Simon Winchester's latest work explores the life of Joseph
Needham. His subject is a fascinating one. Born in 1900, Needham can be
termed nothing less than an eccentric genius. He was well-known in the
British scientific community for his work in biochemistry even before he turned
his attention to China. His peers were referring to him as the Erasmus of
the twentieth century by the time he was 24. He published Chemical Embryology
when 31, which is considered a classic and which eventually led to his
election as a fellow of the Royal Society. He was also notorious for his
wide range of odd interests and for being quite the womanizer.
Winchester contends that Needham was a pivotal figure in the West's understanding of Chinese history and its contributions to science. Before Needham, China was thought to be "backward, cruel, rigid," as well as ignorant and poverty-stricken. Needham's observations and subsequent documentation of China's technological achievements forced the West to consider China in a new light.
Most of The Man Who Loved China is straight-forward biography. Needham's history is explored in intimate detail from his childhood to his death in 1995, using the diaries that he penned over the decades, as well as his correspondence with friends, lovers and associates. The sheer volume of material that Winchester had to sift through to get to the heart of Needham's story makes this book a remarkable work of research. It does, however, tend to be on the dry side. This is especially true of Winchester's narration of Needham's later life, the last 50 or so years of which was almost completely absorbed in creating his magnum opus, Science and Civilisation in China.
A large part of the book is devoted to Needham's four-year term in China (1941 1945) as head of the Sino-British Scientific Cooperation Office. Needham took eleven trips throughout the Chinese countryside during his tenure. Seven were relatively short, but four were extended expeditions that took weeks or months to complete. They were remarkably complex and dangerous, and Winchester's account of Needham's adventures is absorbing (and in some instances almost unbelievable). This part of the book reads like a novel, and is quite entertaining, however, the reader may find this section too brief.
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.
This review was originally published in May 2008, and has been updated for the May 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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