The compelling story of a man and the country he came to love,
Jan 18, 2010
In "The Man Who Loved China", Simon Winchester tells us the beguiling and utterly fascinating story of Joseph Needham - a lifelong learner, a libidinous lover, a licentious libertine, a pro-active left-wing Communist sympathizer, a linguist, a larger than life collection of laughably loopy eccentricities verging on the lunatic and now the little known but paradoxically near legendary author of "Science and Civilization in China".
This seminal work, this magnum opus, Needham's life work - spanning 50 years in the preparation and still incomplete at his death in 1995 - was, in essence, to burst the bubble of the West's parochial conceit that we are the birthplace of all that is important in science and technology.
Life as an accomplished, well-respected biochemist on the faculty of Cambridge University simply wasn't enough for the awesome intellect of an insatiable polymath like Joseph Needham. His love affair with the history of the Middle Kingdom began concurrently with a blossoming extra-marital love for Lu Gwei-djen, one of his students. This affair, conducted in a curiously open manner for such a staunchly staid, conservative and venerable institution as Cambridge, was, equally curiously, accepted and tolerated by Dorothy Needham, his wife and scientific colleague, for the duration of all three of their lives. As Lu Gwei-djen taught him her language, Needham dove headlong into an intense exploration of China's rich, sophisticated and exciting culture and history.
"The Man Who Loved China" is Needham's exciting story that reads with all the intensity and passion of the most exciting thrillers - the story of the birth of his love for all things Chinese; his initial explorations of a Chinese countryside torn by war with imperial Japan in the 1940s that were frequently fraught with adventure and even danger; his discovery of the astonishing history of Chinese intellectual wealth whose advancements in science and technology pre-dated those of the west by hundreds of years; and his political missteps as he is branded a Communist by McCarthy's propaganda machine and banished from the USA.
Winchester also delves deeply into the scientific exploration of what has come to be called the "Needham question", the curious fact that despite China's prior ability to advance at an almost dizzying speed in such diverse fields as printing, explosives, navigation, hydraulics, ceramics and statecraft, its intellectual capacity fell into an almost completely moribund torpor around the time of the Renaissance, precisely the time when science in the west began the current acceleration which, for all intents and purposes, has never slowed down!
Simon Winchester has also taken us one step beyond Needham's work. In a wonderful compelling epilogue, readers are treated to an informative tour of contemporary China and left with the open-ended question as to whether its newly accelerating pace of development will continue and how China will interact with other nations on the world stage.
As readable as any novel, "The Man Who Loved China" is brilliantly organized, wonderfully paced, and more than complete enough while it also cleverly sidesteps the biographer's mind-numbing trap of listing tedious arcane details. Exciting narrative descriptions of action sequences, near poetic passages of scenery, cityscapes, sights and smells that seem to vividly leap off of the page directly into the reader's minds-eye and even realistic dialogue, make Winchester's work a five star story that even the most non-fiction phobic reader could enjoy! It is a certainty that Winchester's "The Man Who Loved China" will give birth to its own progeny - a second generation of lovers that will continue with Needham's exploration of this unique culture.
Well done. Highly recommended.
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About the reviewer
Paul Weiss (cpw1952)
A modern day dilettante with widely varied eclectic interests. A dabbler in muchbut grandmaster of none - wilderness camping in all four seasons, hiking, canoeing, world travel,philately, … more
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