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In illuminating detail, Winchester, bestselling author of The Professor & the Madman ("Elegant & scrupulous"—NY Times Book Review) & Krakatoa ("A mesmerizing page-turner"—Time) tells the story of Joseph Needham, the Cambridge scientist who unlocked the most closely held secrets of China, long the world's most technologically advanced country. No cloistered don, this tall, In illuminating detail, Winchester, bestselling author of The Professor & the Madman ("Elegant & scrupulous"—NY Times Book Review) & Krakatoa ("A mesmerizing page-turner"—Time) tells the story of Joseph Needham, the 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. A nudist, he was devoted to quirky folk dancing. In 1937, while working as a biochemist at Cambridge, he fell in love with a visiting Chinese student, with whom he began a lifelong affair. His mistress persuaded him to travel to her home country, where he embarked on a series of expeditions to the frontiers of the ancient empire. He searched for evidence to bolster a conviction that the Chinese were responsible for hundreds of humankind's most familiar innovations—including printing, the compass, explosives, suspension bridges, even toilet paper—often centuries before others. His journeys took him across war-torn China, consolidating his admiration for the Chinese. After the war, he determined to announce what he'd discovered & began writing Science & Civilization in China, describing the country's long history of invention & technology. By the time he died, he'd produced, almost single-handedly, 17 volumes, making him the greatest one-man encyclopedist ever. Epic & intimate, The Man Who Loved China tells the sweeping story of China thru Needham's life. Here's a tale of what makes men, nations & humankind great—related by one of the world's best storytellers.


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In illuminating detail, Winchester, bestselling author of The Professor & the Madman ("Elegant & scrupulous"—NY Times Book Review) & Krakatoa ("A mesmerizing page-turner"—Time) tells the story of Joseph Needham, the Cambridge scientist who unlocked the most closely held secrets of China, long the world's most technologically advanced country. No cloistered don, this tall, In illuminating detail, Winchester, bestselling author of The Professor & the Madman ("Elegant & scrupulous"—NY Times Book Review) & Krakatoa ("A mesmerizing page-turner"—Time) tells the story of Joseph Needham, the 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. A nudist, he was devoted to quirky folk dancing. In 1937, while working as a biochemist at Cambridge, he fell in love with a visiting Chinese student, with whom he began a lifelong affair. His mistress persuaded him to travel to her home country, where he embarked on a series of expeditions to the frontiers of the ancient empire. He searched for evidence to bolster a conviction that the Chinese were responsible for hundreds of humankind's most familiar innovations—including printing, the compass, explosives, suspension bridges, even toilet paper—often centuries before others. His journeys took him across war-torn China, consolidating his admiration for the Chinese. After the war, he determined to announce what he'd discovered & began writing Science & Civilization in China, describing the country's long history of invention & technology. By the time he died, he'd produced, almost single-handedly, 17 volumes, making him the greatest one-man encyclopedist ever. Epic & intimate, The Man Who Loved China tells the sweeping story of China thru Needham's life. Here's a tale of what makes men, nations & humankind great—related by one of the world's best storytellers.

30 review for The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom

  1. 4 out of 5

    Will Byrnes

    He decided initially to make a great historical list, a list of every mechanical invention and abstract idea—the building blocks of modern world civilization—that had been first conceived and made in China. If he could managed to establish a flawless catalog of just what the Chinese had created first, of exactly which of the world’s ideas and concepts had actually originated in the Middle Kingdom, he would be on to something. If he could delve behind the unforgettable remark that emperor Qia He decided initially to make a great historical list, a list of every mechanical invention and abstract idea—the building blocks of modern world civilization—that had been first conceived and made in China. If he could managed to establish a flawless catalog of just what the Chinese had created first, of exactly which of the world’s ideas and concepts had actually originated in the Middle Kingdom, he would be on to something. If he could delve behind the unforgettable remark that emperor Qianlong had made to the visiting Lord Macartney in 1792—“We possess all things…I have no use for your country’s manufactures”—if he could determine what exactly prompted Qianlong to make such a claim, then he would perhaps have the basis or a truly original and world-changing work of scholarship. Simon Winchester - image fr0m rolfpotts.com Other great British explorers, like Livingston, Scott, Drake, and Cook sailed, rode, or walked into places that had never been seen by Westerners, producing useful and accurate maps of the places they explored. Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham strode into places in China that, while they might have been visited by Europeans, had maybe not been properly noticed, and created the equivalent of a map to their history, and the history of scientific development in China. He would produce one of the monumental intellectual works of the 20th century, Science and Civilization in China, and revolutionize how the West perceived a nation that had come to be regarded as a basket case. Like Moses, Joseph Needham did not survive to see the final product of his efforts, but he knew that it would come to be, as he had dedicated his energy, genius, love for, and obsession with China to fueling the engine to its final destination. There are, to date, twenty four “substantial published works” in the project, according to the Needham Research Institute, with more in process. Of course, as a remarkable Englishman, Needham would not be complete without his share of eccentricities, peculiarities, and oddities. He was a nudist for one. Those of delicate sensibility afloat on the River Cam in Cambridge knew that there was a certain section of the waterway that might feature suit-free swimmers, and when to shield their gaze. Needham might be found among the bathers. He was also a practitioner of the open marriage. It is unlikely that his wife, Dorothy, the daughter of his Cambridge mentor, was much of a sexual wanderer, but Needham was a notorious womanizer. Of course there was one woman in particular who caught his fancy, and sparked Needham’s life work. 有缘千里来相会 She was named Lu Gwei-djen, and she was Chinese, born thirty-nine years before in the city of Nanjing, and a scientist like himself. They had met at Cambridge six years earlier…In falling headlong for Gwei-djen, Joseph Needham found that he also became enraptured by her country. She taught him her language, and he now spoke, wrote, and read it with a fair degree of fluency. She had suggested that he travel to China and see for himself what a truly astonishing country it was—so different, she kept insisting, from the barbaric and enigmatic empire most westerners believed it to be. Lu Gwei-djen was a gifted biology researcher who came to Cambridge specifically to study with Needham and his wife, also a high-level scientist. Six months in, she and Needham were an item. Dorothy put up with it. Lu Gewi-djen – from HCSC Foundation – Needham - from USA Today The times were dramatic when Needham made his first visit to China in 1943. Japan occupied a considerable portion of the country. The trip took years to arrange, having to run a gauntlet of political interference. But once he arrived Needham immediately began identifying elements of contemporary Chinese civilization, technology and science, that dated back hundreds, and sometimes thousands of years, predating similar abilities in the west. He found that much of what was presumed to have originated in Europe had in fact begun in the Middle Kingdom. Needham made it his life’s work to dig into the history of all the Chinese science and technology history he could get his hands on to feed what he already knew would be his magnum opus. He travelled extensively in the non-occupied areas of China, at times barely escaping ahead of Japanese invaders. Although he compiled a massive amount of information, the crux of his concern rested on what would come to be called The Needham Question or The Grand Question, why…had modern science originated only in the western world? Much later on…a second question presented itself—namely why, during the previous fourteen centuries, had China been so much more successful than Europe in acquiring knowledge of natural phenomena and using it for human benefit? Simon Winchester tracks Needham’s life from early childhood until his passing at age 95. He worked until the very end. And a remarkable life it was. His focus, of course, is on the time in which Needham acquired an interest in China and the subsequent lifetime labors. (只要功夫深,铁杵磨成针) A fair bit of ink is given to his relationship with Lu Gwei-djen, as it should be. And there is considerable reportage on Needham’s political views, and the trouble those got him into during the shameful McCarthy period of the Cold War. (一人难称百人心/众口难调) This makes for fascinating reading. Winchester also lets us in on what a pain in the neck it was for Needham, however, intrepid, to make his way around China on his investigations, in the absence of reliable transport. His life and status at Cambridge comes in for a look as well. Like the poor we will always have office politics with us. (强龙难压地头蛇 ) Joseph Needham is indeed one of the most remarkable people of the 20th century. I confess I had never before heard of him, which may say more about my educational shortcomings than Needham’s undeserved obscurity, but I will presume that there are many like me, (fewer, to be sure, on the eastern side of the pond) to whom the story of Joseph Needham will be a revelation. Simon Winchester has made a career out of writing about great accomplishments and the people responsible. (一步一个脚印儿) He has done us all a service to bring this amazing character to our attention. With the growth of China into one of the premier economic and military powers on the planet, it may not ensure a good fortune, but it would probably be a worthwhile thing to know as much as possible about its history and culture. Publication - 2008 Review posted – 3/6/15 =============================EXTRA STUFF Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages An interesting wiki on the Historiography of science If you feel like getting a start on reading Needham’s life work, you might check in with the Needham Research Institute . There are many photographs available there taken by Needham on his China visits. A few other books by Simon Winchester - -----The Perfectionists -----Pacific -----Krakatoa -----Atlantic -----The Map That Changed the World -----The Professor and the Madman There are plenty more Winchester books out there. I listed only the ones I have read. The following are the full entries for the Chinese items included in the review. I found them in the China Highlights site. 有缘千里来相会 yǒu yuán qiān lǐ lái xiāng huì - Fate brings people together no matter how far apart they may be. This proverb points out that human relationships are decreed by Fate. 只要功夫深,铁杵磨成针 (zhǐ yào gōng fū shēn, tiě chǔ mó chéng zhēn) - If you work hard enough at it, you can grind even an iron rod down to a needle. This proverb encourages us to persevere in whatever we undertake. Just as the English proverb has it:"Constant drilling can wear away a stone". 一人难称百人心/众口难调(yī rén nán chèn bǎi rén xīn / zhòng kǒu nán tiáo) - It is hard to please everyone. 强龙难压地头蛇 (qiáng lóng nán yā dìtóu shé) - Even a dragon (from the outside) finds it hard to control a snake in its old haunt. This means: Powerful outsiders can hardly afford to neglect local bullies. 一步一个脚印儿( yī bù yī gè jiǎo yìnr ): Every step leaves its print; work steadily and make solid progress.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Cecily

    "No knowledge is ever to be wasted or despised." (Dr Needham, snr) Every hobby has an intellectual angle, and Needham (jr) was obsessively interested in everything. An exhilarating change from my usual fare (though it fits with my fondness for China and Cambridge): a biography of Joseph Needham (1900-1995), an eccentric but brilliant multilingual Cambridge biochemist who fell in love with a Chinese woman, then her language and her country, becoming the world expert in and ambassador for the histor "No knowledge is ever to be wasted or despised." (Dr Needham, snr) Every hobby has an intellectual angle, and Needham (jr) was obsessively interested in everything. An exhilarating change from my usual fare (though it fits with my fondness for China and Cambridge): a biography of Joseph Needham (1900-1995), an eccentric but brilliant multilingual Cambridge biochemist who fell in love with a Chinese woman, then her language and her country, becoming the world expert in and ambassador for the history of scientific discovery in China. He was also a free-loving Christian, a luxury-loving communist sympathiser, friend of the powerful, a fantastically organised workaholic, an enthusiastic but clumsy dancer, a diplomat, nudist, co-founder of UNESCO, Master of Gonville and Caius, and more. His first trip to China was during WW2, when part of the country was under Japanese control. His role was to visit and support scientists there by boosting morale, getting books and equipment, and general diplomacy. But his own interests shone through and took over. The scope of his investigations and the scale of what he wrote is truly staggering. It ended up as a series of 24 books, under the title "Science and Civilisation in China", published over more than 50 years, some volumes of which have never been out of print. "His search for the Chinese origin of just about everything... the central obsession of his life." What he searched for, he largely found. The story of how this came about involves derring-do adventure, serendipity (good and bad), politics, war, globe-trotting, biological warfare (or not), unconventional relationships, the Unabomber(!), adulation and disgrace, espionage, and above all, extraordinary insights into China. Amazing China The three inventions that Francis Bacon said most profoundly changed the world were all invented in China (the compass, printing, and gunpowder) long before the rest of the world reinvented them, as were many, many more. And Needham found proof - by the cartload (literally). For instance, there were written decrees prohibiting selling gunpowder to Tartars in AD1076, two centuries before Berthold Schwartz's alleged discovery of it, and the famous Diamond Sutra was printed from wood blocks six centuries before Gutenberg or Caxton. Water, especially controlling rivers and crossings, has long been key in ruling China. Technology reflects that. Needham found a dam, more than two thousand years old, stone bridges nearly 1,500 years old, and a suspension bridge more than 300 years old, all still functioning. Even something a modern reader may think of trivial, can be crucial, such as the stirrup, enabling riders to stay in the saddle for longer, further, and over rougher terrain. The number and especially the rate of inventions (estimated as 15 major inventions per century) is unsurpassed. Needham's "Needham Question" The conundrum for Needham was, why, if the Chinese were so clever and so endlessly inquisitive, inventive and creative, had they for so long been so poor and scientifically backward? Why were they so far ahead for so long, and then stalled around 1500 AD, after which scientific progress switched to the west? When Winchester finally considers possible answers (in the epilogue), he concludes there is no good answer, but the consensus is that the Chinese "stopped trying". Cultural hegemony meant there was no need for a competitive advantage, and the culture has always been totalitarian. It felt rushed and inadequate and somewhat disrespectful to the man and the work he was praising. But taking the much longer view (surely appropriate for such an ancient culture), as China rises, maybe we should consider those few centuries as a mere blip? In the words of a sign at a Chinese space base: "Without haste. Without fear. We conquer the world." Questions about Needham What about the man himself? He was a principled man, though many of his principles did not align with the establishment of the time. He would certainly have been a wonderful, and perhaps rather intimidating man to meet. He undoubtedly loved Chinese culture and people, but nevertheless, one has to question the motives and actions of a European gathering so many documents and artifacts. Many were given - often unsolicited, and he made good use of them in evangelising for China, but whether that means all those documents should remain in the Needham Institute in Cambridge in perpetuity is harder to say. Also, as Chrissie asks in her review (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), was scientific cooperation the only reason the British government sent an academic all that way, at great expense, during a war? He mixed with spies (amongst others), but said almost nothing about them, but as a socialist and known communist sympathiser, he would surely not have been trusted as a spy, would he? Maybe it was just a last blast of Britain's colonial mindset, spiced up with a dash of guilt for the shameful opium wars? Could there ever by another Needham - one who knows SO much about so many things (without resorting to the internet)? I suspect not, which is just one reason why this his life story is so important. Paean to Who/What? Winchester promises much. He says early on that Needham "would alter this perception of China [as backward], almost overnight and almost single-handedly" - though book goes on to mention many people who helped, Needham was an overpowering driving force. Needham's life's work was a tribute to the country he came to love so much (sometimes too uncritically). This book is a tribute to Needham. It's a good and enjoyable book, and I don't think I can stomach 24 volumes of Needham's work, but it inevitably feels at one remove to the true inspiration of all that passion an effort. A Chinese aphorism, written in his college room, would be a suitable epitaph: "The man departs - there remains his shadow." Facts, facts, facts - but it reads more like a story That's a good thing. There's an index, bibliography, timeline and most importantly, a list of some of the inventions and discoveries credited with originating in China - tens, hundreds or even thousands of years before they were known in the rest of the world. Issues with Winchester's Style It's very readable. Definitely 4*. But I nearly demoted it to 3*. I've not read Winchester before, so I wasn't sure if some of the very detailed impressions of obscure details were imagined by him. I found that a little irritating at first, but as I realised the scale and quantity of Needham's diaries, notebooks and letters, I relaxed and assumed Winchester was sticking to a broadly factual account. Nevertheless, there were a few factual aspects I would quibble with: * Did he check the rather hyperbolic claim that Morris dancing is "the oldest unchanged dance in England"? How would you check it anyway? And that 1946-7 was "the most terrible British winter of all time"! * He certainly doesn't seem to have checked his claim that the word "punnet" derives from Mr Punnett, a strawberry-growing relative of someone Needham met. Everywhere I looked gave the origin as unknown (first appearing in print around 1822), with no mention of stawberries. * When considering aspects of China that are unchanging, even in the 21st century, he cites the writing system, without even passing mention of the simplified script used in mainland China for half a century (not in Hong Kong and Taiwan) or the increasing use of Pinyin. He also has an occasional tendency to repeat himself and to write sentences with a rather odd (though not incorrect) word order. Perhaps one should blame the editor - though the latter could be a deliberate stylistic choice. For instance, the bit of the longer quote above, "Why... had they for so long been so poor and...". It felt so unnatural, I had to retype it twice to get it right. Another was "This hubris, inevitably contributed to the problems that caused the empire in time to flounder and fall" (if you don't want to use commas, wouldn't "in time" be more natural at the end?). I realise I'm being picky, but having noticed it, I can't not mention it. The epilogue is troubling in a different way. Winchester appears to have visited Chongqing to compare it with the city Needham knew. I've been there myself, and it is an extraordinary place, "Part Blade Runner, part Shinjuko, part Dickensian London" sums it up well. But as he finally attempts to tackle "The Needham Question", too little and too late, Winchester's language takes a slightly nasty tone where he muses on "national smugness" and a general "attitude of ineluctable and self-knowing Chinese superiority". Quotes etc * Learning Chinese was "a liberation... for it got you entirely out of the prison of alphabetic words, and into the crystalline world of ideographic characters." * After trying and failing at a chaste and semi-monastic life, he decided to "worship the deity on his own term". What hubris. * He and Dorothy had an open marriage from the start, and she "decided to accept the affair in a spirit of intellectually tolerant and fashionable left-wing complaisance". * A review of one of his books likened it to Proust! "Proust and Needham have made of remembrance both an act of moral justice and of high art" - whatever that means! (Steiner in 1973.) I read this partly on the basis of reviews by and discussions with: Caroline and Will Thank you!

  3. 4 out of 5

    Lynne King

    I cannot recall when I last felt as passionate about a book as I do with this spellbinding work by Simon Winchester. I am also passionate about the amazing life of Joseph Needham, an Englishman who was born at the end of the Victorian era in 1900, who rose to such splendid heights in academia, fell from grace due to his views on the American armed forces using biological weapons during the Korean War and was finally vindicated, leading to his works on China. So purely as a taster and the rest is I cannot recall when I last felt as passionate about a book as I do with this spellbinding work by Simon Winchester. I am also passionate about the amazing life of Joseph Needham, an Englishman who was born at the end of the Victorian era in 1900, who rose to such splendid heights in academia, fell from grace due to his views on the American armed forces using biological weapons during the Korean War and was finally vindicated, leading to his works on China. So purely as a taster and the rest is up to you to read the book to find out the full story: Needham was an academic from Caius College, Cambridge with a doctorate in BioChemistry, happily living in an open marriage (13 September 1924) with Dorothy Moyle (aka Dophi), also an academic, who specialized in the biochemistry of muscle. They remained devoted to one another until her death. Needham was flamboyant, apart from being extremely clever, he loved women, was an active nudist, linguist, socialist and supporter of communism, and a trencherman apart from other things. His life couldn’t have been better but his world was turned upside down in 1937 when he met Lu Gwei-djen, the brilliant young biochemist from Nanjing, in China. They took to one another immediately, although it was six months before they became lovers. She was to remain his mistress and muse throughout her life. Dophi also liked her very much and the three were often together. But it was Gwei-djen who was to be the catalyst in Needham finally going to China. Her father had always told her that China had made a greater contribution to world science than anyone in the west had done. She kept stressing this fact to Needham and in the end he went to China to find out all about these inventions. They were all amazing. Luck always plays a part in life however and Needham was selected in 1939 to take part in a mission to China to help the country’s academics who had all disappeared into the hinterland. The Sino-Japanese war that began in 1937 had the Japanese targeting all the Chinese universities and thus the reason for their fleeing. But it was all of the inventions that Needham discovered in China from 1943-1946, the people he met and the lifestyle that were to remain with him all his life even when he returned to Cambridge; his helping to set up UNESCO in Paris that were to lead to his lifetime work, “Science and Civilization in China”, Cambridge Univ. Press, 7 volumes, started in 1954 and continuing until Needham’s death. Even so, at the end of his life he often puzzled over the fact that China had suddenly lost its drive in inventions and was overtaken by the west. Why? He was never to find out. He had various ideas but nothing concrete. A fabulous book! I’ve ordered his first volume of “Science and Civilization in China” and I cannot wait to read it. A trifle pricey but worth every penny! PS: https://www.globalresearch.ca/the-lon... Quite an interesting report. Whether true or not has not been proved.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Riku Sayuj

    Great background reading for anyone contemplating the epic task of taking on the fifteen (and more) volumes of Science and Civilisation in China -- one the greatest compendiums of knowledge, a supreme feat of imagination and will power, and one of the most lasting bridges built between the east and the west. Winchester provides the historic and political backdrop for the composition and allows us to understand why it was such an important work — why it was so necessary and so brave an undertaking Great background reading for anyone contemplating the epic task of taking on the fifteen (and more) volumes of Science and Civilisation in China -- one the greatest compendiums of knowledge, a supreme feat of imagination and will power, and one of the most lasting bridges built between the east and the west. Winchester provides the historic and political backdrop for the composition and allows us to understand why it was such an important work — why it was so necessary and so brave an undertaking, and how challenging a task it really was. Winchester also brings alive for us the eccentric and lovable man behind the work and thus makes the forbidding work more accessible by humanizing it, since we now know the moving will that animates it. It is a grand narrative and quite befitting such a grand achievement.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jason Koivu

    Joseph Needham A man with a beautiful mind, one seemingly forged for the hard sciences - he worked in a college laboratory at Cambridge University specializing in embryology and morphogenesis - betrayed itself with that willful miscreant known as love, and in this case it was a love for China. Needham threw himself into the study of Chinese history and some thought at the time that he'd thrown away all he had to offer the world. But he provided them wrong, proved there was more in him than they'd Joseph Needham A man with a beautiful mind, one seemingly forged for the hard sciences - he worked in a college laboratory at Cambridge University specializing in embryology and morphogenesis - betrayed itself with that willful miscreant known as love, and in this case it was a love for China. Needham threw himself into the study of Chinese history and some thought at the time that he'd thrown away all he had to offer the world. But he provided them wrong, proved there was more in him than they'd imagined, and more importantly, proved there was more to China than the west could've possibly have perceived. As the start of my self-imposed studies of China (I have a brother living there and well, everything's coming up China these days, so why not?), I wanted to go with something not too taxing. Their history is thousands of years long, very rich, seemingly complex to this uninitiated pupil, and with a language quite full of words and names as unpronounceable to me as they are impossible to consign to memory. So I needed someone I trusted holding my hand as I took baby steps on mostly familiar ground to start with. Simon Winchester fit the bill. I've read a couple of his books before and enjoyed them for their lively rendering of past events that don't always seem that lively to begin with (see the making of the Oxford English dictionary). His topic this time was an Englishman to whom China was a new discovery of sorts. Thus I was able to learn a few things about a country as foreign to me as a foreign country can be without feeling overwhelmed or becoming inundated with facts, historical figures and dates, most of which would mean nothing to me the first time hearing them. No, I've stayed away from the "From Yao to Mao" 5000 year history course offered by the Teaching Company that's been sitting in my ipod for a few weeks now. I'll get to that soon enough, but first it's books like this - and even novels like The Good Earth that will help ease me into this whole colossal leviathan that is China. In a side note, I think a good story could be cobbled out of Needham's life and turned into a ripping good yarn for the big screen with Michael Palin in the lead. He's a dead ringer!

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jim Fonseca

    A biography of Joseph Needham. One of the ancients said a full life, like a full day, is long enough. When Needham died in his early 90's, two days after he came to work his usual full day in the library, he went to a long-deserved rest. He was the author (and is some cases co-author or organizer) of the 20-plus volumes of Science and Civilization in China, a work of such magnitude that it has been compared to the OED. The work, published between 1954 and 2008 is still in print, and it has has b A biography of Joseph Needham. One of the ancients said a full life, like a full day, is long enough. When Needham died in his early 90's, two days after he came to work his usual full day in the library, he went to a long-deserved rest. He was the author (and is some cases co-author or organizer) of the 20-plus volumes of Science and Civilization in China, a work of such magnitude that it has been compared to the OED. The work, published between 1954 and 2008 is still in print, and it has has been universally praised by critics. It is a catalog of Chinese achievement proving that they invented everything of significance long before the Europeans, Greeks or Egyptians including such things as printing, gunpowder, inoculation, and even biological weapons. The exploits of Needham, a biology professor at Cambridge, could have filled several lives. His archaeological exploits were akin to Indiana Jones. His wife agreed to an open marriage in the 1930's, which in practice meant that she was faithful to him while he had a lifelong mistress and many adventures on the side. Needham's mistress was Chinese woman, originally one of his graduate students. He fell in love not only with her but with her dense, complex culture. Needham was a radical socialist, a writer of letters to the Times, a fan of Morris (British folk) dancing, a regular guest preacher in an ultra-liberal church and late in life, a globe-trotting fund raiser trying to finish the project and create a library at Cambridge to house his collection of Chinese works. Needham fell out of favor with the establishment in the 1950's when he was duped by the Russians into providing scientific verification to a report that claimed the US had used biological weapons on North Korea. Subsequently he was banned from entering the US during the McCarthy era. All this and a wonderful love story to boot: when Needham's elderly wife died, Needham married his Chinese mistress when they were both in their 80's.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Trevor

    Yet another fascinating book and story by a master. There is one thing you can say about Simon Winchester, he does like a good polymath and that love of learning and the learned shines through every page. In a world where the next Vice President of the USA (or President if the Bible’s allotted three score and ten are anything to go by) could be someone who could more accurately be described as a polymoron – someone dangerously ignorant of just about everything except, obviously, how to skin a moo Yet another fascinating book and story by a master. There is one thing you can say about Simon Winchester, he does like a good polymath and that love of learning and the learned shines through every page. In a world where the next Vice President of the USA (or President if the Bible’s allotted three score and ten are anything to go by) could be someone who could more accurately be described as a polymoron – someone dangerously ignorant of just about everything except, obviously, how to skin a moose – such a love of learning as exemplified by the many heroes in Winchester’s books just shines and shines in an increasingly dark world. Needham is a fascinating character. He is the polymath’s polymath. The sweep and scope of his learning is simply breathtaking. Given that he was to be responsible for an enormous work on the science and culture of China – apparently ranked along side the OED as one of the greatest contributions of British learning to the world – I guess he really did need to be fascinated by just about everything. Apparently his father would leave little mottos about the place while Needham was growing up, one of which was to the effect that no learning was ever wasted. It was something that would prove apt in Needham’s life. Needham is that most rare of men, one who lives life to the full and then some. A man of diverse and (let’s be frank) bizarre interests – Morris Dancing does rank as ‘bizarre’ in my book. He was a man who invested in everything an enthusiasm verging on obsession. And isn’t that exactly what is called for in life? If life must be lived, it should be lived obsessively. Although, Joseph Needham’s obsession with a rather energetic version of Morris Dancing did lead someone to say of him that you needed to “watch out for your toes if / you’re dancing with Joseph” – which I think, in itself, amply repays any exertions expended by Needham in his dancing and almost excuses the fact that his dance of choice was Morris. Oh, the other interesting thing was that Morris Dancing comes to England via the Mores and was originally Morish Dancing. Even when Needham was wrong, as it appears he might have been once or twice, at least he had the good sense to be gloriously wrong. Lorena and I went to see Simon Winchester on Monday night. He was out promoting this book and I’d only read the first couple of chapters and so was worried that he would ‘spoil’ the damn thing for me. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. The evening was pure delight. And as Lorena said afterwards – he is a true showman. Her favourite line being, “But I won’t bore you with the rest of that story” – and this said just when the audience was sitting on the edge of their seats with their tongues hanging out desperate for even the slightest morsel more. I think my favourite line of the night was when a man (older man, obviously) asked if the book had more detail on something raised by Needham in his great work. The man said that this particular point hadn’t so far been raised in Winchester’s book, but he still had 50 pages or so left to read. Simon replied, “Oh no, if you’ve only 50 pages to go then I’m afraid it is down hill all the way from there”. This is also one of my favourite expressions, one I over use, and so that in itself amused me greatly. However, the man asking the question – who was nothing if not dogged (as men of a certain age become, and please God, spare me from that) – asked why this infinitely important factoid was left out of Winchester’s book. As Winchester pointed out, he wasn’t seeking to compress the whole of Needham’s seven volume, multi part work into 250 pages – which would, in fact, have be impossible anyway. I doubt the man went away at all satisfied with this answer. Which, of course, is the downside to single-minded obsession. Now – the book. Needham fell in love with a Chinese scientist in the 1930s who then taught him Chinese. From this he became fascinated with Chinese science and their remarkable list of firsts – In Australia this book is called “Bomb, Book and Compass”, just to be different, I guess – but the reason for this title is that Frances Bacon once said that the inventions of these three things utterly changed the world –and yes, naturally, all three are Chinese inventions, often having been discovered and used in China many centuries before their use (often only after having been stolen from China) in the West. Which beings us to the Needham question, or grand question – just why (given China’s impressive head start) did the West overtake China in scientific discovery? In fact, why, since about 1500, has China been almost aggressively not ‘progressing’ in science? Winchester points out – taken against the vast scope of Chinese history – the future may view this question, the question of a mere 500 year pause as a bit of a hiccough. All the same, I do think I tend to agree with Jared Diamond on this score – that China could afford to become complacent as no European country could afford to become, because it was so huge and so ‘monocultural’, for want of a better term. The lack of direct competition had a stifling effect on Chinese inventiveness. However, that particular lacking is now gone and China is once again thundering to the forefront of scientific development. I found this book to be utterly fascinating and on a topic I know all too little about. I must try to track down some of Science and Civilisation in China – Needham’s great work – but someone is going to have to find a way of squeezing some extra hours into the day. I enjoyed this muchly.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Patricia

    When I was a student at the University of Oslo studying Chinese, Joseph Needham used to come up to our department. As one of the few students with a car, it was my job to pick him up at the airport, ferry him about town, and generally take care of him. I was with him at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo while he studied the construction of the Viking ships, remarking at some of the similarities with ancient Chinese shipbuilding (a subject mentioned in the book). When he left one of his ever-present When I was a student at the University of Oslo studying Chinese, Joseph Needham used to come up to our department. As one of the few students with a car, it was my job to pick him up at the airport, ferry him about town, and generally take care of him. I was with him at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo while he studied the construction of the Viking ships, remarking at some of the similarities with ancient Chinese shipbuilding (a subject mentioned in the book). When he left one of his ever-present cigars in the ashtray of my car I didn't throw it away for months although I hate cigars. Reading the story of this remarkable man's life, who introduced the world to the real China and its monumental history and scientific discoveries, was spell-binding because while we all witnessed the brilliance of this man, few of us knew much about his personal life (aside from enjoying a glass of wine or two in the evenings with we students). I guess all those visits to Oslo paid off because one of my professors, Christoph Harbsmeier, ended up writing one of the later Science & Civilisation volumes.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Caroline

    I found this book an absolutely wonderful read. Its title is perfect. Joseph Needham was an academic, a socialist and a biochemist - and he did indeed love China very deeply. The first part of the book covers his trip to China in 1943. China was at war with the Japanese, and they had overrun a third of the country to the east. He was sent to western China – which was free of Japanese influence. His task there was to do what he could help Chinese scientists carry on working – basically he was an e I found this book an absolutely wonderful read. Its title is perfect. Joseph Needham was an academic, a socialist and a biochemist - and he did indeed love China very deeply. The first part of the book covers his trip to China in 1943. China was at war with the Japanese, and they had overrun a third of the country to the east. He was sent to western China – which was free of Japanese influence. His task there was to do what he could help Chinese scientists carry on working – basically he was an enabler - he got items flown in that they needed for their research. He was also there to fly the British flag. His big awakening was the discovery of how innovative the early Chinese had been in inventing things. All sorts of breakthroughs he had attributed to Europe he now found had in fact been discovered first in China. He led eleven expeditions while there, covering 30,000 miles, and learning an incredible amount about Chinese scientific achievements. It was absolutely fascinating to read about his adventures in this country. Whilst there he also met, and became good friends with - Zhou Enlai – later to become China’s first premier and foreign minister under Mao. I thought that the second part of the book – dealing with his return to the UK – would be a let down, but it was every bit as exciting as the first half. Initially upon his return he was lauded for all his work in China, and his proposition that he write a book about early Chinese inventions was greeted with enthusiasm. His college at Cambridge give him leave to stop teaching, so he could concentrate on writing this magnum opus. He had a massive amount of raw material to sift through, both what he had gathered and what other people had sent him. Life was looking good. Then he had a huge fall from grace. In 1952 the Chinese accused America of using biological warfare against the North Koreans in the Korean War. Needham was sent out to investigate and concluded the Chinese were right.....and the British and the Americans were absolutely furious. British newspapers came down on him with vitriol, as did his fellow academics. How dare he come down on the side of the Chinese! History proved them right too – the sites Needham had been shown turned out to have been rigged up by Soviet Union and Chinese agents. Needham was in disgrace. Then again (there is so much excitement in this book!) there was another mammoth turn around in his fortunes – in 1954 his first book about Chinese scientific inventions was published - and everybody thought it was brilliant. Suddenly the untouchable became the golden boy. In the end he wrote a complete series of books on the subject, all hailed as outstanding. After various political upheavals at his college, he rose up the academic ladder to eventually become master of the college in 1965. Throughout his career he always remained passionately committed to socialist principles. Most of all, he is remembered for revolutionizing attitudes in the West towards Chinese achievements.... His books have never been out of print. The above is a very squashed up description of what is a fascinatingly rich and insightful book. It is also enormously readable, and I had difficulty putting it down. Highly recommended.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Vaishali

    Please skip the audiobook, read by a narrator as arrogant as Joseph Needham himself :) I expected more excerpts from his infamous multi-volume tome, but instead was treated to a fascinating trek into 1930's rural China through the eyes of this brilliant womanizer. Entertaining but enraging. Quotes : ------- "The master said 'Some have made flying cars with wood from the inner part of the juju tree, using ox-leather straps fastened to returning blades so as to set the machine in motion.' - Phu Poo T Please skip the audiobook, read by a narrator as arrogant as Joseph Needham himself :) I expected more excerpts from his infamous multi-volume tome, but instead was treated to a fascinating trek into 1930's rural China through the eyes of this brilliant womanizer. Entertaining but enraging. Quotes : ------- "The master said 'Some have made flying cars with wood from the inner part of the juju tree, using ox-leather straps fastened to returning blades so as to set the machine in motion.' - Phu Poo Tza, 320 A.D. from Science and Civilization in China, Vol. IV, Part II" "John Hay, America's Secretary of State at the turn of the 20th century, remarked in 1899 that China was now the storm-center of the world, and whoever took the time and trouble to understand this mighty empire would have a key to politics for the next five centuries." "... The Chinese, far from existing beyond the mainstream of human civilization, had in fact created much of it... Over the eons, the Chinese had amassed the range of civilizing achievements that the outsiders who would be their ultimate beneficiaries had never even vaguely imagined... printing, the compass... blast furnaces, arched bridges... vaccination against smallpox... toilet paper, seismoscopes... powered flight..." "One of the things which the early Portuguese visitors to China in the 16th century found the most extraordinary about the bridges was the fact that they existed along roads often far from any human habitation." "President Roosevelt offered soothing words; his family too had long and intimate links with China, the Delanos having been partners in one of the greatest Chinese tea shipping firms..." "He went down local caves and found to his amazement scores of the finest measuring machines and scales squirreled away there, safe from bombing... men in white coats patiently titrating and calibrating and weighing with precise lenses... hundreds of feet below ground." "China, 4000 miles from Shanghai to Kashgar, 3000 miles from Hinan Island to the Gobi Desert, was like a vast shapeless sponge for any invading army. It could soak up and fold and suffocate endless supplies of men and material, and still itself remain healthy, whole, and intact." "Stein was and still is widely villified in China for his trickery and plunder, as were a succession of greedy treasure hunters who came after him. Among them was Langdon Warner of Harvard, an art historian who in due course carried off 26 of the Duhuang cave frescoes, and did so with such dash and swagger that he became one of Steven Spielberg's models for Indiana Jones." "Four thousand years ago, when we couldn't even read, the Chinese knew all the absolutely useful things we boast about today." - Voltaire, The Philosophical Dictionary, 1764. .

  11. 5 out of 5

    Shira

    This book got me from the very start with his constant question of Why no developement. I was very impressed by the comment of former Secretary of State Haye (Haye?) about 1920 to the effect that one could tell what policy to adopt for the next five hundred years by watching China, despite the at that time apparent lack of effect China had on the world. What I love about the book overall is Needham's single-minded devotion to learning in detail about the language, although there is more than one This book got me from the very start with his constant question of Why no developement. I was very impressed by the comment of former Secretary of State Haye (Haye?) about 1920 to the effect that one could tell what policy to adopt for the next five hundred years by watching China, despite the at that time apparent lack of effect China had on the world. What I love about the book overall is Needham's single-minded devotion to learning in detail about the language, although there is more than one, culture(s) and history of the land from which his mistress came, and then that he, she, and his wife shared that devotion. And that, most importantly of all, he set the historical record straight on the most ancient accomplishments of Chinese civilization, things that even Chinese historians had not had or taken the time to dust off and publish. Then he fought tooth and nail against racism and classism of all forms (perhaps thanks to that stay with a working class family when he was a young boy). What a tenacious and driven person, to whom we all owe a debt of history and following one's own conscience for the working classes, even if he was a bit overly naive at times.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Chrissie

    Simon Winchester never fails to entice the reader, and here in the audiobook version he marvelously reads his own book. He teaches effortlessly. He infuses humor into his lines. He writes about characters and places and times that are interesting. His books focus not only on the details but also encompass the larger picture; you are delivered not only one man's life but also world events. In this book we follow Joseph Needham from childhood to death. He lived from 1900-1995. He was a bio-chemist Simon Winchester never fails to entice the reader, and here in the audiobook version he marvelously reads his own book. He teaches effortlessly. He infuses humor into his lines. He writes about characters and places and times that are interesting. His books focus not only on the details but also encompass the larger picture; you are delivered not only one man's life but also world events. In this book we follow Joseph Needham from childhood to death. He lived from 1900-1995. He was a bio-chemist at Cambridge University. In 1943 he was sent to China by the Royal Society as the Director of the Sino-British Science Cooperation Office to promote scientific cooperation, and author of momentous seventeen volume opus The Science and Civilization in China. This is only a listing of his most prominent feats. During the Korean War he led an investigation of America’s alleged use of biological weapons. He established the scientific department of UNESCO. He was a womanizer, with a wife in Britain and a mistress in New York and a string of women in China too. His wife, his mistress and he were the best of friends…. from beginning to end; clearly he was of the Edwardian rather than the Victorian age! A socialist, a chain smoker, a lover of trains and fast cars and pretty women, lots of pretty women. I am repeating that for emphasis. And foremost of all his loves was his love for China, instilled by his life-long mistress of Chinese birth. She was from Nanjing. No children, the threesome's child was in fact China. Joseph Needham had one primary mission in life and that was to make the world aware of China's role in fostering innumerable scientific inventions. China was the first to invent the plow, the wheelbarrow, the kite and playing cards, the compass, the printing press, the stirrup, toilet paper, the umbrella, the small-pox vaccine, suspension bridges, tree grafts. I have named but a few. Needham has calculated that China was the source of 15 major inventions per century, until the fifteen hundreds and then the creativity stopped. Needham looked at that too, and poses the Needham Question: why did it stop and what does the future hold for China? All of this is covered in Winchester’s and Needham’s own book. I questioned if Needham was only sent to China to promote scientific cooperation. It feels rather odd that while so many were killed in the Japanese-Sino conflict, Needham was there solely to promote scientific cooperation. His travels in China during the war are both exciting and interesting, but was he sent there with another motive too? That was a question I pondered. Spies are mentioned, and yet Needham never reveals their secrets. I wish Winchester had covered this with more depth, but otherwise I loved the book.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Dr. Carl Ludwig Dorsch

    A chatty, repetitive, but easily readable map of the life of Joseph Needham, a diligent weaving of what must have been many hundreds of notes into an often cinematic narrative with countless curious digressions along the way. As with perhaps any biography though, I am left with questions, large and small. I’ll list four I cannot escape. Before that however, I feel compelled to note the occasional and surprising instances of Winchester verging on unpleasant condescension toward the Chinese them A chatty, repetitive, but easily readable map of the life of Joseph Needham, a diligent weaving of what must have been many hundreds of notes into an often cinematic narrative with countless curious digressions along the way. As with perhaps any biography though, I am left with questions, large and small. I’ll list four I cannot escape. Before that however, I feel compelled to note the occasional and surprising instances of Winchester verging on unpleasant condescension toward the Chinese themselves, as, for example, in “the imperturbable persistence of the Chinese people” or passages on pages 258-59 describing what might be seen as a certain habitual “Chinese” smugness. Winchester lived in Hong Kong for a dozen years before the return of the colony to the PRC and has written at least 5 books on East Asian topics; one doesn’t know how those experiences may have informed a sense on his part of a “Chinese character.” Four Questions: 1) Needham made his name at Cambridge with the three volume “Chemical Embryology” (1931, when he was 31 years of age) and then “Biochemistry and Morphogenesis” in 1942. (He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1941.) How does this work (and Needham’s other biochemical research) stand today? 2) Winchester presents Needham’s work and presence in China from 1942 to 1946 (ostensibly directing the “Sino-British Science Co-operation Office”) as wholly non-political, aside from Needham’s evident communist sympathies. The impression given is that, even as China was in fact a battlefield of empires, with both Americans and Britons (not to mention the Soviets) covertly and overtly active, Needham’s sojourn was innocent to the point of child-like, touring universities, laboratories and technical industrial sites (all the while chatting up any attractive woman he happened upon) with a boyish enthusiasm directed only to the preservation of the workings of science amidst the calamities of war – albeit with the almost unspoken subsidiary benefit to the Nationalist and Communist war efforts. The closest Winchester comes to suggesting otherwise is in the description of the five days Needham spent with Murray MacLehose in Fuzhou in 1944. MacLehose was formally a British vice-consul, but actually, Winchester says, was training Chinese guerrillas “to operate behind Japanese lines and carry out sabotage.” Needham excised all details of these five days from his diaries. Needham’s project in China, and the “Sino-British Science Co-operation Office” which was created for it, seems to have been a creature of the Foreign Office, the War Office and perhaps the Singapore based Far East War Council. Though talk of aid to Chinese universities had been stirring in Oxford and Cambridge since 1939 or earlier, the British Foreign Office doesn’t seem to have fully enlisted in this specific scheme until 1942, after the British and American entry into war with Japan. Winchester describes Needham’s 11 “expeditions” in China (covering some 30,000 miles) as each having “a threefold official purpose”: First, “to bring simple good cheer to the men and women working in China’s more remote scientific outposts.” “Second, to boost their morale – and to keep their vitally important scientific work going – he was to hand deliver any equipment they needed. In performing this task he saw himself as something of a latter-day Father Christmas…” “Third there was the nakedly diplomatic motive: he was to travel around China waving the flag for Britain. Few of his colleagues in the embassy had been granted as much freedom – and as generous a budget – to wander…” Winchester then mentions a “seldom mentioned” possible fourth purpose, this being what might possibly be gained from Needham’s contacts with the communists, citing in particular his relations with Zhou Enlai. Winchester however adds “There is no evidence that Needham was ever in any sense a spy: prudence and scientific neutrality were his watchwords; he was always careful to retain the trust of the Chinese Communists as well as that of the Nationalist government to which he was formally accredited.” I suspect “evidence” might be the operative word there; I would be curious to have a more thorough and convincing explanation of the “Sino-British Science Co-operation Office.” 3) What exactly is the “Needham Project,” i.e. the 27 some volumes of “Science and Civilisation in China,” the Needham Research Institute, and all the rest? Winchester roots it in the question Needham scribbled to himself in 1942, before he left for China: “Sci. in general in China – why not develop?” taken to mean “why did it not develop” in, at least, the same pattern as “European science.” That may be the "The Needham Question" (one which may or may not have an answer, or even be reasonably formulated), but it is not a real description of the project of “Science and Civilisation in China.” What is this thing? And how does it stand in the eyes of anyone who might be able to comprehend it? Are we merely being told in the Roman alphabet what is already known out of it? Is it, aside from the alphabetization, so remarkably valuable in its compass or organization? Is this all merely a digest of or annotated commentary on the Kuchin Tu-shu Chi-cheng (the encyclopedic 18th century 6,000 volume “Complete Collection of Illustrations and Writings of Ancient and Modern Times”) or the 1,500 volumes of the Siku Quanshu (“The Complete Books of the Four Imperial Repositories”), or is it something more? And is there a non-Chinese scholar who can answer that question? 4) And finally, who was this person Joseph Needham? Admittedly this sort of question too often remains at the end of any biography, but at times more forcefully than at other times. Aside from the adventures, the scholarship, the nudism, the shared marriage, the odd Christianity, the politics and chain-smoking and Morris dancing, who was this person and how did he become who he was? An only child reading Schlegel’s “Philosophy of History” at ten (in German apparently), in Winchester’s biography he is at Cambridge after five pages, his physician father dead two pages on. Needham remains an outsized character throughout the book, but my sense is that Winchester never came to know him any more intimately as a human person than one would after a long afternoon tea with a famous stranger. The story here is the story, not the person. NOTE: I am grateful to Simon Winchester for telling us the tale of the looting of the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang by Aurel Stein in 1907. Stein himself wrote of what was revealed behind the walled off doorway to what is now known as Cave I6: “Heaped up in layers, but without any order, there appeared in the dim light of the little priest’s lamp a solid mass of manuscript bundles rising to a height of nearly ten feet, and filling, as subsequent measurement showed, close to 500 cubic feet. Not in the driest soil could relics of a ruined site have so completely escaped injury as they had here in a carefully selected rock chamber where, hidden behind a brick wall … these masses of manuscripts had lain undisturbed for centuries.” Stein hauled away twenty-four wagonloads of papers. There were, Winchester writes, “scrolls that had been carried by wandering monks hundreds of years before, written in … Sanskrit, Manichean, Turkish, Runic Turkic, Uighur, Tibetan, Sogdian, Central Asian Brahmi, and classical Chinese.” There was also a 12 foot scroll, seven feet of which contained a series of star charts comprising the world’s oldest known complete star atlas (dating to around 670 CE), and, more famously, the block printed copy of the Diamond Sutra, happening to be, as the British Library has it, "the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book" (868 CE). And, of course, the British Library still has them both.

  14. 4 out of 5

    J.

    Slightly rickety account of the remarkable 20th century life of Joseph Needham, Cambridge Master and author of the mega-sized multi-volume Science & Civilisation In China. In a wildly stormy life that veered from being a founding father of UNESCO to meetings with Mao & Zhou EnLai before there was a Peoples Republic, Mr Needham saw quite a lot. Needham was in a pivotal position during the many phases of the origin of Modern China as a British Foreign Office scientific representative, arriving in Slightly rickety account of the remarkable 20th century life of Joseph Needham, Cambridge Master and author of the mega-sized multi-volume Science & Civilisation In China. In a wildly stormy life that veered from being a founding father of UNESCO to meetings with Mao & Zhou EnLai before there was a Peoples Republic, Mr Needham saw quite a lot. Needham was in a pivotal position during the many phases of the origin of Modern China as a British Foreign Office scientific representative, arriving in the convulsions of 1943. What becomes Needham's life work is his finding that many of the discoveries and inventions routinely accredited to the West were in fact in everyday use in China years, decades, and sometimes centuries before their appearance in the West. Moveable type for the printed page, for example, was not truly a Guttenburg innovation, and this is just one on a long list of Chinese firsts. While this narrative has an unquestionably brilliant subject to chronicle, there is something missing in the resulting account, which too often devolves into paragraphs of lists and similarly bland reportage. This was too recent and too spectacular a life-lived to have so few firsthand sources, so removed an effort, as with this biography. A College Master at Cambridge who strode across academia's greens in his Chinese Scholar's gown, who had both a proper British wife and (just down the street) a Chinese mistress... would seem to merit a slightly less 'matter-of-fact' treatment than given here. In fairness, though, it must have been a balancing act to keep it non-sensational. So, an astonishing life, in an overall workmanlike but uninspired narrative. Still very much worth a read.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Natali

    Simon Winchester does the kind of research that could never be accomplished with a Google search. His work is layered and so impossibly thorough that reading his books makes me fearful that this kind of scholarship could become extinct with the quick-draw research that the net generation has become accustomed to. The Man Who Loved China is about Joseph Needham, a researcher much like Winchester. In fact, it is very meta that one of the world's greatest researchers should write a book about one o Simon Winchester does the kind of research that could never be accomplished with a Google search. His work is layered and so impossibly thorough that reading his books makes me fearful that this kind of scholarship could become extinct with the quick-draw research that the net generation has become accustomed to. The Man Who Loved China is about Joseph Needham, a researcher much like Winchester. In fact, it is very meta that one of the world's greatest researchers should write a book about one of the world's greatest researchers. Needham dedicated his life to documenting scientific discovery in China. Admittedly, I would not want to read any of the six volumes that Needham devoted his life to but I did enjoy reading about his journey. He was a quirky but committed academic - just the kind of men I appreciate. The people and places that crossed his path, seemingly serendipitously, make this story engaging and fun to read. This may not be knowledge that I'll use in my daily life but the holistic nature of the research is inspiring.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

    Also known as "The Man Who Loved China" in American editions (because our versions are necessarily dumbed-down), this is the story of Joseph Needham's quest to understand an Eastern culture to which he was introduced in adulthood. A professor of chemistry and one with no official qualifications to undertake a work of rigorous history, he embarked on one of the most ambitious, lengthy, and meticulously researched pieces of scholarship in human history. At twenty-eight volumes and still in print, Also known as "The Man Who Loved China" in American editions (because our versions are necessarily dumbed-down), this is the story of Joseph Needham's quest to understand an Eastern culture to which he was introduced in adulthood. A professor of chemistry and one with no official qualifications to undertake a work of rigorous history, he embarked on one of the most ambitious, lengthy, and meticulously researched pieces of scholarship in human history. At twenty-eight volumes and still in print, "Science and Civilisation in China" is (I would find out) a modern masterpiece. Simon Winchester has a loving eye for detail, and this is what fills his books with such wonder. He also seems to be more successful when the object of his inquiry is a character rather than a place or epoch (see his brilliant "The Professor and the Madman" to American readers, vs. the less regarded "Korea"). Needham is a perfect study for Winchester's discerning talents - at once brilliant, multilingual, hypersexual, a gymnosophist - one of several new words you will learn - charming and dashing, and, again, brilliant. You will inescapably notice that Professor Needham bears no small resemblance to the author, who has a love for detail, and for whom no small morsel of knowledge is too frivolous to be examined and ingested. Joseph Needham, a married man, was introduced to the Chinese language and culture by Lu Gwei-Djen, a 33-year old Chinese woman who was working in a Cambridge University laboratory under his supervision. This is the fulcrum on which his life would begin to turn, with the full weight of history behind it. It would be such a shame to spoil his extraordinary journey with plot-like summations. As one never to be so blessed with such tremendous mental gifts and interests, I can only understand his story like we enjoy a shooting-star, as a flash of brilliant, incomprehensible wonder, and, minding that Needham's death was at 94 years old, it is always gone too soon.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I do not often hand out a “5” (one was for Winchester’s “The Professor and the Madman”) and will decide on the start count after I finish this review. It is worth no less than a “4.5” if such a ranking existed. After reading “The Professor and the Madman” I could not imagine the author topping or equaling that book. While it may not be everyone’s opinion I thought that that story was so well researched, written, and presented (even the afterwards bits) that anythin I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I do not often hand out a “5” (one was for Winchester’s “The Professor and the Madman”) and will decide on the start count after I finish this review. It is worth no less than a “4.5” if such a ranking existed. After reading “The Professor and the Madman” I could not imagine the author topping or equaling that book. While it may not be everyone’s opinion I thought that that story was so well researched, written, and presented (even the afterwards bits) that anything else he wrote must surely seem poor in comparison. I am very happy to report that this book stands out as another great read and that gives me hope that I shall like many of not all of his other works. So, why “The Man Who Loved China” and not, say “The Map That Changed the World” as the second book of Mr. Winchester’s to read? Primarily for three reasons: First, like “The Professor and the Madman”, this book is about one or two key individuals rather than a place or a thing. Second, I know a little of Chinese history, philosophy, and cultural both ancient and modern. Third, I have experienced first-hand both the mainland (i.e. the PRC) for a single very busy working visit and Taiwan (i.e. the ROC) for several visits of greater and lesser duration spread over a decade. Like the protagonist, I have no formal training in Chinese history, literature, or language, but at least I had a basis for comparison, if not judgment. Personally, I found the story engaging, well-written and clearly well-researched. I find it hard to say why, but despite my affinity for the subject matter and my awe at the accomplishments of Joseph Needham, I find that the tale of the OED still impresses me more by the smallest of margins. Others may feel the opposite it’s that close and I would not argue the point. While I knew some of the material presented as Chinese advances many I had not heard of. I find myself thinking that somehow, sometime, I need to start reading the yet-to-be-completed monster, “Science and Civilisation in China” (British spelling, is correct here). If the writing of it has taken almost 60 years, I wonder how long the reading of it will be! But I am intrigued by it. There’s no Reader’s Digest version however. I guess I’ll have to see what various volumes are priced at and where they can be found…. The book covers a good 50 years on the mid-to-latter 20th century. With great concentrations of detail in Needham’s early professional life and accomplishments, his pre-WWII activities, his wartime stay in China as a British scientific diplomat, and the years after his return. At no time did I find that the book dragged or lost focus. Like most excellent books, I wished it were longer, not shorter. The organization of this book was much more linear than “The Professor and the Madman”; in each case the right choice was made for the topic and the contents. Whether that is a native talent of the author or extremely good editing I am not qualified to say, but the books are superb either way. There are people who won’t like this book; those that retain fear, or anger, or hatred of the socialist takeover of the mainland and the ousting of the Nationalists in 1949, for example. America was one of the harshest anti-PRC countries until 1971/2 when Nixon (“only Nixon could got to China”) opened up relations and formal recognition (with the simultaneous de-recognition of the “Republic of China”). Because this book is about the “China” (i.e. the mainland) once the Nationalists fled to Taiwan they are essentially out of the story. Likewise, the strife, lawlessness and corruption in China during the years between Sun Yat Sen’s final (and successful) revolution against the Qing Empire on 10-10-1911 is given only a few sentences. For those interested in those earlier parts of China’s 20th Century, there are several good books available. Others who may not like this book are those who are hidebound Western-centrics. If you have such a narrow view of history and no desire to consider alternatives this book may not be for you. In a curious way, I find that the theme of “Science and Civilisation in China” and, in turn this book, to be an interesting supplement to Jared Diamond’s “Guns Germs and Steel”. I say supplement rather than counterpoint because the central thrust of each book is not the opposite of the other. So, if you like an exciting story (in so far as there is no fantasy, crime sleuthing, or far-flung future space travels), have an open mind for new facts and experiences, and enjoy good writing, this book is another one to plunk down with. Furthermore, Mr. Winchester is clearly two-for-two and that means that I now have greater standards for those several others that I have placed on my to-read list to meet. But, I don’t expect to be disappointed nor should you. NB: As you can see I have awarded it a full “5”. Perhaps that’s a teensy bit of grade inflation, but if so, it is less than the radius of a Hydrogen atom!

  18. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    My major problem with this book was that the author never gave me any reason to care who Joseph Needham was. The book is entirely about Needham's life - there's not really anything about the work that's purportedly the reason for the book (his histories of China). It was all justabout the life of this guy who doesn't seem very likeable - he was a big-time communist and supporter of the rise of Mao, as well as a personal friend of Zhou Enlai. Even though he did have some interesting adventures, W My major problem with this book was that the author never gave me any reason to care who Joseph Needham was. The book is entirely about Needham's life - there's not really anything about the work that's purportedly the reason for the book (his histories of China). It was all justabout the life of this guy who doesn't seem very likeable - he was a big-time communist and supporter of the rise of Mao, as well as a personal friend of Zhou Enlai. Even though he did have some interesting adventures, Winchester doesn't really tell you much about the adventures themselves, just about Needham's life during those adventures. Finally, what details Winchester does goes into about Needham's histories of China sound unfortunate - all history about how China invented everything before Europe but just didn't want to act on them or some nonsense like that. I obviously accept that China invented a lot of stuff first (gunpowder, the printing press, etc), but it's become fashionable at least lately to act as if inventing something chronologically first makes you the intellectual founder of the discipline, whereas I honestly feel like that's just an arbitrary distinction - if Johannes Gutenberg didn't know about Chinese printing presses when he made his first press and Gutenberg's press was the first press that really changed the way the written word was spread, then it hardly matters whether China invented it 200 years earlier. There's something to be said for knowing that sort of thing, but Winchester makes it sound to me like Needham's histories are designed to be just that sort of needless puffing for the glory of China, which I really don't care for. In any case, even if Needham's histories are any good, this book really doesn't make any kind of case for why I should care about Needham. I can't recommend reading it because I doubt you'll get much out of it other than a superficial understanding of some random dude's life.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Kay

    As I read this book, I couldn't help thinking of a Broadway tune written back in 1917 called "China - We Owe a Lot to You." Part of it goes: "Chin-a , way out in Asia Mi-nor No country could be fi-ner Be-neath the sun. You gave us silk to dress our lovely women in ‘Twas worth the price And when we couldn’t get potatoes You gave us rice We mix chop suey with your chop sticks You’ve taught us quite a few tricks We never knew We take our hats off to one thing we’ve seen Your laundries keep our country clean Chi As I read this book, I couldn't help thinking of a Broadway tune written back in 1917 called "China - We Owe a Lot to You." Part of it goes: "Chin-a , way out in Asia Mi-nor No country could be fi-ner Be-neath the sun. You gave us silk to dress our lovely women in ‘Twas worth the price And when we couldn’t get potatoes You gave us rice We mix chop suey with your chop sticks You’ve taught us quite a few tricks We never knew We take our hats off to one thing we’ve seen Your laundries keep our country clean Chin-a , we owe a lot to you!" A jazz musician friend, Terry Waldo, has updated that rather patronizing tune to reflect the current times: "Chin-a, way out in Asia Minor No country could be fi-ner Be-neath the sun. You gave us computer chips for our machines It's worth the price. In fact, you now make everything We think is nice. You make the parts for all they sell at Walmart Where we fill our shopping carts - I guess you knew. Please keep making all our phones, But for god's sake don't call in our loans - 'cause Chin-a -- we owe a LOT to you!" Winchester's book deftly reconciles these two views of China -- the mysterious, exotic place that is still romanticized in popular culture and the modern industrial titan. The transformation might seem miraculous -- until a closer is taken at China's history. Still, this is essentially a biography, and like most readers I hadn't any idea who Joseph Needham was until I picked up this book. Having read several of Winchester's biographies, I knew what to expect -- an obscure but fascinating subject, a monumental undertaking, lots of detail on a field I knew little about. All the elements are in place here. The thing that drew me in most, oddly enough, was Needham's association with Caius College in Cambridge -- my husband had done a postdoctoral fellowship there back in the mid 80's, and so Winchester's description of the college and Cambridge revived memories of a treasured time for me. But beyond that, he succeeded in making it clear what made Needham tick, and in particular what led him to China. Needham was a colorful subject, but also one whose eccentricities threaten to overwhelm a measured understanding of him. He was (among other things) a biochemist, a Communist sympathizer, a "Naturist" (ie nudist), a philanderer, an amateur accordion player, an enthusiastic performer of English folk dances and songs, a calligrapher, a linguist fluent in over seven languages, a railway/transportation buff, a left-wing Anglican and social activist, and, in short, an amazing polymath. There was a risk of making him seem cartoonish -- his habitual breakfast, after all, consisted of several pieces of thoroughly burnt toast (he felt the charcoal did his system good). But Winchester resists reducing his subject to a mere collection of colorful anecdotes, and instead fleshes out a portrait of a man with an endless appetite for knowledge and an almost boundless energy to pursue it. As we follow Needham, we learn a great deal about China and its history. This is my favorite sort of biography -- one that places the subject squarely within his time, making it clear how Needham was affected by events and how, in turn, he played a role in them himself. As an added bonus, Needham crossed paths with a number of fascinating people, such as Rewi Alley, a New Zealander living in China who has been compared to Lawrence of Arabia. But above all, masterfully portrayed, is China itself during the Second World War. Winchester brings us the sights, sounds, smells, and feel of the country, most of which was under Japanese occupation during Needham's first contact with it. This section of the book, in which Needham engages in a series of long, danger-ridden treks through unoccupied China, is an rousing good adventure story, embellished with scientific flourishes. The only problem I had with the book is that the last part seemed rather anticlimactic in comparison. After his epic travels through China, gathering vast quantities of material for his magnus opus, Science and Civilization in China (in seven volumes consisting of multiple separately-published sub-volumes), Needham returns to Cambridge and burrows into the lifelong task of writing. There are several notable events, such as his involvement with the formation of UNESCO and a lamentable involvement in a biological weapons investigation in Korea -- but for the most part the last half of Needham's life was overshadowed by the first. It's not that he becomes less active or interesting, but what can you say about a man who devotes almost all his focus to research and writing? Well, the obvious answer would be to summarize what he wrote. In the short chapter, "The Making of His Masterpiece," Winchester describes this process and gives us some grasp of the project's scope. Still, we learn comparatively little of the contents of Science and Civilization in China, Needham's crowning achievement. As a result, there was a sense of "telescoping" the last part of Needham's life. He lived to be ninety-four, but the last decades of his life -- devoted to this massive work -- seem compressed.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Glen

    Biography of an old fashioned eccentric who studied the secrets of China. At various points, I kept thinking of the old Vincent Price character, Dr. Goldfoot!

  21. 5 out of 5

    S.

    hmmm amazon has brought back their Big Deal, 500 ebooks at 85% off, and one can't go very wrong getting a big-6 published (Harper Collins, in this case) non-fiction history work at 1.99. well, it's 316 pages, less the 20% of the book that is the "searchable index" so popular to include with ebooks (obvious marketing trick, since most ebook readers permit searches in any case). I forgive. 250 pages at 1.99 is still less than .01c a page. the penny dreadful returns! there's already a pretty profess hmmm amazon has brought back their Big Deal, 500 ebooks at 85% off, and one can't go very wrong getting a big-6 published (Harper Collins, in this case) non-fiction history work at 1.99. well, it's 316 pages, less the 20% of the book that is the "searchable index" so popular to include with ebooks (obvious marketing trick, since most ebook readers permit searches in any case). I forgive. 250 pages at 1.99 is still less than .01c a page. the penny dreadful returns! there's already a pretty professional review here so I don't need to digress too much. good adventure yarn as Dr. Joseph Needham, late of Cambridge, makes two expeditions into the deep of China, and then some political controversy, and finally, a slight slackening of speed/drama at the end of the work/life, but overall the text is New Yorker-level quality, Harper Collins quality, and if Winchester plays around a little narratologically (playing up China, like a violin, and then playing down, cue the sad music), well it's forgivable all things considered. Winchester has succeeded in causing me to question some of my preconceptions, and I've learned a bit about Sino-British relations. I was also impressed by the characterization of Cambridge, which has enriched my sort of mood-feel about the high academics there, although Cantabrigians, fully aware of their own mystique, do little to deflate the repute in which they are held. (view spoiler)[ the larger question of whether "china invented everything," viz., gunpowder, printing press, compass, paper http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Gre... of course in the end a geopolitical question. if the Chinese invented these four foundational inventions that resulted in civilization and sparked the Renaissance in Europe, that still does not add up to the Sino-nationalist claim that all of us have to kow-tow endlessly to the average chinaman. (I participate from time to time on sino-defense politics and military chat forums, so pardon the french, but the sino-nationalist crowd is like a clanging cymbal, and sometimes it's really freakin' tiresome to hear about the Chinese century. it's not going to happen before 2030, and I'm going to be knocking on the door of senior citizenship by then, so what do I care? (hide spoiler)]

  22. 4 out of 5

    Julia

    Love Simon Winchester! He's the literary equivalent of PBS's Ken Burns: an incredibly deft interpreter of history, who makes each subject spring to vivid life for his audience. I would watch a documentary on literally ANYTHING Ken Burns decided was a worthy subject, and read the same for Winchester. He's a master of non-fiction writing, and if you haven't read his "Krakatoa, Or the Day the World Exploded," do yourself a big ol' favor and get it out from the library now. So, my fault with this bo Love Simon Winchester! He's the literary equivalent of PBS's Ken Burns: an incredibly deft interpreter of history, who makes each subject spring to vivid life for his audience. I would watch a documentary on literally ANYTHING Ken Burns decided was a worthy subject, and read the same for Winchester. He's a master of non-fiction writing, and if you haven't read his "Krakatoa, Or the Day the World Exploded," do yourself a big ol' favor and get it out from the library now. So, my fault with this book has nothing to do with the writing, although it can get a bit long on extraneous asides. That's part of its charm, and always keeps one in awe of the Winchester's scholarly knowledge. No, I'm afraid that no matter what, I couldn't find any compassion or much respect for the subject, Joseph Needham, the man who indeed got a little gaga over China. If you never much like the main character, you're not going to enjoy the book, right? Well, from his womanizing to his egotism, to his blind communistic/socalistic tendencies, to his frightfully insulated ivory-tower existence, he's the kind of guy that will drive a person to ask, "does anyone really live like this??" I was almost rooting for his fall from grace when it happened in the early 1950's. Too bad it didn't seem to teach him much. It's also too bad that an amazing intellect like himself didn't do more to help the world fight intellectually-repressive Chinese communism! Instead, he supported it, even when his own senses told him that things weren't right. Glad he wrote an enormous book on China's past, but the book on his own life unforunately, doesn't tell as inspiring a story.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Joshua Rigsby

    This book follows the life of the eccentric Cambridge professor Joseph Needham as he becomes enraptured by the intellectual history of China. Needham was a fascinating character to say the least. A committed nudist and Morris dancer, a polyglot and a dogged researcher, it would be difficult to find his equal in any epoch of history. The research and discoveries he made about the intellectual advancements of the Chinese are still being mined to this day. Simon Winchester does well with this story This book follows the life of the eccentric Cambridge professor Joseph Needham as he becomes enraptured by the intellectual history of China. Needham was a fascinating character to say the least. A committed nudist and Morris dancer, a polyglot and a dogged researcher, it would be difficult to find his equal in any epoch of history. The research and discoveries he made about the intellectual advancements of the Chinese are still being mined to this day. Simon Winchester does well with this story, telling it with enthusiasm and finesse. I was a little concerned with his use of superlatives about Needham, yet, by the end, the man lived such an extraordinary life, that these journalistic transgressions seemed to justify themselves. My only real complaint is that Winchester glosses over some of the more dramatic periods of Needham's life, running around China during world war two, weaving in and out of the Japanese front lines, in favor of more banal pursuits of Needham in his study slogging away at his magnum opus (a twenty seven volume treatise on the history of science and technology in China). In all, the story is compelling and definitely worth the read for anyone interested in East Asian studies, history, or the interactions between East and West. http://joshuarigsby.com

  24. 5 out of 5

    HBalikov

    I may be out of step with other reviewers, but having read a good number of Winchester's books (including The Professor and the Madman and The Map that Changed the World) this one is very disappointing. The author has never had a problem in picking interesting topics. The best parts of the book are its early descriptions of Needham "on the ground" in China and the appendix listing Chinese inventions. In between the narrative is sloppy and unfocused. It is mostly a chronological recitation of the I may be out of step with other reviewers, but having read a good number of Winchester's books (including The Professor and the Madman and The Map that Changed the World) this one is very disappointing. The author has never had a problem in picking interesting topics. The best parts of the book are its early descriptions of Needham "on the ground" in China and the appendix listing Chinese inventions. In between the narrative is sloppy and unfocused. It is mostly a chronological recitation of the trips and contacts that were to result in breakthrough research on the significance of Chinese scientific innovation. Yet Winchester seems to delight so much in his own research that he can't leave anything out. It wanders without a great deal of insight among Needham's socialist politics, religious devotion, prurient interest in Chinese women, Cambridge University politics and U.S. foreign policy. We get a lot of nexus but little synthesis. He (and his editor) could have done better.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Philip

    As another man who loves China (18 years in Taiwan), I can't decide if Needham is just an interesting British eccentric or a total tool. Devout Christian, unwavering Communist, free love enthusiast and devoted nudist, Morris dancer (and check that out on youtube if you're not familiar with it) and - according to the book - all-around egotistical "fat head," Needham is certainly a character; and his accomplishments in bringing the truth of China's early inventiveness to the West cannot be underes As another man who loves China (18 years in Taiwan), I can't decide if Needham is just an interesting British eccentric or a total tool. Devout Christian, unwavering Communist, free love enthusiast and devoted nudist, Morris dancer (and check that out on youtube if you're not familiar with it) and - according to the book - all-around egotistical "fat head," Needham is certainly a character; and his accomplishments in bringing the truth of China's early inventiveness to the West cannot be underestimated. But do I actual like the guy? By the end of the book, I still didn't know. Couple of technical comments: While Winchester has just the right high-class accent to narrate his own book, his pronunciation of Chinese places and terms is just painful. And in the epilogue, he mentions the Chinese using chopsticks for "30 decades" - that's only 300 years! Should have been at least "30 centuries."

  26. 5 out of 5

    Grace Tjan

    Ever since I picked up the condensed, popular version of Needham's book years ago, I've been curious about the man who wrote it. Now Simon Winchester provides us with the biography of the fascinating man behind the book, an eccentric Cambridge Don of prodigious intellect, an uncritical China lover, a playboy who spent most of his life in a menage a trois with his wife and mistress, as well as a comitted Catholic and socialist. The most interesting part of the book is the section describing Needh Ever since I picked up the condensed, popular version of Needham's book years ago, I've been curious about the man who wrote it. Now Simon Winchester provides us with the biography of the fascinating man behind the book, an eccentric Cambridge Don of prodigious intellect, an uncritical China lover, a playboy who spent most of his life in a menage a trois with his wife and mistress, as well as a comitted Catholic and socialist. The most interesting part of the book is the section describing Needham's adventures in war-torn China, when he undertook dangerous expeditions to Dunhuang and other remote places. I wish that Winchester had spent some pages discussing criticism of Needham's works on Chinese scientific history, just to bring some balance to an otherwise glowing biography.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Ram

    A book about Joseph Needham, a biochemist, one of Cambridge University’s most brilliant scientists — and one of its most avid skirt-chasers. According to his diary, In 1938, he asked his mistress, who was a Chinese student in Cambridge University to teach him some Chinese words. The language fascinated Needham. It was the first step in a project that would absorb Needham until his death in 1995, turning him into one of the foremost Western authorities on China. In 1954, the first volume of what w A book about Joseph Needham, a biochemist, one of Cambridge University’s most brilliant scientists — and one of its most avid skirt-chasers. According to his diary, In 1938, he asked his mistress, who was a Chinese student in Cambridge University to teach him some Chinese words. The language fascinated Needham. It was the first step in a project that would absorb Needham until his death in 1995, turning him into one of the foremost Western authorities on China. In 1954, the first volume of what would become his life work and legacy, “Science and Civilisation in China”, was published. Since then, it has never gone out of print. Eighteen volumes were released during Needham’s lifetime; there are now 24, with more still to come. Needless to say, that it is considered as one of the best encyclopedias about anything, and an endless source of information about the history of China. I admit, that I never heard of Needham before reading this book and clearly had not heard of “Science and Civilisation in China”. I was intrigued by the many facts on the cover: "He searched for evidence to bolster a conviction that the Chinese were responsible for hundreds of humankind's most familiar innovations—including printing, the compass, explosives, suspension bridges, even toilet paper—often centuries before others." Needham himself led an interesting life that included a WW2 wartime visit to many scientific institutes and sites in China. A near encounter with Japanese soldiers, and many more adventures. A committed socialist and Communist sympathizer, Needham lent his authority to a dubiously documented investigation whose report, issued in 1952, concluded that the United States had used biological weapons in Manchuria and North Korea. Blacklisted by the Americans well into the 1970s and denounced for his political naïveté by the British establishment, Needham retreated into the scholarly realm, where his accomplishments did much to restore his good name. The book is well written, interesting and paints a realistic picture of Needham as an eccentric confident scholar who managed to achieve his goal against all odds. In addition, to a description of his private life, and quotes from his diary, we get a glimpse of the contents of his lifetime project. Very nice book, It wet my appetite to read more about Chinese inventions, culture and achievements. Could do with less repetitions and more historical facts.

  28. 5 out of 5

    jm

    Mostly listened to this for "China" in the title, but for the most part she is relegated to the role of an extra. What we get instead is far more than I ever needed to, or cared to, know about the writing of a book that I will never read. And while Needham himself doubtlessly was up to plenty of swashbuckling in China, excruciatingly little of it makes it into the book, leaving us with a chronological recitation of his life that is about as dry and redundant as I imagine a 20-tome history of sci Mostly listened to this for "China" in the title, but for the most part she is relegated to the role of an extra. What we get instead is far more than I ever needed to, or cared to, know about the writing of a book that I will never read. And while Needham himself doubtlessly was up to plenty of swashbuckling in China, excruciatingly little of it makes it into the book, leaving us with a chronological recitation of his life that is about as dry and redundant as I imagine a 20-tome history of science to be.

  29. 4 out of 5

    carl theaker

    A history professor friend of mine gave me this book, as he'd received 2 copies, with the intro that he had no interest in the history of China, much less the history of technology in China, yet he found it fascinating. Author Winchester does indeed tell a good tale, I'm certain he could write an interesting yarn about grass growing. The subject here though is the eccentric, brilliant, Cambridge smartypants Joseph Needham, a fellow who picks up languages like the average person does groceries. Apparen A history professor friend of mine gave me this book, as he'd received 2 copies, with the intro that he had no interest in the history of China, much less the history of technology in China, yet he found it fascinating. Author Winchester does indeed tell a good tale, I'm certain he could write an interesting yarn about grass growing. The subject here though is the eccentric, brilliant, Cambridge smartypants Joseph Needham, a fellow who picks up languages like the average person does groceries. Apparently one could write a tome on Needham given all his interests and achievements, but that's where Winchester excels, explaining the highlights and knowing when to delve into the details, providing a compelling mix of history and pop culture. It's like having 2 days to see Paris and coming away feeling like you saw what interested you most. Needham falls in love with China in the 1930s, and Chinese women, about all of them, and returns to China during World War 2 with an assignment from the British government to cheer up the Chinese intelligentsia who are in the shadow of the Japanese onslaught. About here in the book I think Winchester falls a little too in love with his subject. He reveals Needham's good and bad sides but spends a little too much time putting a good light on events. During the war Needham travels all over China under atrocious conditions, plenty of credit there, but no perspective given the fact that millions of soldiers are doing the same thing, except they are going to the front lines while Needham is in comparison, sight seeing. Needham is an outgoing, super socialist, a fact that put him in good with Red China after the war. This is where Winchester does the most apologizing. During the Korean War, the Red Chinese use Needham's adoring, good faith and turn him into the 'useful fool' that Lenin bragged about doing to so many Western intellects. Winchester makes it a USA versus Needham affair, the US was the major Western force in the Korean war, however Winchester conveniently leaves out the fact that thousands of Britons are also fighting and dying there, Needham's countrymen, who he so naively works so hard to betray. Winchester never examines what would have happened had Needham been successful at his cheer leading for China during the Korean war. Even after this debacle Needham eventually recovers in academia, but he never really learns much from his folly and continues to support Mao through the Industrial Revolution, which was disastrous for the Chinese people. Needham never comes to realize that his equivalent in China, the dissident scholar, would have been taken out and shot.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Kris Madaus

    I really like the other Simon Winchester books I have read including Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 and A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, so I had high hopes for this book. I wasn't completely let down, but it certainly wasn't his best. One reason for this is probably the slightly less earth-shattering subject. When you compare this book, a biography of Joseph Needham, to oe of the biggest volcanic eruptions in recent his I really like the other Simon Winchester books I have read including Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 and A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, so I had high hopes for this book. I wasn't completely let down, but it certainly wasn't his best. One reason for this is probably the slightly less earth-shattering subject. When you compare this book, a biography of Joseph Needham, to oe of the biggest volcanic eruptions in recent history or to one of the biggest earthquakes in recent history, it does seem to pale. However, Joseph Needham was an interesting individual. This book is about a man that was a Cambridge embryologist turned China-advocate turned China historian. He was also a womanizer, a leftist, and vocally pro-communism from the 1930's to the 1990's. For some reason, this book simply didn't catch the excitement I thought I would get hearing about a man that found out China was responsible for many , if not most, of the things the western world thought were developed in the west. It is actually amazing to think about, but the presentment just didn't do it for me. I did, for some reason, get a little misty when I read about his death. Maybe what I wanted was more details about Needham's discoveries about China. Of course, that would have been a completely different book. I did enjoy hearing about Cave 17, the way China was 50 years ago, the Silk Road, the pre-Mao days. China is an example of an extremely drastically changed country - from almost primitive lifestyles to the cutting edge technologies we see today. Makes me want to read more about China.

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