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…

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