The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester. Harper Collins. US$27.95
There was, toward the end of China’s last dynasty, a widely held belief in the West that this strange and faraway country was backwards, devoid of scientific interest and lacking in technological sophistication.
Whatever China had learnt in the last few millennia (how to make gunpowder, a compass or games like chess) had been forgotten, neglected by an overbearing bureaucracy or ignored by the less competent emperors.
Then Joseph Needham, a quirky but brilliant British scientist with a penchant for nudism and a natural facility for languages, discovered he had a passion for China. Needham’s passion would culminate in one of the most comprehensive encyclopedias ever written about China and its history of scientific discovery. Science and Civilisation in China comprises 17 large volumes that dispel (or advance) many of the myths commonly held about China at the time.
A life revisited
In The Man Who Loved China, Simon Winchester rediscovers Needham’s work, exploring the life of a man who traveled extensively, developed unique insights and literally wrote the book on China. Needham was an eccentric Cambridge intellectual. He only discovered a love for China in his late 30s as the byproduct of a love affair, learning to write, read and speak (in that order) Mandarin from his Nanjing-born mistress. The first characters he wrote were the ones for “cigarette.”
Needham finally made it to China in 1943, arriving in Chongqing while the country was at war. His first insights into the country came through rewriting the accepted – but flawed – guide to Chinese botany. His findings were based on simple observation.
In the months and years that followed, he laid the foundation for his massive encyclopedia.
Larger than life
The Man Who Loved China is a good read. Well-written and fast-moving, Needham is portrayed as a larger-than-life character, a nerd with attitude and a womanizing intellectual. He was no stranger to controversy. Having already criticized the US for its conduct during the war, Needham was labeled as sympathetic to the Communist cause. He also faced censure from his peers at Cambridge for encroaching on others’ intellectual turf (history and sinology).
A biography of Needham is a story of how the West rediscovered China, of how a generation of foreigners began to reassess their views after almost a century of assumptions based on ignorance and commercial greed. But in charting China’s return to the global arena, Winchester also examines the country’s shortfalls, for example, how it became estranged from its own history of discovery and found itself well behind Europe in the technological curve.
Needham’s affinity for China emerged long before he even set foot in the country, but it still took decades for his work to be finished. However, by the time of his death in 1995, he had succeeded in redefining China in the eyes of the West.
Winchester’s book is a lot more accessible than Needham’s, coming in at almost 300 pages to the 15,000-plus written by his subject. It is a good way to understand this man who singlehandedly did so much to investigate the many contributions China has made to the world.
Excerpt: Feeling the heat
Needham’s left-wing sympathies were well-known; the anti-American conclusions of the report by his commission were still widely reviled; and even on normally liberal American university campuses the attitude toward him had now changed. He was now being quite widely criticized – not for his science, not for his history, and not for his intelligence, but for his politics, for his sympathies, and for his friends. And all that before a single word of his thesis – his essentially dispassionate, nonpolitical, and purely academic thesis – had been published.
So for him to have written a book – a series of books, no less – that trenchantly challenged the traditionally prejudiced view of China, and that roundly supported China’s claim to a proper place in the story of the making of the world – was suddenly, from Needham’s point of view, fraught with risk. The reviews could be savage, and personally devastating.