Olivia’s Cambridge Diary

Remembering Joseph Needham


It might seem a cliché to include a diary entry on Joseph Needham in my series on China and Cambridge University. But given how much Needham did to address misconceptions about China in the West, the timing feels strangely appropriate. In some of the European media (see WiC482) there has been a racist reaction to the Chinese triggered by the coronavirus outbreak that Needham would have recognised and regretted.

Other Cambridge dons have had a strong association with China, including the polymath Bertrand Russell (author of The Problem of China; see WiC117) and the economic historian Eileen Power (one of the women profiled in the newly published book Square Haunting).

Needham was the most influential. He died six months before I was born, but his college, Gonville and Caius, from which he graduated in 1921, is only a six-minute walk away from my own. A biochemist by training, he first became interested in China in 1937 when three scientists came to Cambridge: Lu Gweidjen, Wang Yinglai and Shen Shihchang. A budding historian himself, Needham’s interest came at a time when international perceptions of China were more conventionally associated with poverty and backwardness. Through his position as the Director of the Sino-British Science Cooperation Office, Needham counteracted that view, travelling extensively through China and collecting scientific and historical books along the way.

Needham also became acquainted with the likes of Wu Zuoren (the painter who helped to establish the giant panda as a Chinese emblem through the design of a new set of postage stamps for the People’s Republic) and Zhu Kezhen (who received his PhD in meteorology from Harvard University in 1918).

The latter sent crates of Chinese books to Cambridge, including almost 2,000 volumes of the Gujin Tushu Jicheng encyclopaedia.

I first picked up Needham’s subsequent magnum opus Science and Civilisation in China a few weeks before starting my undergraduate degree. It was my window into Chinese civilisation and has been a motivating factor throughout my studies of Chinese.

What was initially intended as a single book, commissioned by Cambridge University Press in 1948, swelled to seven volumes. And as time went on, it became apparent that many of what were originally thought of as Western inventions (gunpowder, printing, the compass and so forth) were in fact first ‘made in China’, Needham explained, upending stereotypes of his day about the Chinese.

Needham’s fundamental question, which I won’t attempt to answer here, was this: why was it that despite the immense achievements of the Chinese in former times, it was the Europeans that led both the scientific and industrial revolutions?

The publication of Science and Civilisation in China continued after his death in March 1995 – 27 volumes have now been released. Feeling nostalgic, I took an hour to visit the Needham Research Institute on my way to the University Library. There is a huge depth of primary and secondary material here, including manuscripts, maps and other items that are exceedingly rare in the West.

Curious to know how much my Chinese friends in Cambridge were aware of Needham’s impact, I asked those I saw during the week. The reaction was mixed. Some said they had heard of Needham, but the name mostly conjured up vague memories of dull school lessons in which the British academic was presented as a scholar who specialised in Chinese history. For most of my Chinese friends, the real bridge between this university and their home nation remains Xu Zhimo and his beloved poem Farewell to Cambridge, which some had learned from a young age. One friend knew it even better: her parents (who had studied at Cambridge themselves) had even commissioned calligraphy painting of the verse, which hangs in the dining room at her home.

That left me thinking about Needham and his life’s work: perhaps it still goes relatively unrecognised, both in his home nation and in China itself.

UK-born Olivia has lived and worked in China and is studying for an MPhil in Second Language Research at Cambridge.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.