The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the
Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom, by Simon Winchester, is a biography of Joseph Needham. I doubt that you have heard of him, and I certainly hadn’t. Professor Needham proved that the Chinese culture had invented far more than just the paper, ice cream and gunpowder that they are given credit for. He proved that they had the printing press in 7th century CE, an accurate estimation of Pi in the 3rd century CE, toilet paper in the 6th century CE and hundreds of others. But the book is not about the Chinese inventions he revealed, but the process by which he found and translated that information.
Joseph Needham was your average general all-round English eccentric who lived from 1900 to 1994. Brilliant in medical science, a member of the Royal Society, a master of eight or nine languages, knowledgeable about everything, educated at and always affiliated with Cambridge University, a nudist, a communist sympathiser, and a womaniser who was married and carried on an affair (with his wife`s approval) with the same woman across three continents and most of his life. It is his relationship with this mistress that determined Needham`s path through life. She was Chinese and maintained the belief that her people had invented many things. He was motivated to learn Chinese and started to study some Chinese works, becoming an expert in both the language and the history.
During the Sino-Japanese conflict during WWII, Needham was the ideal emissary from Britain to China where he could support academia in China, and relate to the Chinese resistance and especially get close to Mao`s forces because of his political leanings. He was pressed into the diplomatic service in 1943 and was supporting Chinese educational institutions in the area unconquered by Japan by obtaining supplies and academic information. In addition to that he also decided to explore the countryside gaining as much knowledge as he could on almost any subject In particular he acquired all the ancient texts that he could and shipped them back to Cambridge.
At the end of the war Needham first was involved in creating UNESCO and then returned to Cambridge and started his Magnum Opus, Science and Civilization in China which took up the rest of his life. There were personal ups and downs related to this. During the Korean War Needham was asked by China to lead a panel to review whether the US had used chemical weapons on the North Koreans. He was duped by the Chinese into concluding that they had and the resulting fallout led to Needham`s almost total exclusion and ostracism from most public and academic life. He was even banned from travelling to the USA but fortuitously for him, gradually recovered his standing and reputation to such an extent that in 1965 he became Master of Caius College at Cambridge, a most prestigious position. Forgiveness must have been total since he was even awarded the Companionship of Honour by the Queen.
I felt that Needham must have considered himself unfulfilled, although the book does not go into this. He was active especially in his early years in medical science, but didn`t leave his mark there. His Science and Civilization series (17 volumes when he died, with 10 more in process, one volume had more than 400,000 words) was unfinished and he had left the “Needham” question unanswered- Why had a culture that had produced more than 15 major inventions per century suddenly stopped innovating?
The book tries to answer this question in the epilogue and adds a long list of the inventions in the Appendix. I believe these additions improve the book considerably. In one of those coincidences that pop up in life (at least in my life) the book I am currently reading “The Father of Forensics” states that the Chinese had the “first recorded application of medical knowledge to the solution of crime in 1248CE”.
I don’t think Mr Winchester fully commits to the subject. The descriptions of Needham’s genius are frequent enough (we are even told twice that Needham used the same rooms as Stephen Hawking) that it becomes a bit like Mark Anthony’s “but Brutus is an honourable man”. Needham was in China from 1943 to 1946. During the description of his stay the story goes into tremendous detail of the places he visited, the factories he detoured to, the conversations he had and then suddenly the description is cut short by the words “Joseph Needham would remain in China for eighteen months more.” I don’t know if the author tired or the book was victim to an editor’s axe. The next paragraph or two are a little staccato suggesting the latter. The last few chapters are also lacking in flow.
Readers of Simon Winchester’s works will know that his books are sesquipedalian, that is, he uses big words. This one wasn’t too bad, or perhaps my vocabulary has grown but I didn’t reach for my dictionary quite as much. It also seems to me that his research on any topic spawns a pair of books leading to some repetition in the narrative: Krakatoa and The Crack in the Edge of the World; The Professor and the Madman and The Meaning of Everything; Outposts and The Atlantic. I am wondering how this story can be developed further- perhaps the remaining eighteen months will resurface then!
Bottom line: Do I recommend this book? It certainly is far better and more enjoyable than Djibouti (by Elmore Leonard) which I read before it. It is not one of Simon Winchester’s best but did detail many interesting facts, and it did force me to reflect on the upshot of the “Needham” question. As China has returned to an economic powerhouse, will history repeat itself and will China become a powerhouse of innovation once more? Based on that I give it a qualified thumbs up.
Aubrey Kagan is a professional engineer with a
BSEE from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and an MBA from the
University of the Witwatersrand. Aubrey is engineering manager at Emphatec, a
Toronto-based design house of industrial control interfaces and switch-mode
power supplies. In addition to writing several articles for Circuit Cellar
and having ideas published in EDN and Electronic Design,
Aubreywrote Excel by Example: A Microsoft Excel Cookbook for Electronics
Engineers (Newnes, 2004). You can see more book reviews by Aubrey and others in the Engineer's Bookshelf blog.