The Passions of Joseph Needham

It is now a little over four hundred years since a scattering of Westerners first began to try to learn the Chinese language. Across that long span, the number of scholars studying Chinese has grown, but their responses to the challenges of Chinese script have been generally consistent. Most have just slogged away, with reasonable success, and treated the task as an intellectual challenge on a par with many others. But at pretty much any period, one can trace two other groupings whose views are far more extreme. One such group contained those who came to hate and despise the Chinese language; they found it unlearnable, and grew convinced that the whole language was some kind of plot to snare the unwary, and even to drive poor foreigners mad.

The other group was composed of those whose first encounter with Chinese writing filled them with excitement and joy, and as they started to write and learn the correct strokes that composed each character, their fascination grew ever stronger. Which grouping any given seeker after knowledge might fall into was partly a matter of inclination and partly chance. One’s first teacher could kindle a passion for the language that would never fade, or could drive one forever from the flowery paths of learning.

Simon Winchester leaves us in no doubt that Joseph Needham, the subject of his latest book, was one of those who fell in love with the Chinese language. It was this love for China and its culture that came to color his entire life, and led Needham to create his astonishing and enduring study, Science and Civilisation in China. It may not be exactly true that Needham “unlocked the mysteries of the Middle Kingdom,” as Winchester’s subtitle so boldly declares, but there is no doubt that Needham was indeed a true “eccentric” and that the story of his intellectual adventuring did indeed have “fantastic” elements.

The first thirty years or so of Needham’s story, as Winchester relates it, were on a fairly predictable trajectory of British success. Born in 1900 to flamboyantly unhappy parents, Joseph Needham found ways to get the most out of his physician father and his unusual circle of friends, and was introduced at the age of nine by a friend of his father to the world of surgical procedures, operations, and anesthesia. These experiences combined with fine and personally enlightening schooling at Oundle to send him winging his way to Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge, where his love of scientific study was strengthened by brilliant and demanding teachers, who fostered his fascination with the emerging field of biochemistry. Needham was also a committed socialist, much drawn to radical Christianity, as well as an energetic hiker, a dedicated nudist, an accomplished linguist, and an impulsive womanizer.

At age twenty-four, Needham was awarded a fellowship at Caius, and married a talented biochemist, Dorothy Moyle. Five years older than Needham, Dorothy was a distinguished scholar in her own right, devoting a lifetime of study to the…

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