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Times Past | Within the Four Seas

The Dialogue of East and West: by Joseph Needham. George AIlen & Unwin Ltd, 1969. 40s.

In this collection of twenty two of Joseph Needham's writings-including essays, reviews, addresses we see him in many as aspects: scientist, historian, translator, reviewer, sinologist, philosopher, and perhaps to the surprise to some as a poet. He describes himself in one poem as:

Half scientist, half humanist, Han-hsueh-chia,
The spirit of Galileo in the blood.
But also a learner in Sima Qian's school.

Dr Needham's immense learning is well known. but even a student of his History of Science and Civilisation in China cannot fail to be impressed by the encyclopaedic knowledge in many fields of philosophy and science shown in these essays. This is evident in the wide sweep with which he covers 4,000 years of human history and in the details which abound in his coverage: observations by early Portuguese travellers in China, points of Byzantine autocratic law, Buddhist customs.

His great store of knowledge is used to illuminate and give body to his themes, whether writing on capitalism as it affects East and West on population problems; or reviewing books on psychology, Vietnam, ancient religion, modern technology. All this is bound together by a central theme - namely the importance of China, her culture, civilisation and customs, and the lessons she can teach the world.

'The rest of the world needs to learn, with all humility', says Dr Needham in concluding this essay, ' not only from contemporary China but from the China of all time, for in China's wisdom and experience there are medicines for many diseases of the spirit and indispensable elements of the future philosophy of humanity'.

Dr Needham helps us to learn, one wishes, regretfully closing the book at the end of a moving sermon pleading for mutual understanding, that there were yet more of these essays. We would like one on Mao Zedong's Thought, and one on how Dr. Needham foresees the future.

However, one must not be greedy, but grateful for so much food for thought and spiritual stimulus; and for the insight we are allowed into the author's private reflections and personal visions: as, for instance, in the evocative lines of the poem The Pilgrim Comes Again to Chhien-Fo-Tung (p 184):

And far across the desert after dawn
The solitary walkers hears Mo Kao's bells
Ring as in ancient days they used to do,
Marking the common life, but now in affirmation lived.
No longer in denial, of human things.

Dr Joseph Needham

Dr Joseph Needham was a founder of SACU and SACU President for its first twenty years.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2001, reprinted from SACU News Septmber 1969

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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