sexta-feira, 3 de outubro de 2008

What the West makes of Chinese science

Until fifty years ago, it was widely assumed that China had no tradition of scientific thought and innovation. Meticulous observation and reasoned deduction were taken to be European traits, as was the application of scientific principles to industrial production. The Chinese were supposed to be good at imitating, not originating; and the notion that the West’s scientific and industrial revolutions owed anything to the East’s inventiveness seemed laughable. We now know better. Ancient China’s precocity in almost every field of scientific achievement has since been acknowledged – in medicine, metallurgy, ceramics, mechanics, chemistry, physics, mathematics. Ridicule has turned to awe, tinged with trepidation.

This dramatic reversal is credited to one man, the redoubtable Dr Joseph Needham, plus a small team of devoted disciples and a monumental work of scholarship. All three provide rich matter for Simon Winchester’s Bomb, Book and Compass, while the stature of Needham’s great work may be judged by the appearance of a new volume on ferrous metallurgy, the twenty-fourth in his Science and Civilisation in China series. Fifty years since the first volume appeared, and thirteen since Needham died, the work of assessing pre-Qing China’s scientific achievement goes on. “Sci[ence] in general in China – why [did it] not develop?”, wondered Needham in an aide-memoire jotted down in 1942. Later touted as “the Needham question”, this conundrum about why so promising a tradition failed to generate its own industrial revolution has never been satisfactorily answered – by Needham or anyone else. But the idea behind it – that China did indeed once excel in science – has generated an industry of its own. Mining the world’s most richly documented culture for references to scientific and technological practice now provides employment for a host of scholars; many of them enjoy the resources on offer at Cambridge University’s specially built Needham Research Institute; and seldom has there not been a volume of Science and Civilisation in China making its stately progress across the print floor of the University Press.

For revealing how, in almost every conceivable field of scientific endeavour, the Chinese had preceded other nations, Needham was hailed as “the Erasmus of the twentieth century”, fawned on by the Left and feted by international academe. The Fellows of Caius College, Cambridge, made him their Master; Beijing, no less than Taipei, showered him with honours. Yet, boisterous and headstrong, Needham was not without his critics. Cambridge had cause to resent his long absences and reluctance to teach. Washington steadfastly refused him entry following his endorsement of Communist claims that US aircraft had dropped cholera-infected rats on North Korea. Forums designed to further the cause of international understanding were something of a deathtrap for Needham. He was hoodwinked by his Maoist friends – and by a Soviet-laid germ-trail in respect of the rats. It was not until the Cultural Revolution that his faith in Communist China began to waver. His flaws and foibles were legion, and it is these that seem to have recommended him to that connoisseur of bookish eccentricity, Simon Winchester.

Bomb, Book and Compass (these being some of the undisputed products of Chinese invention) is no more a standard biography than was The Surgeon of Crowthorne (Winchester’s book about William Minor and the OED). Instead, Winchester delivers a masterly narrative, rich in description and quirky asides, and as undemanding as it is compelling. Needham, we learn, though a distinguished embryologist, self-taught sinologist and general polymath, was susceptible to distractions. He was keen on steam engines, morris dancing, singing and swimming in the nude. A Communist in all but party membership, he yet remained a devout Anglo-Catholic; and a dedicated husband in so far as his compulsive womanizing permitted.

Nearly half of Winchester’s book is devoted to the years (1943–6) that Needham spent in China as the head of a wartime agency called the Sino-British Scientific Co-operation Office. Winchester insists it had nothing to do with intelligence gathering and was solely concerned with offering encouragement and materials to scientific institutions uprooted by the Japanese invasion. But it does seem to have involved more adventurous travel than the distribution of books and laboratory equipment strictly required. Though based in Chongqing, the capital of unoccupied China, Needham was seldom there. It was his first visit to China and would be his only extended residence in the country; he was determined to make the most of it. His three major journeys, one by truck to Gansu in the north-western desert, another by road to Yunnan in the south-west, and a third mainly by rail to Fuzhou in the south-east, were as notable for what he learned about Chinese science as for what he imparted to it. Indeed, the immense collection of books and artefacts that he brought back probably outweighed the largesse he distributed. Shipped to Cambridge, they would provide the raw material for Science and Civilisation in China and the core of the Needham Research Institute’s extensive library.

Winchester has retraced these expeditions exhaustively. He makes good use of the reports submitted at the time, and writes of China with real affection. The Man Who Loved China, which is the title of his book in the US, could as well apply to the author as the subject. But all this leaves little room for the rest of Needham’s career, which is sketched in the broadest of strokes, and none at all for the ongoing debate over the methodology of Science and Civilisation in China.

Needham’s purpose was to demonstrate not just the scale of early China’s scientific achievement, but its importance in the development of world science. Even his disciples have had difficulty with this. In his handsome contribution on ferrous technology – Part Eleven of the fifth volume, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, in Science and Civilisation in China – Donald B. Wagner dissociates himself from Needham’s faith in both “the essential virtue of Progress” and “modern natural science as a measure of historical value”. Like others, he is also unhappy with Needham’s extraction of Chinese science from its geographical, cultural and social context and his categorization of it into essentially Western disciplines – chemistry, physics, biology, etc – that were unfamiliar to the Chinese. And finally, though he wrestles with the Needham dictum that the West owed its eventual technological superiority to the East, Wagner concludes that in respect of iron, “the results are not by any means conclusive”.

Unfazed by such apostasy, Needham stuck to his task well into his nineties (he died in 1995). He devoured every available text and interrogated every known authority for the earliest Chinese references to any relevant technology. Finding that these generally predated anything in other cultural traditions, he then awarded to China a precedence based on priority and offered conjectures as to how this technology might subsequently have spread to other receptive societies. He was, in short, a committed diffusionist; he made no allowance for the possibility of independent invention and parallel development elsewhere. He also made no allowance for the profusion and antiquity of Chinese textual sources compared with those of other cultures. The doubtful nature of references to ferrous technology in, for instance, India’s historiography does not prove that this material was unknown there; witness the famous iron pillar at the Qutb in Delhi. It merely affirms the comparative paucity of the textual resources available for pre-Islamic India.

Notching up these Chinese “inventions and discoveries” and awarding to each a date based on the earliest known reference became something of an obsession for Needham. Several such listings appear in his published works and have since been adapted by admirers; Winchester reproduces a representative example. But while one can hardly quarrel with “Blast furnace – 3rd century b.c.”, “Book, printed, first to be dated – a.d. 868”, or “Crank handle – 1st century b.c.”, the whole exercise invites ridicule with the inclusion of items such as “Wheelbarrow, sail-assisted – 6th century a.d.”, “Great Wall of China – 3rd century b.c.”, or “Bookworm repellent – no date”. For reducing the painstakingly researched and elegantly written tomes of Science and Civilisation in China to the level of general knowledge trivia, Needham himself must bear much blame. But what Donald Wagner’s new volume well demonstrates is the extent to which recent archaeology, while modifying some of Needham’s conclusions, generally supports the veracity of the textual testimony and so the value of his life’s great work.

Simon Winchester
Joseph Needham and the great secrets of China

Donald B. Wagner
Volume Five: Chemistry and Chemical Technology Part Eleven: Ferrous Metallurgy

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