The Man Who Loved China
Joseph Needham and the Making of A MasterpieceBook - 2008
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…over the aeons the Chinese had amassed a range of civilizing achievements that the outsiders who were to be their ultimate beneficiaries had never even vaguely imagined. The three inventions that Francis Bacon once famously said had most profoundly changed the world — gunpowder, printing, and the compass — Needham found had all been invented and first employed by the Chinese. And so, he discovered, were scores of other, more prosaic things — blast furnaces, arched bridges, crossbows, vaccination against smallpox, the game of chess, toilet paper, seismoscopes, wheelbarrows, stirrups, powered flight.
“Never go upstairs empty-handed,” his father used to say. ”Never have three helpings of anything. Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today. More flies are caught by honey than by vinegar.”
Chongqing was one of the country’s three “ great furnaces
She was named Lu Gwei-djen, and she was Chinese, born thirty-nine years before in the city of Nanjing, and a scientist like himself. They had met in Cambridge six years earlier, when she was thirty-three and he was thirty-seven and a married man. They had fallen in love, and Dorothy Needham, to whom Joseph had at the time been married for more than ten years, decided to accept the affair in a spirit of intellectually tolerant and fashionably left-wing complaisance.
By the 1920s, when Chinese warlords were battling furiously with one another, when millions were dying in an endless succession of civil wars and millions were suffering from poverty of a kind that was hard to imagine elsewhere, the country was widely regarded by most outsiders with a mixture of disdain, contempt, and utter exasperation...
The Yellow River, the Huang He, is yellow because it tears away from its banks a huge amount of this rich soil — 1.5 billion tons each year — and carries it unstoppably down to the sea. This is the muddiest river in the world, thirty-four times as muddy as the eau de Nil – colored Nile. The mud, say many Chinese, is China. The Huang He has long been known as “ China’s sorrow ” because the river is tearing out China’s heart and pouring it into the ocean.
The soil — fine, friable, and easily plowed — is known as loess and was so named in Germany, where geologists first noticed it. The common belief is that it is the windblown relic soil of the last great Ice Age. It is thick and extensive — loess deposits are found all over central Europe and central Asia, in vast tracts of northern China, and in the central plains states of America. It is much loved by farmers, being defined by one Victorian as “ a loose light soil of prodigious fertility, and the joy of the agriculturist.”
There are maybe 500 Chinese Bactrians in the world, the innkeeper said, most of them living and working in this lonely part of Gansu province.
Of the three cave sites, by far the largest and most important was a cliff, one and a half miles long, at Mogao. Wandering monks began incising caverns into the soft sandstone cliffs of Mogao and in neighboring valleys during the fourth century, and by the time the last cave was dug in the fourteenth century, more than 700 had been created — some as small as coffins, and made for sleep and shelter ; others many stories high, containing gigantic statues of the Buddha, and used for worship and salutation.
Heaven has five elements, first Wood, second Fire, third Earth, fourth Metal, and fifth Water. Wood comes first in the cycle of the five elements and water comes last, earth being in the middle. This is the order which heaven has made. Wood produces fire, fire produces earth ( i.e. as ashes ), earth produces metal ( i.e. as ores ), metal produces water ( either because molten metal was considered aqueous, or more probably because of the ritual practice of collecting dew on metal mirrors exposed at night-time ), and water produces wood ( for woody plants require water ). This is their “ father-and-son ” relation. Wood dwells on the left, metal on the right, fire in front and water behind, with earth in the centre. This, too, is the father-and-son order, each receiving the other in its turn. Thus it is that wood receives from water, fire from wood and so on. As transmitters they are fathers, as receivers they are sons. There is an unvarying dependence of the sons on the fathers...
But the founding of cast iron marked only the start of China’s remarkable metallurgical progress. By the second century BC foundry workers were managing to produce a much more malleable and less brittle version of the metal, which today is called wrought iron, doing so by way of a process to which they gave the culinary term chao, since it involved “ stir-frying ” the molten mass very slowly for hours at a time, to remove the excess carbon. Contemporary ironworkers would call the technique puddling. To further strengthen the puddled iron — which could be used by a blacksmith to make such things as stirrups and swords — some Chinese engineers of 2,000 years ago reintroduced a very carefully calibrated amount of carbon by hammering particles of it into the metal surface, producing a kind of crude steel.
Chains also meant chain suspension bridges, aeons before western suspension bridges were first made. Many of these Chinese bridges also remain today — the most famous being the nearly legendary Luding Bridge, which was built in 1701 across the Dadu River in Sichuan.
Depending on the way the arithmetic is done — and considering only the most intellectually fertile phase of China’s history, between the Han and the Ming dynasties — Needham pointed out that in every century the Chinese dreamed up nearly fifteen new scientific ideas — a pace of inventiveness unmatched by the world’s other great ancient civilizations, including the Greeks.
Three hundred years before the Italians copied it, entirely thanks to the close observations of Marco Polo, this one type of Chinese bridge was to have an influence on communication and architecture like few others. The principle behind the bridge was first established in the seventh century by a northern Chinese engineer, Li Jun. Li had built many ordinary arch bridges — like those built by the Romans as early as the first century after Christ — but he realized that a bridge incorporating only the very top of a circle into the arch could be stronger, lighter, and more enduring than a tall, stone-hungry semicircle-arch bridge. He began experimental constructions at the end of the sixth century, and his first completed and truly segmented arch bridge, more than 120 feet long, was thrown across a river in Hebei province outside Beijing. It is still standing today — 1,400 years after its construction in AD 605, and after centuries of floods, battles, and earthquakes.
Two weeks later, in Moscow, Lavrenty Beria — who had almost certainly been involved in Stalin’s murder the previous month, and was now jockeying ( in vain ) for power against the allies of Khrushchev — was informed by a senior official in the KGB that Soviet agents had helped spread false stories about American efforts to disseminate smallpox among the North Koreans. Moreover, all the allegations that had been made around the world about the use of bacteriological weapons in China and the north of Korea had been invented either in Beijing or Moscow —
The Presidium declared that the invention of these stories about the Americans ’ use of germ weapons had in fact done the Soviet Union great diplomatic damage — clearly Moscow thought that few in the West actually believed the stories, and that Needham’s mission had in fact been either widely discredited, or ignored.
In 1942 — when he jotted down “Sci. in China — why not develop? ” — the West was prejudiced against China for all the old, well-known reasons. China was thought to be backward, cruel, rigid, a place cut off from what Hegel had termed the world spirit. The prejudice was really quite simple, based essentially on racial dislike, fear, and cultural arrogance. Political ideology played little or no part in the antipathy: the Chinese were disdained because they were Chinese.
There was thus a second reason for loathing China. Old-fashioned prejudice had now been joined by vehement anticommunism, a strident antipathy to Mao, to Zhou Enlai, and to their revolutionary cadres. Anyone supporting Red China was now seen as innately hostile to America. Supporting China had long seemed merely eccentric and wrongheaded. Supporting Communist China was, on the other hand, downright treachery.
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