Science and Civilisation in China. – Review

Science and Civilisation in China. – Review – book review

Ho Peng Yoke

Joseph Needham. Science and Civilisation in China VI.6 edited by N. Sivin, xviii, 261 pp. 10 illus., 3 tables, Bibliographies, Index. Cambridge University Press, 2000, ISBN 0521 63262 5

Acting as editor, Sivin has selected five `essays’ of moderate length out of Needham’s own MS for this sub-volume. These `essays’ are entitled (a) Medicine in Chinese culture; (b) Hygiene and preventive medicine; (c) Qualification examinations; (d) The origin of immunology and (e) Forensic medicine. To these the editor has contributed a substantial Introduction and an Appendix to an `essay,’ besides incorporating his personal interpretations to elucidate Needham’s text.

Those who are acquainted with other volumes of Science and Civilisation in China must be taken by surprise at the thinness of the present volume by comparison. Needham’s volume on Chinese medicine had been long awaited and many hoped that it would surpass his work on the history of Chinese science because of the expertise of Needham and Lu in biochemistry and nutritional sciences which are more closely related to modern medicine than the physical sciences. Explanations are given by the series editor Christopher Cullen and the (volume) editor Nathan Sivin. But further explanation needs to be given.

The difference of approach in the study of the history of Chinese medicine between the editor and Needham manifests itself in the book. Needham had already pointed out in 1974 in SCC V.2 xviii ff and yet again in 1976 in V.3 xx ff that there was never complete uniformity of views between himself and his `collaborators,’ citing Sivin as a case in point. It is interesting to read in the Introduction about this divergence in approach to the study of the history of science and medicine in China between Needham and one whom he introduced as his `third collaborator’ in SCC V.2 xviii.

Sivin’ s introduction says, “Lu and Needham intended to write a comprehensive survey of medicine’s many aspects, to become part of Science and Civilisation in China. They wrote a number of important essays, mostly between 1939 and 1970, toward this overview … By now a growing band of able scholars, most of them just beginning their careers, have reconnoitered some of the questions and have blazed several promising trails. The work of Lu and Needham inspired many of these newcomers. Nevertheless, as Science and Civilisation in China nears completion, we have had to face the fact that in the near future no one is yet ready to survey the whole of medical history in a way that will meet the high standards of the series … “

Needham had left it too late, in spite of continuous reminders from Lu. He only began to put his act together after the publication of the Gunpowder Epic volume and the botany volume in 1986, at a time when his attention was diverted by the building of the Institute that bears his name, and by the illness of his first wife Dorothy. Alas, time and tide wait for no man. Age and infirmity gradually crept in and Needham found himself facing a serious obstacle when he attempted to go through the recent literature on the subject. There is some irony in this. It was partly caused by his inspiring so many newcomers to the subject. That did not make it any easier for him because of the new approach they took in their study. By 1990 when I came to the Needham Research Institute Lu rarely came to work in her room in the Institute other than when joining Needham there occasionally for lunch. No one can blame her for losing her application at the age of 85. She died in 1991. Yet Needham, four years her senior, pushed doggedly on. At his advanced age he could have let it go, but his love for Lu and not wishing to let her down spurred him on. The completion of the draft of this book and the attendance at the Lu Gwei-Djen Memorial Symposium in 1995 fulfilled his last wishes.

In 1990 Needham told me about trying to review the works of Unschuld, Sivin and Porkert and how he found himself heavily involved. It seems rather ironical here that at the end Needham himself turned out to be the object of review by Sivin. Needham’s approach may not be fashionable today, according to Sivin, but it was this approach that had gained him recognition in the professional world of modern medicine. In the early 1980s the prestigious Royal College of Physicians elected him Honorary Fellow. After Sivin’s effort to make the volume acceptable to modern scholars with the cultural approach, this book should interest all readers. Those who wish to read more about what Needham had written on Chinese medicine are warmly referred to Lu & Needham (1980), Celestial Lancets (Cambridge). Let the cultural study of the history of Chinese medicine bloom, and let us also continue to try to understand Needham’s aspiration to show the unity of medical science across cultures.

Ho Peng Yoke, Ph.D., D.Sc.

Director, the Needham Research Institute

Cambridge, England

COPYRIGHT 2000 Institute for Advanced Research in Asian Science and Medicine

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group