Book Review

Biography looks at a man who discovered much about China

Simon Winchester (above) details the life of Joseph Needham. Simon Winchester (above) details the life of Joseph Needham. (Harpercollins via BLOOMBERG news)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michael Kenney
May 20, 2008

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

By Simon Winchester
Harper Collins, 316 pp., illustrated, $27.95

Joseph Needham's love affair with China that produced his monumental study, "Science and Civilisation in China," began with a cigarette as he and his Chinese lover lay on a cramped bed in his quarters at Cambridge University.

Lu Gwei-Djen, was, like Needham, a biochemist, and had traveled to England in 1937 to work with Needham and his wife, a fellow biochemist.

The intertwined love affairs are recounted in a masterful biography, "The Man Who Loved China," by Simon Winchester, a former British journalist in Asia who now lives in Sandisfield in Western Massachusetts.

Needham lit two cigarettes, Winchester writes, and handing one to Lu, asked her to write out its name in Chinese. When he had painstakingly copied it out, "he lay back, admiring his work. It was the first time he had ever written anything in the language of these people, so alien and so far away - and when he did so, a distant door suddenly started to open for him, onto an utterly unfamiliar world."

Needham set himself to learn the language, and as the Japanese invasion swept across China, he found himself in position in 1942 to be sent on a diplomatic mission to aid the colleges that had been evacuated from the war zone.

And as he was preparing to leave England, he scribbled a note to himself: "Sci. in general in China - why not develop?"

That cryptic note would set Needham to tracking down the cultural discoveries and technological innovations made in China in ancient times.

Winchester deftly captures his complex personality, a romantic adventurer propelled by intellectual curiosity - and his leftist political leanings that introduced him into the circle around Zhou Enlai, whose Communist army was headquartered in the wartime capital of Chongqing.

Barely six months after he arrived in China, Needham headed to the far northwest, stopping at colleges and factories along the way, to the desert oasis of Dunhuang where Buddhist monks had hollowed out caves in the cliffs some four centuries before.

In one of those caves the British explorer Aurel Stein had uncovered a copy of the Diamond Sutra, not a manuscript, but a copy printed from wood blocks in 868 - one of the many technological "firsts" that Needham would record in China.

By the time Needham left China in 1946, he had found, as Winchester puts it, "that over the eons the Chinese had amassed a range of civilizing achievements that the outsiders who were to be their ultimate beneficiaries had never even vaguely imagined" - gunpowder (9th century) and the compass (11th century), as well as arched bridges (7th century), wheelbarrows (1st century BC), stirrups (4th century), even toilet paper (6th century).

Back in England after the war, eventually joined by Lu Gwei-Djen - whom he would marry after his complaisant wife's death - Needham began recording his findings. "Science and Civilisation" has been published by Cambridge University Press, beginning in 1954, and is described now as an ongoing project, long after Needham's death in 1995.

As Winchester describes the work, it is "all about detail," or, as Needham put it, explorations "of the limitless caverns of Chinese scientific history."

For one example: "There can be no manner of doubt that the original home [of oranges] was the eastern and southern slopes of the Himalayan massif; a fact which is reflected in the presence of the maximum number of old-established varieties in the Chinese culture-area . . . It is also betrayed by the considerable number of single written characters denoting particular species . . . cheng for sweet oranges, luan for the sour orange and yuan for the citron -- always a sign of ancientness in the nomenclature."

His findings, however, had left Needham with the question he had posed for himself back at the start of his quest, what became known as "the Needham question" - why after the centuries of intellectual ferment that created those achievements, did they suddenly stop occurring about 1500?

Needham "never fully worked out the answers," writes Winchester. The consensus of others who have pondered the question is that "China, basically, stopped trying," whether from lack of the "intramural competition" that occurred in western Europe, or "the endless climate of Chinese totalitarianism - whether imposed by the emperors or the Communists" - or some combination of factors. Needham, however, had provided the data - and Winchester has brought him vividly to life.

Michael Kenney is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.

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