The man who loved China : the fantastic story of the eccentric scientist who unlocked the mysteries of the Middle Kingdom

by Simon Winchester

Paper Book, 2008

Status

Available

Publication

New York : Harper, c2008.

Description

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.… (more)

Media reviews

Simon Winchester tells the story, or part of it, in “The Man Who Loved China,” and like the other books of his I have read, it is amusing but unsatisfying. “The Professor and the Madman,” which first brought him to attention, was probably his best-crafted work. Since then he has tackled a number of curious and interesting topics, and instead of doing a good job of them has turned out incomplete bestsellers, full of chatty excursions and as much irrelevant salaciousness as he can fit into footnotes, but never quite telling the story that the subtitles pretend is inside the covers.
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What happened after the rise of modern natural science c.1600 could not be like what came before, with the result that ‘both capitalist and socialist societies today are in qualitatively different situations from all preceding societies.’ There was no way back to the past, but there was a way forward. Needham never abandoned his belief in potential progress. Science and technology did not create the good society, but the tools that could bring it about, not least in China. ‘This is perhaps the promised peace on earth, and whoever puts first the real needs of real people will inherit it.’ All the same, Needham will not be remembered for his passionate longing for a better human future, or even for his biology-inspired organic Marxism, but for his extraordinary achievement in exploring and re-creating a past. Yet he remains a neglected thinker, remembered only in textbooks of developmental biology, and still awaits a biographer with a fuller understanding than Winchester’s of a remarkable man and the times and contexts that made him.
The name Joseph Needham is not well-known. Simon Winchester, who has written a succinct and enjoyable account of his life, first came across him while writing a travel book, The River at the Centre of the World (1996). He wanted to find out about the boats that plied the Yangtze, and Needham, he learnt, was one of two authorities on the matter. A notably eccentric Cambridge scholar, Needham was actually a biochemist by training, but his outstanding achievement was the 24-volumeScience and Civilisation in China, the first volume of which was published in 1954.
Winchester, who worked as a journalist in Asia, is no stranger to what he once called "this delicious strangeness of China." He knows the territory well, which helps explain why his chronicle of Needham's four years there shines so vividly. When the scene moves back to Cambridge and to the details of organizing and publishing Needham's scientific book, Winchester's writing loses some of its luster.
Winchester has spent a good deal of his career as a journalist in East Asia, so it’s not surprising that the liveliest stretch of his narrative presents Needham’s first encounter with the country whose language he had mastered from afar. Early in 1943, Needham was sent to China by the British Foreign Office, charged with organizing aid for Chinese scholars and scientists in flight from the Japanese invasion, who were attempting to re-establish their universities in the inner provinces. His travels over the next few years took him from the jungles of the Burmese border to the Gobi Desert and the seacoast of Fujian, on 11 expeditions that covered roughly 30,000 miles. He lived a life of grand adventure in wartime China, and Winchester presents its dangers and pleasures with panache. Whether Needham is donkey racing near ancient Buddhist caves or packed into a train full of refugees speeding across a soon-to-be-bombed railway bridge, the exhilaration of this part of his life is immediately engaging. And so are the colorful characters who come his way.
In The Man Who Loved China, Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman, builds on his success in writing about eccentric British intellectuals. Needham makes a great subject. A Cambridge University polymath who made his youthful mark as a biochemist, he was also a nudist, a performer of English folk dances involving ankle bells and sticks, an accordion player and an active Communist... Despite Winchester's extraordinary narrative skills, he gets some details wrong. The assertion that China became "more stable" after the Japanese defeat in 1945 is a surprising clunker given his masterful depiction of war-torn China. (A footnote mentions the civil war between Nationalists and Communists.) More troubling is the depiction of the Yangtze River as the only unchanged feature of modern Chongqing. As the author of an excellent book on the Yangtze, Winchester should have known better than to ignore the devastating changes wrought by the Three Gorges Dam, which has profoundly altered the flow of that great river.
This is the rare book where you wish the author had included more detail, not less. Needham was a complicated man, and few topics are more complex than China. In skillfully keeping his narrative from bogging down, Winchester ends with a book that feels a touch thin. But leaving readers crying out "more, more" rather than "enough already" just might be the secret to his success.
Joseph Needham was one of those rare persons who are so good at so many things that they astonish and irritate the rest of us. Cambridge-educated in anatomy, physiology and chemistry, Needham became the West's leading authority on Chinese history. In a new biography, "The Man Who Loved China — Joseph Needham and the Making of a Masterpiece," Simon Winchester says Needham "succeeded, as few others are ever privileged to do, in making a significant and positive change to mankind's mutual understanding."

User reviews

LibraryThing member RoseCityReader
Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China is still the definitive work on the subject, in continuous print since the Cambridge University Press published the first introductory volume in 1954. In The Man Who Loved China, Simon Winchester turns his inquisitive eye and keen wit to Needham’s life and accomplishments, wrapping personality, history, politics, and science into the kind of irresistible story only Winchester can produce.

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.
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LibraryThing member dboydell
This book is published in the USA as the man who discovered China. Needham was a left-orientated biologist who developed a great passion for many things Chinese including several members of the opposite sex. He spent a number of years during WW2 travelling in China and interviewing scientists and librarians in pursuit of evidence that Chinese discoveries were rather more substantial than had hitherto been recognised. No doubt he was correct in most of his claims, although it is difficult at this distance to suppress a yawn and a muttered comment: "so what!".… (more)
LibraryThing member etxgardener
Why is it that the English have produced so many brilliant eccentrics who are fascinating to read about? Who knows, but they make great subjects for books.

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.
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LibraryThing member JDHomrighausen
Simon Winchester. The Man Who Loved China. 2008.

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!
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LibraryThing member LynnB
I'd never heard of Joseph Needham, but he is a fascinating man. He was a scientist, nudist, Morris dancer -- an most importantly, a man who created an encyclopedia of Chinese science and innovation without having any formal training in either history or sinology. What I most admired about him was that he was genuinely interested in the Chinese society and people he studied. He had a thirst for knowledge and really wanted to understand and get to know the people of China.

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.
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LibraryThing member tjwilliams
Simon Winchester has made quite a career of finding outlandishly eccentric characters who had extraordinary, if often overlooked, impacts on the world. Whether it’s an insane murderer who almost single-handedly wrote the Oxford English Dictionary or a Communist philanderer who exposed the western world to the influence of Chinese science, Winchester has long able to take the odd outsiders and turn them into sympathetic and important characters. Joseph Needham, the protagonist of “The Man Who Loved China” was just such a character.

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.
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LibraryThing member grheault
I had always envisioned J. Needham as a dusty old historian who plodded through a laborious lifetime producing that shelf-bending set of books on ancient Chinese science and technology. Surprise! Needham's ultra progressive politics, and his lifelong menage a trois were inspiring, as was Winchesters description of travel expeditions in 1940's wartime western China while the evil Japanese ravaged the east. Needhams later life in the UK was old-boy-boring for me, but instructive in how Needham survived political ups and downs, ending mostly up. Engaging book, great choice of subject.

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.
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LibraryThing member dele2451
A detailed, enthusiastic and well-written account of one exceptional British scientist who dedicated the vast majority of his extraordinary life to studying the inventions, technology and other significant accomplishments of China and then meticulously chronicling them so that the world at large could better understand and appreciate them.… (more)
LibraryThing member Lesliejaneite
Well, this was a very interesting subject and the writing was fine except for weird editing laziness where he kept introducing a bit of information like it wasn't already introduced. The book was enjoyable except for this strange feeling where I felt like the writer was afraid to just say something so passed it off quite passively like it was an afterthought or maybe a joke. Like he has these opinions he was too afraid to just say. Either say them or leave them out of what is supposed to be non-fiction anyway. I was even a bit annoyed at one point near the end when the writer mentions that the Unibomber happened to attend a lecture of Needham's about ancient chinese gunpowder and then asks this stupid question about whether or not his future crimes might not have happened had Needham not have shared his knowledge of the subject. Please. REally? Totally pissed me off. Sounds like I din't like this book, but I really did. I can't get enough information about China these days, and this book was very unique in the ground it covered so was a pleasure anyway.… (more)
LibraryThing member brewbooks
"No knowledge is ever to be wasted or despised." Joseph Needham's father told hinm this early in life, and he abided by these words. Simon Winchaster has done an excellent job of conveying the essence of Needham's life and work in this short book. Needham worked for more than fifty years to decipher the answer to his own question: Science in general in China - why did it never develop.? (Paraphrased by Winchester). But of course - it did as Needham documented in "Science and Civilisation in China - and of course the question I would ask is "Science in China - what will it do this century? I aam sure the answer will be a surprising one.… (more)
LibraryThing member rakerman
While interesting, it's basically about an extraordinarily privileged and brilliant man, Joseph Needham, who lived a privileged and brilliant life.

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.
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LibraryThing member mjmorrison1971
An interesting read that covers the extraordinary life of British academic Joseph Needham. He started as gifted embryology and morphogenesi and ended as one of the leading Sinologistst and lead author of one of the largest and longest publishing projects; Science and Civilisation in China, the first volume of which was published in 1954 and the last of which was published in 2004, 9 years after his death.
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.
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LibraryThing member rightantler
Once more Simon Winchester tells an enthralling story of a fascinating man.
LibraryThing member jcbrunner
Simon Winchester delivers another biography about a British excentric, Joseph Needham, a Socialist, Morris dancing, nudist, free loving Cambridge biochemist who falls head over heels in love with a Chinese woman and in turn with her country and culture. His lover taught him Chinese which came in handy during WWII when Needham served as academic liaison in China, supplying the war-starved Chinese universities with British supplies, shipping back enormous quantities of books and traveling across the country in wartime. Setting out to answer something like Yali's question ("Why was China which invented practically everything long before the West conquered by the West?"), he manages "only" to compile the vast amount of Chinese inventions.

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.
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LibraryThing member Niecierpek
A story of an eccentric English scientist, Joseph Needham, who fell in love with China, having fallen in love with a female Chinese scientist first, and getting interested in her tales of Chinese scientific achievements. In 1942, he organized and went on a rescue expedition to help Chinese scientists survive the hard times of the Japanese invasion, and from the moment of landing in Chungking found himself mesmerized with Chinese ways of doing things and their vast and long-lasting scientific knowledge. His stay expanded from a few months to a few years during which he accumulated enormous amounts of notes which became the foundation of 17 volumes of Science and Civilisation in China, which he spent the rest of his life writing.



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.
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LibraryThing member MusicMom41
This is the fascinating story of the eccentric British scientist Joseph Needham, a Cambridge Fellow who eventually became Master of the College but whose crowning achievement was the 17 volume History of Science in China which made him the greatest ever one-man encyclopaedist. As exciting as Needham’s story is I found the history of China to be equally riveting and enlightening. The world political turmoil of the mid to late 20th century also adds spice to the mix. This book was even more intriguing than The Professor and the Madman.… (more)
LibraryThing member mamzel
Being a fan of science and Asian things, this book fits nicely into my interests. Winchester gives us the life of an extraordinary man who was fascinated by the scientific inventions of China and posed the "Needham question" which was to ponder why these advances ceased around 1500, about the time scientific advances started in Europe. Joseph Needham was an adventurer, a lover, a scholar, and a left-wing activist. Any one of these would be enough to fill a book. All of them together made for a totally satisfying read.… (more)
LibraryThing member voz
A book about a man that wrote a book doesn't exactly sound like a formula for an entertaining work but Winchester pulls it off. It tells the story of Joseph Needham who spent his 90something years writing the definitive history of Science & Civilisation in China which he typed with 2 fingers. While it does read like a pop history book and has been consequently criticised on those grounds, it does filter a huge amount of information to a layman like myself. The fact remains that here is the story of a biochemist who debunked the idea that until recently China had no history of thought or technological innovation. His proof that China predated for example the printing press at 868 is food for thought as a reminder that our knowledge of history is constantly changing and it is wrong to assume that the Eurocentric slant we are given is definitive. Regardless, this is a good biography of an interesting man.… (more)
LibraryThing member lesleynicol
Brilliant! part history book, part encyclopaedia and a thoroughly worthwhile read.
LibraryThing member scroeser
A fascinating story, although unfortunately many of the author's prejudices make for jarring reading at times.
LibraryThing member hohlwelt
The book is written off the mill but a good introduction for someone who has never heard of Joseph Needham, the Needham-question, or that China invented everything hundreds of years earlier the Europe did.
LibraryThing member pbjwelch
When I was a student at the University of Oslo studying Chinese, Joseph Needham used to come up to our department. As one of the few students with a car, it was my job to pick him up at the airport, ferry him about town, and generally take care of him. I was with him at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo while he studied the construction of the Viking ships, remarking at some of the similarities with ancient Chinese shipbuilding (a subject mentioned in the book). When he left one of his ever-present cigars in the ashtray of my car I didn't throw it away for months although I hate cigars. Reading the story of this remarkable man's life, who introduced the world to the real China and its monumental history and scientific discoveries, was spell-binding because while we all witnessed the brilliance of this man, few of us knew much about his personal life (aside from his like of being in the company of pretty young women). I guess all those visits to Oslo paid off because one of my professors, Christoph Harbsmeier, ended up writing one of the later Science & Civilisation volumes.… (more)
LibraryThing member hailelib
The British scientist Joseph Needham became fascinated by China and its history, especially in regards to science and technology. Here Winchester tells the story of how he came to love China and how that love dominated the rest of his life. I really enjoyed this book and would like to read more about his discoveries and about China in general. However I liked the other Winchester book from earlier this year a bit better.… (more)
LibraryThing member cbjorke
Chances are that you have heard that the Chinese invented gunpowder, printing and spaghetti. The reason we know these things, along with a myriad of other facts about the contributions of China to science, technology and philosophy is that a British biochemist, a fellow of Caius College at Cambridge, went to China in 1943 on a diplomatic mission: to aid the various colleges and universities in China which had been displaced by the Japanese occupation of much of coastal eastern China.

Joseph Needham collected thousands of books, manuscripts letters, paintings and other artifacts related to the history of Chinese technological development over the course of centuries. He spent four years in China, traveling, visiting and interviewing Chinese scholars, ordering books and materials to be flown "over the hump" (over the Himalayas in U.S. Military aircraft) to aid their research, trying to learn what contributions China had made to civilization and asking what has become known as "Needham's question": why did it stop?



With China now on the verge of becoming the world's new economic engine it might seem silly to think that China's contributions to civilization had ever stopped, but at the time Needham visited China the general (western) understanding was that China had stagnated since about the fifteenth century. This may be entire illusory, an artifact of western hubris or it may be a temporary lull in the relentless ant hill march of Chinese progress.

Needham spent the rest of his life writing his magnum opus, the multi-volume "Science and Civilisation in China" in which he details all of the thousands of technological, scientific and philosophical firsts for which China is due credit.

But Needham was far from being just a grind. He dabbled in Bolshevism, nudism, polyamory and liberal Christianity. He was a fonding director of UNESCO. He became entangled in a genine communist plot: perpetrated by communist China during the Korean war, to falsy accuse the United States of sing biological warfare. He learned to read and to speak Manderin from his mistress, Lu Gwei-djen, who lived just a couple of doors up the street from Needham and his wife for decades, traveled to China to join Needham there during his mission and worked with Needham on his huge book project. Needham's wife, Dorothy did also. The two women got along together famously.

I think there's another book in that.

I'll Never Forget The Day I Read A Book!
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LibraryThing member Chris_El
I've read a few books about China, people from there, and people that traveled there. Few have really had the breadth of this book. Of course part of the reason for that is that few people traveled as extensively and loved China as richly as Joseph Needham.

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.
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