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China Invented Everything

New America Media, News Feature, Q & A Mary Ambrose Posted: Jul 26, 2008

Editors Note: China has long fascinated westerners, but for a time, it was considered a backward nation, good for little but silk and tea. Joseph Needham was determined to restore Chinas glory in the eyes of the west. An eccentric and brilliant scientist, Needham documented the extraordinary achievements of Chinese science, in 24 massive volumes. Needham is the subject of Simon Winchesters latest book The Man Who Loved China. This is a transcription of an UpFront interview of Winchester and NAM's Mary Ambrose.

How was China viewed by America and Europe in 1943, when Needham first went there?

With almost total disdain. The poet Emerson called it this booby nation because the country was falling apart in the 19th century. In 1840, the British went to war with the Chinese over the affair of the opium, and defeated them. They remained isolated so long because they couldnt figure out how to make proper guns. Then they had the revolution in 1911, so the empire, which had been essentially solid for two thousand years, was at an end. The country was rife with corruption, rivalry and warlords. It was a mess, and the west rightly regarded it as in a hopeless state of decay.

Because China was quite closed, it was surprising that Needham was allowed to travel so freely in China. How did he do that?

In 1940, the part of China that hadnt been occupied by Japanese, essentially, the western two-thirds of the country, was called free China. There was an atmosphere of considerable tolerance. Everyone was united, at least on the surface, in fighting the Japanese. Anyone willing to help the Chinese was welcomed as a friend. Though he did have to get a lot of passes and permits and so forth, the eleven immensely long and complicated journeys that he had to make were journeys undertaken with permission and he didnt have many obstructions, except the obstructions he had from the sensitiveness of the war and that his vehicles broke down so often.

The British also wanted him to be there, as a spy and a man of reconnaissance. He could file reports on where they could establish some kind of influence.

The British were initially neutral in this dispute between Japan and China. They wanted to help the Chinese universities because at all the great eastern universities in Beijing and in Shanghai, students and professors had fled with mules, going thousands of miles, on incredible journeys, with their textbooks and their lab equipment and so forth, to seek sanctuary in the cities of the West far from Japanese occupation. Suddenly, ancient Asian universities sprang up in Western cities, and the British thought they [Chinese] needed help. So they said, lets send Joseph Needham, he speaks Chinese, hes a scientist, to see what they need and we can fly it in, to keep Chinese intellectual life alive.

What about Needham made him able to follow this complicated winding path of discovery? Was it his facility with Chinese, his very open-mindedness, and his temperament?

All of the above. He could read, speak and write Chinese, and very capably. Also the Chinese love people who love China. And he appeared so keen to learn all the time, and so friendly and amusing and boyishly enthusiastic. And they said, to use the Chinese proverb: Joseph Needham is to us like a guy who brings fuel on a snowy evening. It is a wonderful thought.

Soon after he arrived, he was ordering a rope to wear as a scholars rope, made of silk. And he became immediately fascinated with the abacus, that they were using to calculate the price, and began thinking how old is abacus, how old is calculating machine and indeed how old is Chinese concept of number and based ten calculation and found that the antiquity of calculation and numerology was vast and probably a great deal older than Western techniques. And this really triggered the thought that maybe Chinese invented almost everything that we take for granted, far earlier than we ever did. This set him on a path of exploration. Everywhere he went he was enquiring That stirrup, did you make the stirrup first? Who made air conditioning fans? What about this device for spreading the millet grain? When was it invented? Toilet paper? He discovered that Chinese invented perfumed squares of toilet paper in the 11th century. He amassed this vast catalogue of Chinese achievements and then set about writing what it all meant.

Did nobody know about things like gunpowder and silk before?

We knew silk, ceramics, tea largely from Marco Polo, but [China] was derided to the point that this country just gives tea, ceramics and silk. And so Needham discovered, in very short order, the remark that Francis Bacon made back in the 17th century, that the three greatest inventions in human history: gunpowder, printing and the compass were all Chinese. The earliest printed book we think is Guttenberg in the 15th century. The earliest printed book, Needham confirmed, is 868 AD.

While Europe was living in huts, the Chinese invented multiple masts for posts and topographical maps; that means they could conquer the world.

Indeed. They made an attempt. One general went to Mogadishu, where he captured a giraffe and brought it back. The Emperor was terrified by its extraordinarily long neck. So he said, I dont want you to go abroad again, because these barbarians who live out there have these horrible, frightful animals. So we stop all travel, only just around the three miles and destroy boats. And that inward looking attitude dominated China for hundreds of years.

After the British lost America, Britain decided to trade with China. And the Emperor grudgingly let the British Ambassador celebrate his birthday in Burma, and give him presents. They gave him clocks. The Chinese said "We have made instruments out of brass and metals for hundreds of years." So, they said, why impress barbarians, this bunch of monkeys. We are the Middle Kingdom. They regarded themselves living in the center of the world if not universe.

In your book you suggest that the notion that Chinas lack of innovation is a blip in their history. Though after the communist revolution, not a lot on that front changed.

Indeed. Needham spent entire his life puzzling why the torch of invention has been handed to the West, why there is no Chinese Galileo, no Chinese Einstein. Ever since the Renaissance, scientific innovation had been a Western phenomenon.

There are many reasons: one is the complete unity of the country. Western Europe is various countries, which competed heavily, and competition spurs innovation. There was no competition in China and the emperor never wanted China to be an innovator. He wanted it to remain utterly stable. And with stability, came backwardness.

Mao and others were simply the emperors in different clothes. It remained united and immured in its history.

Things are changing rapidly. Although politically the brakes are still on, economically, commercially, and intellectually, freedom is trickling down. Every time I go to China, I think it is the most free, least regulated society I have ever been in. So long as you dont criticize the leadership, you can do just about anything you want. It is far freer than the United States, less regulated than United Kingdom. I think thats why the universities are brimming with ideas. The Ph.D students are coming up with innovations like never before.

Outside the Chinese space center there is huge sign in the desert in English:

Without haste, without fear, we shall conquer the world. And I think that is the new China; spurred by inventive zeal. I think Needham would have expected it and, because he loved China so much, he would have entirely approved.

Listen to Simon Winchester and Mary Ambrose on UpFront


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