Summary and book reviews of The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester

The Man Who Loved China

The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom

By Simon Winchester

The Man Who Loved China
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  • Hardcover: May 2008,
    336 pages.
    Paperback: May 2009,
    416 pages.

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Book Summary

In sumptuous and illuminating detail, Simon Winchester, brings to life 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.

No cloistered don, this tall, married Englishman was a freethinking intellectual, who practiced nudism and was devoted to a quirky brand of folk dancing. In 1937, while working as a biochemist at Cambridge University, he instantly fell in love with a visiting Chinese student, with whom he began a lifelong affair.

He soon became fascinated with China, and his mistress swiftly persuaded the ever-enthusiastic Needham to travel to her home country, where he 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 thrilling and dangerous journeys, vividly recreated by Winchester, took him across war-torn China to far-flung outposts, consolidating his deep admiration for the Chinese people.

After the war, Needham was determined to tell the world what he had discovered, and began writing his majestic Science and Civilisation in China, describing the country's long and astonishing history of invention and technology. By the time he died, he had produced, essentially single-handedly, seventeen immense volumes, marking him as the greatest one-man encyclopedist ever.

Both epic and intimate, The Man Who Loved Chinatells the sweeping story of China through Needham's remarkable life. Here is an unforgettable tale of what makes men, nations, and, indeed, mankind itself great—related by one of the world's inimitable storytellers.

The battered old Douglas C-47 Skytrain of the China National Aviation Corporation, its chocolate brown fuselage battle-scarred with bullet holes and dents, shuddered its way down through the rain clouds, the pilot following the slow bends of the Yangzi River until he had the sandspit landing field in sight in front of him and the cliffs of China's capital city to his left.

The pilot lost altitude fast in case any Japanese fighters were lurking behind the thunderheads, fixed his position by the batteries of antiaircraft guns guarding the runway approach, and lined up between the rows of red-and-white-painted oil drums that had been set down as markers. He trimmed his flaps, throttled back his two engines, grimaced as the plane lurched briefly in a sudden crosswind that was typical for this time of year, and then finally bumped heavily down onto the old riverbed that served as the nation's principal aerodrome. He braked; turned back and headed in past squadrons of parked American and ...

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The reader may also find that he or she is craving more information about China, the Chinese people and China's history than the author delivers. Make no mistake: This is a book about Needham, not about China. It's a bit frustrating that the focus of the book is so narrow. Winchester does, however, do what he set out to: Provide a detailed account of one remarkable man's extraordinary life. Fans of Winchester's writing and those who enjoy pure biographic works may find much to like about his most recent book.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

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Media Reviews
Publishers Weekly

[Winchester] is at pains to place Needham front and center in our understanding of the nation that now plays such a huge role in American life.

Library Journal

Starred Review. Winchester...loses no momentum here...an accessible and provocative book.

Kirkus Reviews

Another formidable, absorbing reading experience by versatile Winchester...reflects its subject's passionate interests and makes scholarship positively sexy.

Seattle Times - Bob Simmons

A puzzle often identified by historians as "Needham's question," and central to much of his work is this: Why did China, having given the world its earliest understandings of the pure sciences .... suddenly shut down in the 1500s? .... Needham struggled with this mystery for decades, without a solution that suited him. He concluded, as has Winchester, that the riddle is of less consequence these days. The more urgent need, Winchester writes for both himself and Needham, is to understand as much as possible of "everything, good and ill, about the awe-inspiring, terrifying entity that is today's new China," as it moves in the direction of world supremacy.

Reader Reviews
W.G. HALL

The Man Who Loved China
An A-1 Bio. on a great scholar and adventurer.

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The Second Sino-Japanese War
Joseph Needham's travels in China took place during the latter half of the conflict known as the Second Sino-Japanese War - the largest war to take place in Asia during the 20th century (map of Asia).

The seeds of the conflict were sown during the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), at the end of which China ceded Taiwan and Korea to Japan, and the Qing dynasty was substantially weakened (a factor that led to its collapse in 1912 and the rise of the Republic of China). Hostilities continued intermittently in the northern part of China until 1931, when Japan conquered Manchuria setting up a puppet government in what they called Manchukuo.

Battles continued between the two nations, with ...

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