The extraordinary story of Joseph Needham, the brilliant Cambridge scientist who unlocked the most closely held secrets of China--long the world's most technologically advanced country. This married Englishman, a freethinking intellectual, while working at Cambridge University in 1937, fell in love with a visiting Chinese student, with whom he began a lifelong affair. He became fascinated with China, and embarked on a series of extraordinary expeditions to the farthest frontiers of this ancient empire. He searched everywhere for evidence to bolster his conviction that the Chinese were responsible for hundreds of mankind's most familiar innovations--including printing, the compass, explosives, suspension bridges, even toilet paper--often centuries before the rest of the world. His dangerous journeys took him across war-torn China to far-flung outposts, consolidating his deep admiration for the Chinese people. After the war, Needham began writing what became a seventeen-volume encyclopedia, Science and Civilisation in China.--From publisher description.
Needham was a biochemist, not a Sinologist. He became interested in the Middle Kingdom only after falling in love with Lu Gwei-Djen, a Chinese scientist in Cambridge to study with Needham and his biologist wife Dorothy. After learning Chinese, he obtained a pre-WWII diplomatic post that allowed him to explore China and send truckloads of books and documents about China’s scientific and technological history back to Cambridge.
As with his wonderful books about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, The Professor and the Madman and The Meaning of Everything, Winchester uses the compilation and publication of Needham’s masterpiece as the backbone of this biography. He branches off from the central story to discuss the Needham’s socialist politics, his unconventional love life, and his role as one of Red China’s most “useful idiots.”
This last item concerned Needham leading a commission to investigate allegations that America used biological warfare during the Korean War. In 1953, he issued a report substantiating the claims, although it was later determined that the Chinese government, with Soviet help, staged the whole thing. As Winchester put it, “Needham was intellectually in love with communism; and yet communist spymasters and agents, it turned out, had pitilessly duped him.” Needham was under a cloud for years as a result. America refused him a visa until the 1970s. Only the quality and stupendous success of Science and Civilization finally redeemed his reputation.
Simon Winchester could write an interesting book about garden mulch, so it is no surprise that The Man Who Loved China, based on a fascinating life, is a fascinating book. This is one of his best.
Also posted on Rose City Reader.
Like Needham, I have wondered why China moved from the primary innovative nation in the world to a more isolationist and (at least perceived) backward society. I don't think Needham answered this question very well. Neither did Jared Diamond answer the question about China. His "Guns, Germs and Steel" gradually shifts from talking about Eur-Asia to Europe wiithout any explanation.
Maybe there is no answer?
This book is a biography -- a look at Joseph Needham's long and interesting life. Simon Winchester is a good writer with a knack for choosing interesting subjects, and this book was no exception.
Simon Winchester, who I know through his books on geological subjects from the explosion of Krakatoa to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake has now chosen as his subject Joseph Neeham. Needham was a brilliant biochemist and fellow at Cambridge University. He was also a dedicated Socialist, a high church Anglican who believed in liberation theology before the term was invented, a fan of Morris dancing, a nudist and an ardent womanizer. It was this last personality trait that led him to what became the great love & consuming intellectual work of his life. In 1937 he fell in love with a brilliant Chinese student with whom he began a lifetime affair. He became fascinated with China, taught himself the Chinese language and then talked himself into a diplomatic mission to Chungking (Chongqing in today's parlance). There his ever inquisitive mind started pondering what became known as the "Needham question:" why did China, which invented so many technological firsts suddenly around 1500 stop their inventive activity and become stagnant and "backward" for the next 450 years?
To answer this question, Needham first had to tell a doubting world the vast breadth of Chinese innovations from the inventing of printing hundreds of years before Gutenberg, to the compass, suspension bridges and even toilet paper (the impressive list is provided in an appendix to this book). In his quest for discovering the history of scientific invention in the country, Needham embarked on several treks during World War II that are described by some as adventures on the order of Indiana Jones and y others as the journeys of a fool-hardy idiot.
Upon returning home to England after the war, Needham began writing Science and Civilization in China describing the county's astonishing history of technological invention. The one planned volume quickly became seven and then ten and finally eighteen upon his death in 1995/
Along the way he befriended Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong, and ran afoul of Joseph McCarthy at the height of his red baiting fame. Yet through it all, Needham remained true to both his left-wing beliefs and to his magnum opus.
Simon Winchester tells this story with clear-eyed affection for his subject writing in a breezy style that is more fiction than academic study. For anyone who is fascinated with China, or with men who follow their own drummer, this is the book for you.
This is my first audiobook. Winchester's book is a fascinating account of Joseph Needham, a Cambridge biochemist who fell in love with a Chinese graduate student. She taught him bits of her language, and through that he fell in love with her civilization. He wandered around China under the guise of a British foreign diplomat, going first in the early 1940s and last around 1982. He supplied Chinese scientists with much-needed scientific materials, and eventually became enamored a culture which discovered many so-called “Western accomplishments” long before Europe did: printing press, clocks, and gunpowder, for example. From this he began a massive encyclopedia on “Science and Civilization in China,” which blew so out of scope that he died before he could finish it. He was also a nudist, Communist, and Morris dancer. He had no formal education in history or sinology.
First thing that struck me about the story was his way of finding China. Like me, he came to the language by falling in love with a Chinese woman, and realized what a rich, fascinating culture they have. He taught himself Chinese by keeping track of characters' different characteristics in self-made dictionaries. Not only do silly 17-year-old boys find the language through females, but so do distinguished Cambridge researchers!
Needham's goal in his work was to demonstrate to the West that China was not inferior, that they were not always the backward and unindustrialized nation they were in the 1800s and first part of the 1900s. By a combination of fear and arrogance, the West did not always like hearing this; but his works were acclaimed by academics. For me they fuel thoughts on scholarly work in general.
It was mentioned that he approached his topic with “empathetic insight.” He did not just want to analyze the Chinese, but he wanted to befriend them, understand them, see things from their point of view. It's a phrase that reminds me what one in religious studies should do as well. Always honor that which you seek to understand. If you learn only with the intent of refuting, how will you ever understand? William James wrote of the man at a party who argued with everyone. Soon nobody wanted to share their ideas with him. He may have thought himself the wisest man in the room, but really he was too idiotic to understand.
Needham also realized that the politics of his day were unimportant. Now he is remembered for his work – not for the political uproar he created when he publicly supported Mao in the 1950s, not for the academic politics at Cambridge when scholars in history and sinology were miffed at him for stepping on their turf with no credentials. He is remembered for the Needham question – why did China stop growing scientifically so that the West could shoot ahead in development? - a question that Chinese events since his death have rendered somewhat irrelevant. He did not solve the question well, but posing it opened new avenues for those more trained in historical analysis to delve into. As Jeremy said, the questions are more important than the answers.
His old age was the saddest part. His wife dead, his Chinese mistress dead, everyone his age dead, he continued working five hours a day until the day before he died. It was sad that he could not finish the project, and by his 80s volumes were being written mainly by others. What a reminder of the necessity of defining the scope of one's work!
I dont understand the new title. It seems to be unimaginative mimicry of all those cutesy three-things-hahahah titles that are so popular in the history genre. The original title is OK, if they'd add Needhams name more prominently, and shrink Winchester's to smaller type.
Needham began his career as a biochemist at Cambridge University, though only one field could ever completely entice his polymathic abilities: China. While still teaching at the university, Needham fell in love with a Chinese graduate student, Lu Gwei-djen. The relationship, once given the go-ahead by Needham’s liberal-leaning (in politics and in love) wife, gave the professor an inside look at the culture and country that would eventually consume his entire existence. Needham devoured everything Chinese, learning to speak and read Mandarin within months and plotting the book for which he would become famous, asking himself “how did science develop in China”.
Needham was given the chance to explore the question when he took up a diplomatic post during World War II in the itinerant Chinese capital, Chongqing. Needham’s ostensible mission was to visit the Chinese universities and assess their needs for equipment and supplies. But he also used the time to explore as much of free China as he could, speaking with scientists and gathering books and evidence that he would later be able to use to show the rest of the world what he already knew: China had developed scientifically completely separate from the western world and, in many cases faster than the western world. In fact, Needham believed, many of the West’s greatest advancements had come from the Chinese.
Joseph Needham would spend the rest of considerably long life (he lived to 94 years of age) writing and editing “Science and Civilisation in China” an immense (in size and importance) work that today numbers 27 volumes and parts. His life was not without controversy, as his Communist sympathies and support of the Red Chinese government would seriously damage his reputation at various points during his career, but Needham’s exploration of Chinese science and technology has left a lasting legacy on the academic world.
A true eccentric he lead an extraordinary life and even with out his magnum opus, one that would have had a profound influence on the world.
While Winchester is a great writer and biographer I felt that in this book he had too much material to work with and skips over parts of the story to keep it to a reasonable length. I would have p been prepared to read more pages if there and been some more details on his time in china and involvement with the key political leaders, and some more insight to his early work, as one of the younger fellows of the Royal society must have been doing extraordinary work.
Still a very woth while read - and reminds us that we tend to have a very Eurocentric education and view of the history of science.
Here starts the big failing of Winchester's book. He gives but a shallow introduction to Needham's Science and Civilization in China and never pushes to answer or even try to answer Needham's question. Winchester's book was retitled from "The Man who loved China" to "Bomb, Book and Compass", in my view to put it closer to Jared Diamond's magnificent "Guns, Germs and Steel" which answers Yali's question. China, however, did not suffer the geographic and biological disadvantages of South America, Africa and Australia Diamond covers so well, Thus, Diamond's explanation does not cover the Chinese case. Given that Needham et al.'s inventory of Chinese inventions is nearly completed, Simon Winchester might have started answering the question. A missed chance.
Thus, the book is a readable account of an extraordinary life and WWII China but not a lasting achievement. Needham and China deserve bigger love.
He was from a lost age of erudite and madly adventurous Englishmen. However I found it hard to relate to his story. In terms of people exploring and having adventures I prefer Time Exposure: The Autobiography of William Henry Jackson and Ring of Fire by the Blairs, and even a man who is sort-of roughly Needham's modern equivalent, Rory Stewart talking about walking across Afghanistan.
I guess in reflecting upon it, all three of those are autobiographical, whereas The Man Who Loved China is a biography, and in some ways I felt like Winchester almost admired Needham too much - it was hard to get a sense of Needham as a person, in the unremitting sequence of brilliance and achievement that Winchester presents.
He was particularly interested in making the Western world aware of all the Chinese firsts in science and technology, which included paper, gunpowder and the compass, and investigating why despite such spectacular advances, a phenomenon akin to the Western industrial revolution did not take place there. In the end, he concluded that it was partially due to the philosophical principles of Confucianism and Taoism, which did not advocate progress as necessarily good and desirable.
Needham’s love story extended to Mao’s China, which almost cost him his reputation and caused him a lot of political problems. He blindly supported communism there despite having been duped by fellow Chinese scientists, and communist agents alike.
A very well written book, meticulously researched and written with flare, as all Winchester’s books are.
I found there were too many superlatives being tossed around too casually. I have enjoyed other work by Winchester, but I don't think is his best.
There are things to dislike about Needham, politics, religion, and morals. But while these define a person in the grand context of China and Needham these things fade into the background.
Needham was the British Ambassador to China representing the British scientific community during WWII. There were other ambassadors dealing with political or war matters. I don't know if anyone else anywhere else had a comparable position.
His enthrallment with China started with a pretty girl he met and learned Chinese before ever setting foot in China. Once there he fell in love with the country and the people. He traveled about visiting with Chinese scientists and assisted them attain equipment to teach, create, and experiment. In the course of his trips about he became aware that there were things that had been invented in China that had not been discovered in the west until much later. And credited in the west as western invention. This immensely excited him as he realized that there was a need for people that wanted to understand the world as it actually is to understand this. And so as he traveled he researched. He sent back many books to England.
After the war he returned home and spent a few years helping Sir Julian Huxley create the United Nations Educational, scientific, and cultural organization (UNESCO).
Afterwards he settled in a Cambridge and began work on what would be his magnum opus. His books "Science and Civilization in China" would be hailed by academia, historians, and China as a needed masterpiece to the world explaining for the first time to the Western world the great technological strides China made before the Western world made them.
There was a great scandal where Needham traveled to Korea and examined staged areas for evidence that American was using biological weapons against the Koreans during the Korean war. Not knowing he was being set up he and other scholars report reflected that American was using biological weapons. There was enormous public outcry against him and for many years he was blacklisted from traveling to the United States. His reputation was severely damaged by this incident and his books were really a saving grace for his reputation.
The Needham question goes along with the awe in the achievements of the Chinese people. What happened? Many inventions and advances were made by Chinese society but starting in the 1500s these advances stopped and for several hundred years China was in a stagnant dark age. This question has never been satisfactorily answered thought theories have been advanced.
All in all this book will not only introduce you to a highly eccentric British scholar but will broaden the readers understanding of the Chinese people, her history, and where she is capable of going.
Judgment on the book itself:
The author does get carried away at least in one point where he is so busy condemning the Western world for thinking some invention was a Western idea and being all smug about thinking they are so inventive that he comes across as being just as smug and unpleasant giving credit to the Chinese as he accuses western scholars as being.
While a love for his subject shines throughout the book and the author does try to defend or deflect criticisms from the Dr Needham through this work I don't think that this is quite hagiography. Though it gets close in spots.
Overall it made me want to travel and adventure about.