Saturday, November 7, 2009
Review: The Man Who Loved China
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.
* Science and Civilization in China is now a 25-volume set, although many volumes were written by others under Needham's direction and still others after his death.
Age 30+ . . . A Lifetime of Books
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