As China re-emerges as a world economic power, the so-called Needham question has reappeared in contemporary form. Joseph Needham, brilliant scholar and polymath, whose 24-volume magnum opus, Science and Civilisation in China, was to transform the way that country was understood in the west, began with this question: why, given what he had discovered about the advanced technical achievements by the Chinese from earliest times until the 15th century, did China not go on to develop modern science and become a great industrial power? Today the question is posed in a slightly different form: is there a cultural or political impediment to China's becoming a technological innovator - a world leader in science?
On his death in 1995 at the age of 94, Needham had not really answered the question, beyond reaching the rather lame conclusion that somehow the Chinese had stopped trying. (If that was the case, it is certainly no longer true of this rising, striving behemoth.) But the journey on which he had embarked six decades earlier had generated a monumental work of scholarship that illuminated almost every aspect of the Chinese intellectual world.
It all began rather by accident. Needham was the bookish only son of an unhappily married physician and a temperamental Irish mother. By the age of 22 he had mastered seven languages and graduated in chemistry. He was taken on as a fellow of Caius, was swiftly elected to the Royal Society, and published a well-received book on embryology. He practised Christianity and nudism and drove a sports car.
Were it not, as Simon Winchester likes to remind us in this entertaining biography, for his fondness for women, he might have continued on this intellectual path. But he and his young wife, Dorothy - a pretty remarkable character in her own right - believed in open marriage, and when in 1937 Lu Gwei-djen, an attractive young Chinese scientist, knocked on Needham's door and asked to be allowed to study with him, she aroused in the great man rather more than intellectual interest. (With Dorothy's apparent approval, an affair began that lasted more than 50 years: after her death in 1987, Needham and Lu, both by then elderly, were to marry.)
The affair triggered an interest in China that sent Needham spinning off in a new direction. Cap tivated by the beauty of the written Chinese word, he studied the language single-mindedly and to great effect. When, in 1939, a group of British scholars received a cry for help from beleaguered colleagues in China during the Japanese invasion, Needham was chosen to go to China to establish a mission of support.
It took until 1943 to get there. China was in chaos: the Japanese were bombing Chinese universities and the Nationalist government had retreated to the far west, to Chongqing. Needham spent nearly three years travelling, meeting scientists, taking notes and arranging for laboratory supplies to be despatched from India. The observations he made and the people he met on that extraordinary first visit were to form the foundation of his work for the next six decades. He took notes on everything from plum grafting to the construction of ancient dams, dodged the advancing Japanese army, and consolidated a sympathy with China and its people that was to last for the rest of his life.
When he returned to Britain in 1946, it was to help set up what would become Unesco. But as the Cold War began, US officials considered his politics too suspect to lead such an important organisation and he returned to Cambridge to begin work on organising his material and writing in what was planned as a ten-year project.
He was not alone. Wang Ling, a Chinese historian whom Needham had met in China in June 1943, now settled in as assistant editor, and Lu Gwei-djen was to join them. Other scholars he had encountered in China sent him packages of rare material. The college, where Needham was regarded with some suspicion, nevertheless left him free of teaching responsibilities and able to concentrate on the project.
Political pressures, however, were not far away, and Needham's political naivety very nearly derailed both his career and his project when he accepted a Chinese invitation to lead a scientific delegation to investigate allegations that the United States had used biological weapons in the course of the Korean War. It was a classic propaganda exercise, in which Needham played the "useful idiot", led by the nose through a series of staged encounters and faked evidence. It left him on the edge of ostracism and disgrace. He withdrew once again into his work, until the publication of the first volume of Science and Civilisation restored his reputation.
It is difficult now to reconstruct the attitudes that Needham's work challenged. China was widely seen as the tragic remnant of a once-glorious civilisation, but its practical achievements had not been recognised by western scholars. It took a man of Needham's scientific background, combined with a stag geringly wide set of cultural references, to convince readers that Chinese development had encompassed science and technology as fully as it had arts and letters.
His intellectual fascination with his subject and his emotional enthusiasm for China never flagged. He seems to have been oblivious to the abuses of the anti-rightist movement, forced collectivisation, the Great Leap Forward and the mass starvation which followed. It was only late in life, after Mao's death and the fall of the Gang of Four, that Needham allowed doubts about Mao's China to surface.
Winchester tells the story with colourful enthusiasm and Needham is a compendious subject, sympathetically treated with the help of the scholar's copious notes, letters and diaries. He remains an enigmatic character, however, and the key figures in his life rarely acquire substance for the reader. A little more of their insight might have helped us understand the astonishing scholar who was Joseph Needham.
Isabel Hilton is an author and journalist and founder of Chinadialogue.net