general conclusion.

The scholar Needham is too much the scientist Needham to forego the hope of at least a tentative conclusion, though history’s complexities transcend even those of ontogeny. It is not hard to state the problem. In +1088, when Norman rule was new in England, the great scientist Shen Kua gave in his Dream Pool Essays an unmistakable account not only of the magnetic needle but of its declination: “it always inclines slightly to the east, and does not point directly at the south.” So strongly is this observation regarded as a trophy of our Renaissance that it is generally ascribed to Columbus himself on his voyage to the New World in +1492! Mythmaking aside, such a result—“If any one text stimulated the writing of this book more than any other, this was it,” says Needham |leaves the reader in wonder. How could stable, wealthy China spin out so long a story of thoughtful keen observation and advanced technology, yet fail to nurture the roots which fed the flourishing tree of modern natural science? What was missing there that was present in Tuscany and Leiden and Cambridge and that brought forth the microscope, calculus, electrophorus, and the rest?

In the early volumes of this work a social answer seemed close at hand. (It would be the alphabet, or feudal lands, or Greek-Christian law, or….) By now the issues, as discussed in the preface to Volume 5 and around page 150 of Volume 3, look tougher. They are “going to take some explaining.” The main idea-systems of Asia seem “more congruent” to science than does even Christian theology, Needham holds. Even if we take account of internal differences in thought, it may be that the “facilitating pressures” of the transition from feudal to mercantile to industrial capitalist forms of society were after all determining of the conditions of modern natural science. These pressures were unique to the culture of Western, Frankish Europe.

Our author does not conceal his commitment to a view of history as embodying a “gradual increase in man’s knowledge of Nature.” He believes that science forms a unity into which the contributions of different civilizations “have flowed and flow as rivers to the sea,” and that human society itself is moving toward “forms of ever greater unity, complexity, and organization. We recognize these theses as our own, and if we had a door like that of Wittenberg long ago we would not hesitate to nail them to it.”

But there is no naïve progressivism in Needham. On the contrary, we sense through a thousand passages an understanding of human cultural complexity which gives value to the superstitious, the mystical, the playful, the folk wisdom, the philosophical no less than to the pragmatic or the specialized. In physics and astronomy, there is little doubt that we know more than Shen Kua, and that he would share our joy in the gain. But in medicine, say, the rivers have not yet reached the sea, and Chinese and Western medical science might, as Needham suggests, one day find a newer unity other than that which our inductivist, atomist biology would currently expect. “Wisdom was not born with us. To write the history of science we have to take modern science as our yardstick—that is the only thing we can do—but modern science will change, and the end is not yet.” What the answer will be “we do not yet know.” But it is “very likely the ultimate explanations will turn out to be highly paradoxical.”

There is a deep and tolerant love for China and the Chinese way in all that is here. It is sometimes even an indulgent one, but it never leaves Needham deaf or unfair to other airs of the grand human melody he hears. Of course so ample a work has errors; the academy has noted them. (His expertise increases as the volumes grow.) Mistakes are acceptably few, while error is not unknown even in the small texts the more lapidary Sinologists so slowly polish. One can hardly cavil at a measure of error in a wallful of unexpected big-character posters flung across the millennia, while other scholars subtly con for the tenth time the sixty pages of one important old text.

But all appraisal is secondhand, critic’s work. The point is not to assess these volumes, but to feed upon them. Each one as it arrives has been a joy and a temptation; as its wrappings fall open, any thought of other work for the day ends. Not very many readers will come to own the long and costly set, though one hopes many more will learn its value, and happily recognize that a special volume or two speaks so clearly that it demands to be owned. The polite host may properly remove tempting morsels from the dishes with his chopsticks and transfer them to the bowls of his guests. Next time you enter a library where these books stand on the shelf, try some of the disparate samples I list here for each bound book; the splendid index will unfailingly direct you to the right pages.

In Volume 1: the outline of the entire work; the real look of the karst pinnacles of the Li Valley, very much like the scroll landscape paintings; the place of jugglers, conjurors, and acrobats in the history of ideas.

Volume 2: They could burn a cock at the stake in Basel for the “heinous and unnatural crime” of laying an egg; yet such a trial would have been impossible in China. Why? The same events were noted there, classified as “green misfortunes,” and “foreboded serious harm to the rulers in whose dominions they occurred.”

Volume 3: The great gnomons of medieval China, sundials fifty feet high, their giant counterparts in India, and their antecedents.

Volume 4, part 1: How royal divination board games in old China inspired the use of the Ladle of Majesty as a divining pointer, on a bronze board marked with the star patterns. It represented the Great Dipper. When the polished spoon used was made of the magnetic mineral hematite, the Imperial magician must have come to realize that his divining images were in fact coupled with the Directions themselves! This is the wonderful prehistory of the magnetic compass, supported by documents, inferences, archaeological finds, and reconstructions. It is surely the most remarkable single chronicle in the history of physical science.

Volume 4, part 2: The prehistory of the clock, the Chinese water-driven astronomical escapements which link the devices of classical antiquity with the rise of tower clocks in Europe in the +12th and +13th centuries, a theme submerged even in China for a millennium.

Volume 4, part 3: Two navigators are compared, Henry, Prince of Portugal, and Cheng Ho, the Admiral of the Triple Treasure. Their great fleets both circumnavigated continents. The Chinese came west to Malindi in Kenya about +1420, but went little farther, for the Ming court turned away from seafaring. The Portuguese reached that same Malindi under Vasco da Gama a lifetime later, and never turned back (until this year!).

Such passages are of more immediate appeal than those one would find at random. But there are few dull pages, and no topics that the author doesn’t succeed in clarifying. The reader who will approach these books with any sympathy is fortunate: ahead of him surely lies a sense of discovery kindred to that emotion Keats so eloquently recounted when he opened Chapman’s Homer long ago.

  • Email
  • Print