Needham Legacy and China’s Genius

Last week, Singapore’s Centre for Chinese culture, the Chinese Heritage Centre, opened at Nanyang Technological University. It is to be a place for all things Chinese-history, language, culture, the arts and overseas Chinese. But several years ago, two Singaporeans were already involved in the setting up of a centre for Chinese culture, far beyond the country’s shores.

In 1984, when funds were being raised for the Needham Research Institute (NRI) Cambridge, two Singaporean organisations dug deep into their pockets. Mr Tan Chin Tuan, the then OCBC chairman, donated 350,000 GBP (equivalent to S$1 million in 1984), which was about one-third of the total building cost. Mr Lee Seng Gee, the Lee Foundation chairman, agreed to give an annual grant of 5000 GBP, which is still being awarded to this day. The two must have had a vision of the worth of such an institute. For the NRI, opened in 1987, is now one of the world’s top three centres for Chinese science and technology. The other two are in Beijing and Kyoto. As a mark of appreciation, the NRI board of trustees named the library block after Mr Tan. The institute was named after Joseph Needham. He was a scientist, scholar and a world-renowned authority on the history of Chinese science and technology. He died in 1994 at age 94.

What he is best remembered for is his monumental work, Science and Civilisation in China (SCC), a labour of love that lasted 47 years. Covering more than 3000 years of Chinese science, its first volume was published in 1954 by Cambridge University Press. Conceived originally to be a single-volume publication, it will now run to at least 25 and will be completed by Needham’s team of collaborators.

When he first embarked on the SCC, many among the older generation of sinologists were convinced he would fail. China’s contribution, they said was not in science and technology. This was felt to be the preserve of European civilisation. China’s contribution was in other areas, such as the arts and philosophy, they said. How wrong they were.

One after another, Needham and his team were able to uncover evidence of inventions and discoveries recorded clearly in some long-forgotten Chinese literature, archaeological finds or visual works of art. The Chinese were using these inventions, such as a move-able printing device, long before Europeans.

In fact, Needham was fond of telling this story: Francis Bacon, the great 16th century English statesman and philosopher, singled out three inventions which he believed had done more to change human history than any other scientific discovery, religion or military achievements. His choices: paper and printing, gunpowder and the magnetic compass. He died without learning that the Chinese had invented all three.

For over 40 years, the SCC series has received world acclaim and been hailed as a classic. The Guardian newspaper’s obituary on Needham said: “It is not merely the standard history of Chinese science but the most important Western work on Chinese culture produced in the 20th century. It is also with E.H. Carr’s History of the Russian Revolution, the most significant work of history of any culture produced by an English historian since Gibbon”.

Needham’s next ambition was to build the East Asian History of Science Library in Cambridge. His many books on Chinese culture, science and technology and medicine together with books for the SCC project, would form the nucleus of its collection. In 1969, the library occupied its first address, a three-storey Victorian house donated by Needham himself. But to build a new library 1 million GBP was needed that year, 1983.

The same year, Needham came to Singapore to give a public lecture at the National University and looked for financial support. He was introduced to Mr Tan and Mr Lee by a long-time friend, Professor Lam Lay Yong of the NUS Mathematics Department.

Since its founding, the NRI has lived up to Needham’s vision of providing a home for scholars interested in East Asian science and technology.

In 1988, when he was 87, he relinquished the directorship to Professor Ho Peng Yoke, a historian of Chinese science of international standing and a former senior academic staff member of the then University of Malaya in Singapore.

But until shortly before his death, Needham continued to work at the NRI on the SCC project, as he had done for 47 years.


Chinese Gave World Money and Maths

Besides Francis Bacon’s pick of the world’s top three inventions-paper and printing, gunpowder and the magnetic compass-almost everything one can think of owes its genesis to Chinese science and technology.

To name a few: decimal mathematics, paper money,umbrella, fishing reel, wheelbarrow, multi-stage rocket, gun,underwater mine, poison,gas, parachute, mechanical clock, hot-air ballon, manned flight, brandy, whisky, chess and steam engine.

Without the import of Chinese knowledge of nautical and navigational improvements such as the ship’s rudder, magnetic compass and multiple mast, the great European voyages of discovery would not have been possible.

Without the moveable printing device, Europe would have had to rely on hand-copied books, thus delaying the spread of literacy.

More surprisingly, it was the Chinese , not Isaac Newton, who discovered the First Law of Motion-the principle that a body at rest or in motion will remain that way.

If the Chinese were so advanced, how is it that they are not now centuries ahead of others in scientific achievements? And why did the scientific revolution happen in Europe?

Joseph Needham called this the $64,000 question, which will be answered in the concluding volume of the Science and Civilisation in China when it is published. Part of the answer, he said, lies in the different feudalism in China and Europe.

“Modern research is showing that the bureaucratic organisation of China in its earlier stages strongly helped science to grow; only in later ones did it inhibit further growth and, in particular,prevent a breakthrough which has occurred in Europe.”

Dedication to Monumental Project

Born in 1900, Joseph Needham was the only child of a Harley Street specialist-father and musician-composer mother. He studied medicine in Caius but switched to biochemistry. In 1931, he published an important three-volume work, Chemical Embryology, and three years later the definitive History of Embryology.

In 1937, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, the highest honour for a British scientist. His biochemist wife, Dorothy Mary Moyle, was also an FRS. That year proved to be a turning point for Needham. Three Chinese scientists came to Cambridge to do research for doctoral degrees and became his close friends.

By 1940, they were convinced they had to do something to document the history of Chinese science, technology and medicine. As Needham’s interest deepened, he was invited to China, as a Royal Society envoy, and was appointed scientific counsellor at the British Embassy in wartime capital, Chongqing. He met Chinese scientists and educators and was able to study China’s culture and historical development.

After a two-year stint in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural organisation (UNESCO), he returned to Cambridge in 1948 and began work on Science and Civilisation in China. Its first volume was published in 1954.


About the Writer

The writer, a lawyer, is deputy chairman of the Singapore Science Centre and a member of the Substation management committee.

(The above article was published by the Singapore Straits Times on 26.5.1995)


Lam Pin Foo

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