Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Chinese Scientific Genius

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Chinese Scientific Genius

Article excerpt

POSSIBLY more than half of the basic inventions and discoveries upon which the 'modern world" rests come from China.

Without the importation from China of nautical and navigational improvements such as ships' rudders, the compass and multiple masts, the great European Voyages of Discovery could never have been undertaken. Columbus would not have sailed to America, and Europeans would never have established colonial empires.

Without the importation from China of the stirrup, to enable them to stay on horseback, knights of old would never have ridden in their shining armour to aid damsels in distress; there would have been no Age of Chivalry. And without the importation from China of guns and gunpowder, the knights would not have been knocked from their horses by bullets which pierced the armour, bringing the Age of Chivalry to an end,

Without the importation from China of paper and printing, Europe would have continued for much longer to copy books by hand. Literacy would not have become so widespread.

Johann Gutenberg did not invent movable type. It was invented in China. William Harvey did not discover the circulation of the blood in the body. It was discovered-or rather, always assumedin China. Isaac Newton was not the first to discover his First Law of Motion. It was discovered in China.

These myths and many others are shattered by our discovery of the true Chinese origins of many of the things, all around us, which we take for granted. It is exciting to realize that the East and the West are not as far apart in spirit or in fact as most of us have been led, by appearances, to believe, and that the East and the West are already combined in a synthesis so powerful and so profound that it is all-pervading. Within this synthesis we live our dally lives, and from it there is no escape. The modern world is a combination of Eastern and Western ingredients which are inextricably fused.

The discovery of this truth is a result of incidents in the life of the distinguished British scholar Dr Joseph Needham, author of the great work Science and Civilisation in China. In 1937, aged thirtyseven, Needham was one of the youngest Fellows of the Royal Society and a bIochemist of considerable distinction at Cambridge. He had already published many books, including the definitive history of embryology. One day he met and befriended some Chinese students, in particular a young woman from Nanjing named Lu Gwel-djen, whose father had passed on to her his unusually profound knowledge of the history of Chinese science. Needham began to hear tales of how the Chinese had been the true discoverers of this and that important thing, and at first he could not believe it. But as he looked further into it, evidence began to come to light from Chinese texts, hastily translated by his new friends for his benefit.

Needham became obsessed with this subject, as he freely admits. Not knowing a word of Chinese, he set about learning the language. In 1942 he was sent to China for several years as Scientific Counsellor to the British Embassy in Chongqing. He was able to travel all over China, learn the language thoroughly, meet men of science everywhere he went, and accumulate vast quantities of priceless ancient Chinese books on science. After the War, Needham became Unesco's first Assistant Director General for the natural sciences.

In July 1946 Needham stated in a lecture to the China Society in London that: 'What is really very badly needed is a proper book on the history of science and technology in China, especially with reference to the social and economic background of Chinese life. …

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