‘Invention ceased to be held in esteem and so it atrophied’ – Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China

bombbookcmpassWhy, you might think, write about a man who wrote a book.  What could possibly be interesting about that? The book he wrote, after all, is fairly obscure, contains no raunchy sex scenes, or indeed any plot. The writing style is clear rather than provocative, and it is long: 24 volumes, and still not finished. The title of this burgeoning little monster is ‘Science and Civilisation in China’, and at £120 a volume is unlikely to trouble the compilers of any best seller list soon. Yet the book is important – one of the most important books in the English language – and the life of the man who wrote it weirdly fascinating. 

Joseph Needham was eccentric. He liked his toast black because he believed this to soak up toxins from his digestive system; he was an ardent communist and preacher at his local church; a nudist; enjoyed a little masochistic sex; an eminent biochemist; married, but in the ‘open’ sense; manipulative, and his formative moment came in 1937 when he met a young Chinese student called Lu Gwei-Jen and fell in love. He not only became besotted with Lu Gwei-Jen but with the country she came from – China. 

Just at that time China was being invaded by the Japanese and their academics were being forced westwards, taking sanctuary in towns and villages. Even though they were unequipped, they endeavoured to carry on their research. When this eastern war became subsumed into the second world war the British government were determined to help and Needham was dispatched from Cambridge to provide moral support and also determine how these scientists could be helped. It was a dangerous mission, and just getting there took a couple of months. Even so, Needham was delighted. He toured the vast country enthusiastically, his journal recording how he found the scientists doggedly continuing with their work under the most difficult of conditions. But from the first day a realisation and then a question began to dominate his thinking: the Chinese had clearly invented many things that were commonly held to be inventions of the west. Not only that but these inventions: paper, the printing press, gun powder, the compass and the spinning wheel, for instance, predated inventions in the west by hundreds of years. But then everything stopped. From about the 1400s the west took over, and scientific thought in China seemed to stagnate. Why?

From Needham’s journals Simon Winchester shows that it was this question that drove him to devote the rest of his life to investigating the history of Chinese culture. At the end of the war he ensured that both his wife and mistress joined him in China with positions he had found for them (an example of nepotism that justifiably annoyed co-workers) and after they returned to Cambridge the college’s requirement for him to do any teaching was waived so he was free to write a book aimed  not at the Sinologists or general public ‘but to educated people who are interested in the history of civilisation as a whole’.

This was how he spent the rest of his life: devoted to the book, assisted by his mistress (who he eventually married in 1989 after his wife had died) and other loyal followers. It was a charmed existence; even after attracting some ire for his support of the Chinese communists and Chairman Mao he was soon rehabilitated and accepted. Eventually he became the master of his college, and even after he had officially retired continued to be pampered by the place. 

But what of the books themselves? Well, I have read one and it was clear, readable and interesting. But most importantly, it was unique. The information there does not seemed to be repeated, in English, anywhere else. The scholarship and dedication remains impressive. 

And what of the question? Sadly, Needham didn’t come up with a definitive answer – but Simon Winchester believes that he came close. It is to do with the huge state of China, its lack of wars, its stability and bureaucracy. Around 1400 China became bureaucratic. The dream of every intelligent young person was to become a civil servant. Invention ceased to be held in esteem and so it atrophied. And it is this point that is, perhaps, one of the most interesting features of Winchester’s book of a book. Along the way the reader somehow ingests a knowledge of China. The character of the place comes through. Over the last few centuries China hasn’t really been trying, but just recently it has and the result has been incredible. Research and scientific discovery is important, and China is again making new discoveries. Like Needham it is persistent and brilliant – and the rest of the world better watch out. 

Any Cop?: I should say so. Essential reading for anyone who wants to be inspired and learn about the inscrutable kingdom of the east.


Clare Dudman


  1. Interesting review, Clare–you make Winchester’s account of Needham’s life seem fascinating, as well as his idea of making a book about a book. And Needham’s almost-diagnosis–atrophy by civil service–is a good cautionary tale.

  2. Thanks Marly, yes – that’s seems to be exactly what it was by this account. The Chinese are coming out of it now, though – just as we maybe go blindly in…

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