Joseph Needham's speech at the Inaugural Meeting of the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding 15th May 1965.

Friends: It is a great honour, as well as a pleasure, for me to be asked to open this meeting today, designed to set on foot an organisation for fostering friendship and mutual understanding between the British and Chinese peoples, on a far broader basis than hitherto. The stature and magnitude of Chinese culture, the way of life of nearly a quarter of the whole human race, is today, as the Times has recently said, a dominant fact of international relationships which has to be reckoned with. China is no longer something quaint, something archaic, unimportant and irrelevant.

The event reported in this morning’s papers - the second Chinese nuclear test - is witness to this. Largely by their own efforts the Chinese are raising their standard of life to a proper level. They have thrown off the inhibitions of their traditional social forms, and are taking a place on the modern world stage which will be second to none. An immense reservoir of talent has been released; it will make an enormous contribution to world civilisation. China can no longer be for some “some little country far away about which we know nothing”, for in these days of air communications China is only a dozen hour’s flying time away. Neighbours need to be good friends. The smaller our world becomes the greater is the urgency of mutual understanding of the peoples and their cultures.

The keynote of what I have to say today may perhaps be found in that phrase which was used by Andrea Corsali when he wrote from China in A.D. 1515 to Lorenzo de Medici saying that the Chinese were “of great skill” and “di nostra qualità” - of the same culture as ourselves. It is interesting to note that this had been appreciated by the Chinese too, more than a thousand years earlier, when the author of the ‘Weilüe [Wei Lueh]’ wrote in the 3rd century A.D. that “the people of DaQin [Ta-Chhin] (that is the Roman Empire) are tall, upright in their dealings with us Chinese, but wear a different dress”. Again, when Vasco da Gama had rounded the Cape of Good Hope and arrived with his crews on the east coast of Africa, they heard that fair-skinned mariners had been there long before, and indeed it was true that the Portuguese of 1496 had been anticipated by Chinese fleets and merchants during the previous couple of centuries. The great poet Luís de Camões in his epic Os Lusíadas wrote concerning the Arab pilots who gave this news:

“In the Arabick Tongue (which they speak ill,
But Fernand Martyn understandeth though)
They say, in Ships as great as those we fill,
That sea of theirs is travers’t to and fro,
Even from the rising of the Sun, until
The Land makes Southward a Full Point, and so
Back from the South to East: conveying, thus,
Folks of the colour of the Day, like Us.”

In my own personal experience I have lived through the same discovery that these others made so long before. During the thirties I was fortunate enough to win the friendship of some of the Chinese scientists who came to Cambridge to work for their research degrees, and so it was that I took up the study of the language and the culture, in the first place quite as a hobby. My own experience with them, and with the hundreds or even thousands of Chinese whom I subsequently met, convinced me that the more I got to know them the more exactly like myself I found them, allowing always of course for the refreshing difference of cultural tradition. And so it came about that when in 1942 I found myself at Kunming in south-west China entrusted with a mission of scientific and technological liaison between the Chinese and the Western Allies, I immediately found myself completely at home in the laboratories of the Chinese colleagues, men like Thang Phei-Sung; Ching Li-Pin and Wu Yu-Hsun, evacuated as they were to country the about this second wartime capital. In a word, the more you got to know the Chinese the more you will like them.

One must always remember however that China is not simply a different country from our own, like Rumania, for instance, of the Argentine, but a basically different civilisation. There is thus a greater gulf of fundamental assumptions to be bridged, as well as all the fascinating differences that arise in philosophy, art, landscape, religion, customs, and so on. This requires a real effort towards understanding, the very purpose of our new Society. The intense feeling of unity which I have mentioned arise perhaps especially naturally in the relations between scientists or mathematicians or engineers but I believe that everyone in their way can share this, whether architects or dockers, farmers or physicians, and for this reason alone I am convinced that far more personal contacts are necessary and urgent between these civilisations.

There are many ideas in the Western mind about Chinese people and their culture, and there is no time to discuss them much today. I should like to refer, however, to what in my own mind I think of as the ‘Whopping Lie Department’. “All Chinese are inscrutable”, “Chinese people look exactly alike”, “Chinese names all sound the same, and no one can remember them”, “you can never tell what they are thinking or what they intend” - all these belong to the category which Claude Rey has so well called “the iron curtain of false enigma”. It is variously said that the Chinese have consisted only of peasants and craftsmen, that they never had any science, they knew nothing of formal logic, they had no historiography, they possess no sense of time, they have never been curious about the works of Nature or the cultures of other countries. I suppose that all this nonsense can only be overcome by effort ever-renewed, by personal contact, by the generation of symphony, in a word by friendly acts of mutual recognition, of equality of dignity, as in the quotations with which I began.

Worse than the ‘Whopping Lie Department’ is the ‘Plausible Half-Truth Department’, because its pronouncements don’t always sound as ridiculous. Half-truths often arise from a failure of historical perspective and this has got to be corrected too. As an example one might take a recent television programme which purported to be a humanistic and sympathetic account of the Chinese in Hong Kong; perhaps it was intended as a joke, but it could very easily be misunderstood as a piece of racialism when the programme was said to be “confirmed to people who know that they are the superior race on earth, because they were born Chinese”. Now there is a sense in which the Chinese have had a superiority complex, if I may call it such, instead of an inferiority complex; actually they had both at once. The prestige of Chinese humanistic culture was so great that it overshadowed all the other cultures of the East Asian geographical area. But at the present day the Chinese are, in my opinion, among the most internationally-minded people anywhere on earth. Even in the remotest parts of the country the people know the sufferings of the days of imperialism and colonialism, and everywhere they have a deep and real sympathy with the people throughout the world who are trying to liberate themselves today from those conditions.

Another example might be taken from the growth of humanitarianism. The expression “Chinese tortures” has become proverbial, but in fact it dates only from the early decades of the 19th century, the time of the Opium Wars, when expanding capitalism and commerce were battering at the seaward gates of China. If you go back to the early 16th century, when the first Portuguese traders arrived, you get an entirely different picture. Instead of exclaiming at the barbarity of punishments (which were like those of Europe) and the inadequacies of the magistrates the Portuguese were never tired of singing the praises of the laws and government of China; and they knew what they were talking about because quite a number of them saw the inside of Chinese prisons. Coastal trading was then under government supervision and they freely broke the rules of it. Now of course the Chinese are just as humanitarian as anyone else. Thus something had happened in those 300 years to hold back China to the Middle Ages while Europe went ahead in to the modern world. One may ask what this was?

It was of course the fact that modern science grew up in Europe, and in Europe alone, modern science with all the technology and ideology which flowed from it. I am sure that the growth of humanitarianism was connected with this growth of science. People who say that the Chinese had no science are again talking nonsense because they have no historical perspective. Between the 1st and the 15th centuries A.D. Chinese science and technology was often ahead of Europe. They had a lead of thirteen centuries, for example, in the art of making cast iron, and some six centuries in the invention of the mechanical clock. Wisdom was therefore not born with us, as Europeans so commonly assume. The point is that China went on her slow upward way without the vast upheavals of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the rise of Capitalism, out of which modern science came into being in the West. If people would only read a little more history they would not talk (as they sometimes do) about the Asian peoples as stealing away the results of modern science from those who were its real creators. Modern science began in Europe in the time of Galileo, it is true, but all the nations and the peoples have contributed to science as such, the foundations on which the men of the scientific revolution built, and here no people were more outstanding than the Chinese.

By a parallel train of thought it is often said that China is now “Westernising” herself. This conception is used freely even by some very learned men, but I think they are deeply mistaken. To the term “modernisation” I should not object, but I believe that the age-old traditions of Confucianism and Taoism are still now, and always will remain, the background of Chinese mentality as Christianity does of our own mentality in the West. Particular play is made with the idea that China has taken as her chief inspiration from the West the philosophy of Marxism, something which germinated, it is maintained, only a stone’s throw from here in the British Museum Library. People who say this simply could not be more wrong. The perennial philosophy of Chinese culture was from the beginning an organic materialism which left very little place for idealistic systems. In my view the leading philosophical thinkers of China throughout the ages would have welcomed dialectical materialism most warmly if they had known of it, and would have regarded it as an extension of the characteristic Chinese mode of thought. Indeed, there is some historical evidence for the view that the ideas of Chinese organic materialism entered European thinking by the intermediation of the Jesuit Mission in the 17th century, bearing fruit in the West from Leibniz onwards. So it was not in the least surprising that the Chinese intelligentsia adopted dialectic materialism with such unanimity.

Besides what we have already said, there is also of course the ‘Department of Blind Ignorance’. Yet there are certain things that it is really urgent to understand about China and to make better understood. As I have already indicated, there was no indigenous development of capitalism in that civilisation. There was therefore no obvious reason in the present century why China should go through all the stages of capitalist development. Capitalism was something essentially foreign which the Chinese themselves had not generated, did not understand, and came to want less and less. In the twenties therefore it was natural that there should be much discussion about whether China would not be better advised to go straight to a socialist organisation of society. Indeed one could almost subsume the whole of Chinese history in this century by saying that it was the gradual but irrevocable decision of this vast people to omit the capitalist phase of economic development and pass straight to socialism and ultimately communism.

Here again it is extremely important that Westerners should understand how different Chinese feudalism was from Western European feudalism. Instead of the hereditary aristocratic principle which we had, the Chinese had a different form, which may be described as bureaucratic. China was governed by a non-hereditary élite, the mandarinate in fact, whose world view differed deeply from those of the aristocrat and of the merchant. The “carrière ouverte aux talents” was a Chinese invention, not a French one. There is a certain philosophical likeness between the government of China today and the government that China has always had, while of course the fundamental aims of imperial government and of contemporary socialist government are utterly and irrevocably different.

If there was relatively little idealistic metaphysics in China, at the same time there was little transcendental religion. The Tao of the Taoist was immanent, the way of the sage Confucius was incarnate in human society - even in Buddhism there was no divine creator or law-giver. Was it not perhaps for these reasons that China shows throughout her history almost no persecution for religious opinions? Surely there is a very significant fact to compare with our own abundance of martyrdoms, and the activities of the Holy Inquisition. I believe this sort of thing has much to do with the immense emphasis placed on persuasion in the China of our own time. In the “leading with an open hand” as John Gray has well said, we are seeing “the ideals of the first Communist leadership to have had a Confucian education”.

Of course one could go on indefinitely on these lines. One might refer to what I call the ‘Random Phrase Department’, the picking out of isolated aphorisms and the drawing of conclusions from them. If a famous Chinese writer makes the “off the cuff” remark that the Chinese either enslaved or fought foreigners and never attempted diplomacy, he must not be quoted in isolation, for the notion is historically indefensible. Embassies were coming and going throughout Chinese history from the time of the Huns in the 2nd century BC to that of the Jesuits and Russians in the 17th. Indeed we owe to the diaries of these envoys many a precious piece of information about the neighbouring countries of Asia during the Middle Ages. Similarly another Chinese writer is quoted as having said on one occasion that the Chinese always treated foreigners either as animals or overlords and never as friends; but this was a Shavian provocation which all history denies. Indeed there were times for instance during the Tang period, when exotic foreigners of every kind, the Nestorian priest and the Persian alchemist, were the height of fashion in Chinese society. Long before that time the invading northern nomadic houses who set up dynasties in various parts of China, became completely absorbed in Chinese society as time went by, and many intimate friendships and mixed unions were part of the process. Later on in the Yuan period, foreigners were once again in demand as experts of all kinds, both in and out of the administration (like Marco Polo himself), and the process was repeated in the case of the learned astronomical Jesuits (the only foreigners who ever achieved the distinction of having their biographies inserted in the dynastic history). This was as example of cultural intercourse at the highest level, and later it was echoed by the work of Anglo-Saxon missionaries of the 19th century.

I do not think it is necessary for me now to summarise the size and objectives of the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding. These are set forth in various statements which you have. The point in a nutshell is that the British people and the Chinese people must come to know each other better. It is urgently necessary for our understanding of world affairs today that the Chinese point of view on all kinds of matters, political as well as cultural, should be made known. We want to do this without preconceived bias or ideological inhibitions, yet not necessarily without constructive bias. The society will be, as I have said, non-political, in that it is not designed for direct political action, but it will be concerned with politics in the sense that we want to know and make known what the Chinese think and say about them, especially having in mind the basically humanistic and altruistic aims of the society which they are building in their country. All our activities will be directed towards the objective of getting to know China and Chinese friends better. All we need to start from is a friendly frame of mind. If this object can be achieved we shall be making a great contribution to the development of world peace and international comprehension.

May I, in conclusion, remind you of three phrases which we might inscribe upon the banners of the organization now arising, watchwords indicating the attitude we ought to have towards our task. All come from the Chinese classics. The first one is “He who comes with the odour of enmity will invite the clash of weapons, he who comes the fragrance of friendship will be loved like a brother”. Next I will quote the words “san jen hsing pi yu wo shih” 三人行必有我师 sān rén xíng bì yǒu wǒ shī “where three men are walking together it is certain that one or other of them will be able to teach me something”; and lastly that great doctrine “ssu hai chih nei, chieh hsiung ti yeh” 四海之内皆兄弟 sì hǎi zhī neì jiē xiōng dì, “within the four seas all men are brothers”.

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