The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester


Audiobook.  What an amazing character Joseph Needham was.  He was born in 1900, became a scientist, and lived at Cambridge.  He married another scientist and while they were devoted partners their whole lives, he was so enamored of women, a single partner was not enough.  He fell in love with a Chinese woman who was studying there and he took up the Chinese language.  As the title has it, he fell in love with China too.  Lu Gwei-Djen also became a life partner to him, and authored some of the volumes of his magnum opus, Science and Civilisation in China.  The threesome lived on the same street and were apparently quite companionable.

Simon Winchester recounts Needham’s first journey to China in 1943 and describes the hardships of the trip to very remote locations, especially a trip to an area near the Gobi Desert where ancient Chinese printed books had been stored in caves.

Needham was a socialist and after the Korean war lent his name to a report orchestrated by the Chinese accusing the Americans of biological warfare in Korea and China.  He just couldn’t believe the scientists he had known in the 1940s would be anything but completely honest and accurate in what they told him.  Some of the stories are pretty hard to imagine — one accusation was that the Americans dropped diseased voles from the air in certain localities.  (Was it assumed the little sick voles had parachutes?)  Needham’s reputation suffered terribly for being so gullible and letting his political views overwhelm his ability to look objectively at the truth.

But when the first volume of the book was published, all was forgiven.  The essential message of his many-volumed book is that, rather than the backward civilization we saw in the west, China was centuries ahead of the rest of the world in creativity.  The printed book, gunpowder, suspension bridges, the stirrup, and lots more were invented 10 or more centuries earlier in China.  This inventiveness ended in the 15th century, just as the west was becoming inventive; the reasons for the change in China remain unclear.

Very interesting topic and an enjoyable book.

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