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Joseph Rock and Joseph Needham: Science Adventurers in the China-Tibet Borderlands

Joseph Rock and Joseph Needham
Joseph Rock (left) and Joseph Needham

The following article is developed from a talk by Dr Miles Barker to the Hamilton Branch of the New Zealand China Friendship Society on 19 May 2016. In turn his talk was based on his 2010 ‘Science Teacher’ article, “Ripping Yarns: Science in Asia“.


In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s two eccentric and colourful Western scientists pursued their work in the anarchical, war-ravaged mountainous territory from Yunnan up to Xinjiang.

Joseph Rock (1884 – 1962), a volatile and contradictory Austrian-American based from 1922 in Lijiang, mounted massive expeditions northwards in the name of ethnography. The outcome was a series of illustrated articles on Tibetan Buddhism and culture in National Geographic magazine. He also created a dictionary of the language of the Naxi cultural minority, studied the region’s botany (especially rhododendrons), and purported to have discovered the world’s tallest mountain.

Joseph Needham (1900 – 1995), known as “the man who loved China”, was a scholarly English biochemist who flew into war-ravaged Chongqing in 1943, charged with fostering British-Chinese scientific co-operation. The most ambitious of his many travels was up to the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, where the world’s oldest printed document, dating from 868AD had been stolen in 1907. He also befriended Rewi Alley in Shandan at this time. An apologist for the People’s Republic of China after World War II, he later embarked on a monumental 25-volume project at Cambridge University: documenting China’s entire scientific and technological history.

Both Rock and Needham were superb linguists who provided the West with crucial (if, in Rock’s case, sometimes macabre) interpretations of China’s intellectual and cultural achievements. Nowadays China’s own enormous scientific community carries out much of this work.

Joseph Rock – Rhododendrons, yak butter and brigands

Botanist-explorer Joseph Rock’s idea of ‘dinner in the field’ was more elaborate and less communal than that of most scientists. Wherever he found himself in the great north-south corridor of the China-Tibet borderlands – in a steamy jungle, a forest of fir trees beside a rushing torrent, on a grassy plain beneath snow-clad mountains – his expectations would be the same. A clean linen cloth on the folding table, a bottle of good wine to be served by his Naxi cook, on a gold dinner service, similar to those from his boyhood in Vienna. Later, after dining alone, Rock would relax in steamy water in his collapsible bathtub. Meanwhile, the servants attended to his personal comfort; the porters unloaded the equipment and the mercenaries took up lookout stations, guarding against brigands.

In the early twentieth century, other botanists, each with their own guarded territory, worked on the little-known flora of the China-Tibet borderlands.  However, Rock’s expeditions and his colourful personality have become part of the history of China’s south-west. His temperament was volatile; his personality deeply contradictory.  Charming in European company, he was privately perpetually lonely. He was frequently dismissive of Han Chinese culture and surprisingly obtuse about the Tibetan world, but was affectionate, if somewhat patronising, towards the Naxi minority people in the south-western province of Yunnan, Rock’s base near the town of Lijiang.  After some time in the remote borderlands, he would long to be rid of China, but back in Shanghai (or Boston or Vienna) he would be decrying ‘civilisation’ and longing for solitude.

His pioneering botany was internationally respected, but his contributions to ethnography appeared flawed because of his fascination with the macabre and the sensational.

Rock, by a combination of opportunism and bluff, suddenly became a botanist in his early twenties. Born into the lower classes in status-conscious Vienna, he had experienced an impoverished childhood, in contrast with his father’s workplace – as a steward in the luxurious home of a wealthy Polish count.   At eighteen, Joseph Rock left Vienna with no academic qualifications but having a gift for languages. (He taught himself eight languages, including Sanskrit, learning Mandarin Chinese in Vienna at thirteen.)   After visiting the United States and then out of work in Honolulu, he persuaded the Division of Forestry to employ him as a herbarium collector. Thus he charmed his way into a successful career, made possible by his orderly mind, his prodigious memory, his relentless energy for writing and exploring and his willingness to go where few trained botanists had ever penetrated.

Over the next thirty years, he shipped more than 80,000 plant specimens from the East back to prestigious institutions such as the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, Kew Gardens in London, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. He specialised in rhododendrons, had two new species named after him, and his journeys back to London, Edinburgh, Berlin and Boston kept him well informed, and enhanced his international prestige. Curiously, however, Rock never actually published any works on the botany of China.

Early in his time in China, Rock’s attention was diverted towards another discipline – ethnography. In 1924 Rock, now an American citizen, secured a lucrative contract with National Geographic Magazine and for ten years “our man in China”5 became known internationally through the articles he wrote. They contained stunning photography; Rock was taking and developing in the field the first colour photographic plates in the 1920s. Some photos illustrated Rock’s account of the production and display of the sculptured and tinted yak butter deities which formed the backdrop to the festive devil dancing at the Choni lamasery in Gansu province. However, his frequent claims to be “the first white man” to view aspects of indigenous life, or to explore a snowy peak show a Eurocentric bias. His attention was frequently transfixed by macabre and sensational details; even the titles of his articles spoke of “weird ceremonies”, “strange kingdoms”, “brigand-infested central China”, “holy mountain of the outlaws”. He dismissively treated everyday people and customs with a high-mindedness that contrasted with the attention he paid the indigenous, so-called, kings and princes of the region. Rock would often require his entourage to carry him into the approaching town in a sedan chair, in order to impress the population, especially its rulers. His attitude towards people in power was obviously reflected the way he begrudged his own lowly beginnings in Vienna.

In 1949, Mao Zedong’s newly-constituted People’s Republic of China required Westerners to vacate Yunnan province. Worn out by years of travel, and safety threats, and now by indifferent health, Rock fled from his home of twenty-seven years near Lijiang. For the next eleven years he was a perpetual migrant, always travelling, never at home. He gave up ethnography and returned to his two early interests, botany and languages. Rock died of a heart attack in Honolulu in 1962, just prior to the publishing of the second volume of a monumental and still widely revered dictionary of the language of the Naxi people.

Joseph Rock’s story reminds us that scientists are citizens too. This may become apparent when scientists become involved in public action-taking: Nobel Prize winners British crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin, and New Zealander Maurice Wilkins, of DNA renown, also devoted much of their energies towards international peace and understanding; and many climate scientists “are going out of their way as private citizens to say, ‘Wake up! This is not a good thing to be doing.’ ” And sometimes scientists’ lives as private citizens influence their specialist activities in science: the private religious views of scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin inevitably affected their professional lives. So, too, did Joseph Rock’s private inner world impinge dramatically on his public work in science.

Joseph Rock in his study at Lijiang, undated. Taken from Aris , M. (1992). 'Lamas, princes and brigands: Joseph Rock's Photographs of the Tibetan Borderlands of China.' NY: China House Gallery.
Joseph Rock in his study at Lijiang, undated. Taken from Aris , M. (1992). ‘Lamas, princes and brigands: Joseph Rock’s Photographs of the Tibetan Borderlands of China.’ NY: China House Gallery.

Joseph Needham’s great labour of love

Cambridge University historian Joseph Needham (1900–1995) is remarkable for one titanic enterprise that he came passionately to embrace: the documenting of China’s entire history of science and technology, and its contribution to world civilisation generally.  Needham’s purpose was to promote cross-cultural understanding; in attacking Western complacency, he aimed to show just how many crucial scientific advances, in fact, originated in China – the invention of printing, gunpowder and the magnetic compass are three of hundreds of examples.

Needham’s monumental labour of love comprised 18 tomes, and it is proposed that his appointees will conclude a 25-volume programme. Mainly, these volumes are a supremely important contribution to humankind. Needham’s story, one of passionate single-mindedness, rigorous scholarship, and political activism, tells us much about the proposition that science ideas are subject to change.

Many instances show that great ideas in science are replaced (for example, Newtonian physics by Einsteinium physics).  Needham’s story brings another meaning to this proposition about the nature of science – that our constructions of science history themselves change with hindsight. Science historians often are scientists themselves, and so it was with Needham.

After an intellectually stimulating but solitary boyhood in London, he embarked on courses at Cambridge University that led him into biochemistry and then embryology. In1935 he began working with the famous C. H. Waddington on one of the greatest scientific puzzles of the time: the identity of the ‘organizer’ responsible for inducing embryological differentiation. Needham’s private interests were many – this tall, bespectacled man, with a wicked grin, was also a nudist, a morris dancer, an accordion player and a chain-smoking churchgoer with a strong bent for philosophy and exploring the origins of cultures.

But Needham’s world was to take a new direction in1937, when Lu Gwei-djen knocked on his office door. A talented biochemist herself, and fleeing from the Japanese invasion of China, the 33-year-old offered to work with Needham and his biochemist wife of 13 years, Dorothy.

Soon, fascinated by the forms and mysteries of Chinese characters, Needham was begging Gwei-djen to teach him the language. Soon, Needham’s wide-ranging foray into Mandarin was causing him to fall in love, not only with the language, but also with China. Inevitably, his admiration grew rapidly for the people who, over the last 3,000 years, had made this language their cultural continuum. Needham’s newfound love of China was no passing phase, and World War II provided an opportunity to pursue this passion – he was the ideal person to become Director of the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office, in Chongqing. Needham’s plane touched down in June 1943, in what is today the world’s largest city, but what was then a place of war-ravaged chaos. Located in west-central China, Chongqing had been bombed more than 200 times in the previous three years, as the invading Japanese sought to destroy the city to which Chiang Kai-shek had moved his Nationalist government from Nanjing,14 far to the east.

Needham set about rebuilding scientific life in China by boosting morale and providing equipment and, more politically, waving the flag for Britain and establishing relations with the Chinese communists.  By the end of the war he had carried out eleven expeditions (four of them major) and had covered 30,000 miles; he had visited nearly 300 scientific institutions and he had delivered thousands of tons of equipment.  

But Needham also had a personal agenda. In 1942 in New York, he had confided in Gwei-djen his wish to one day, write a book explaining to the West just how enormous was China’s contribution to science. His official mission in China provided that opportunity and he collected thousands of documents for this purpose. One very early expedition typifies his goal: in August 1943, Needham set out from Chongqing in a converted Chevrolet ambulance for northern Gansu. Needham’s objective was to visit Cave 17, one of the 400 man-made Mogao Grottos near Dunhuang on the famous Silk Road. It was here in 1907, that an immense ancient Chinese library had been discovered, including a printed scroll that was now recognised as the oldest-dated printed book in history. It is the ‘Diamond Sutra’, printed in AD 868. In other words, printers had been at work in China six centuries before either Gutenburg or Caxton set their own first books in type in Europe. As Needham’s biographer Simon Winchester puts it (in ‘Bomb Book & Compass’), “If any one thing in all creation gave the lie to the Western notion that China was a backward country, this was it”.

Returning to Europe, Needham assisted in setting up of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – it is said that “he was instrumental in putting the ‘S’ in UNESCO” – but by 1948 his book was ready. Back in room K-I at Cambridge University (which he occupied for six decades), Needham began writing Science and Civilisation in China.

He would work non-stop until long after dark, typing everything himself. The task was massive, and its completion ever receding. Volume I appeared in1954. By the time he died in 1995 there were 18 volumes; and by 2008 the faithful inheritors of the task had completed 24 volumes, comprising 15,000 pages and three million words. It covers everything from the evolution of the most theoretical of mental models in astronomy and the nature of materials, to the invention of the toothbrush (9th century AD) and toilet paper (AD 589).  Beginning with what today would be called the pure sciences, it ranges into engineering, paper-making, ceramics, navigation, mining, metallurgy, architecture and painting.  The very titles may to us seem “lost in translation”: ‘glyphomancy’, ‘ataraxy’, ‘scapulamancy‘ and ‘milfoil lots‘.

Science and Civilisation in China has had its critics, both in terms of its scholarship and its politics. Sometimes Needham has been accused of mistranslation; ambiguous writings in the ancient Chinese manuscripts that may have been massaged into exaggerated claims for innovation in China. Other criticisms have been made about deep-seated assumptions: is ‘science’ universal, as Needham suggests, and can comparisons be meaningfully made, at all, between Eastern and Western science? Needham has been accused of being politically naive – he lent his voice to calls for an international investigation into communist accusations that American forces were using biological weapons in the Korean War, and he was consequently denounced in the British press as a traitor and a stooge. This has spilled over into hostility towards the Marxist framework he adopted in Science and Civilisation in China.

Needham’s final years were marked by huge worldwide acclaim. When Dorothy died, in 1987, he was briefly married to Lu Gwei-djen, whom he once tenderly described as “the explainer, the antithesis, the manifestation, the assurance of a link no separation can break.” Continuing to write to the end, Needham passed away in March 1995.

Joseph Needham and Rewi Alley

Miles also paid special attention to the personal bond between Joseph Needham and Rewi Alley:

Needham’s first long journey in China, in 1943, from Chongqing up to the Mogao Caves in northern Gansu Province, passed through Shuangshipu, Fengxian County, Shaanxi Province where Alley had set up his Bailie School then under threat from the Japanese invading army.  Alley hitchhiked in Needham’s converted Chevrolet ambulance for 1100 breakdown-ravaged kilometres seeking a safer location for the school.   The two men, who parted company at Shandan, Gansu province, where the Shandan Bailie School later was to be situated, became life-long friends.

Dr Joseph Needham and Rewi Alley in Beijing, 1983. Taken from the book: Anon (1988). 'Rewi Alley.' Beijing: Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, p.84.
Dr Joseph Needham and Rewi Alley in Beijing, 1983.  Taken from the book: ‘Rewi Alley.’ Anon (1988), Beijing: Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, p.84.

Miles concluded his talk with some observations about the evolving nature of  ‘friendship’, personal and corporate, with China over the years.