on May 14, 2008
Simon Winchester certainly has the creative power to immortalize anyone or thing he writes about, and so it is with the life of Joseph Needham (1900-1995), a Cambridge scholar polymath. Needham is probably obscure to most people, but among his Don peers he is a legendary as the writer of a massive encyclopedia on Chinese science and civilization designed to answer that great question: Why was China the mother lode of scientific and cultural innovation for so long, and why did it come to a stop by the 15th century - why didn't the Industrial revolution happen in China? At one point China was making 15 great innovations per century (paper, compass, stirrup, etc..), according to Needham, but then the country stagnated and for the last 500 years or so had a reputation for backwardness and poverty. Similar to Jared Diamond's "Yali Question" (why did Europe have "cargo" and Yali didn't?), Needham set out to find answers by cataloging the history of Chinese innovation. He created a massive multi-volume encyclopedia of such prodigious learning, value and length it has been compared with James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary, or Sidney Lee and the Dictionary of National Biography.
I've now read all four of Winchesters biographies (The Professor and the Madman (1998), The Map That Changed the World (2001), The Meaning of Everything (2003)) and I would rank "China" as good as 'The Meaning', not as good as 'Professor' and better than "Map". However Winchester has done something different this time and I hope he builds on it in the future, he has made the subject relevant on a global level - the rise of China and discovery of its past history and importance. More than a well-told and fascinating story of an eccentric English professor rescued from the obscurity of the archives, 'The Man Who Loved China' in a way is about the bigger picture of the rise and future of the largest nation on Earth, one of the central events of the 21st century.
on May 15, 2008
This is a most timely biography, its publication coinciding with the 2008 Beijing Olympics and a disastrous major earthquake, which have together turned the eyes of the world's media onto the "Middle Kingdom", as the Chinese have confidently called their country for 5,000 years, believing throughout this time that it is indeed the centre of the world. It now seems that China's (and Needham's) time in the spotlight has come at last.
I remember Joseph Needham as the Master of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University when I matriculated there as a young man in 1975, though he retired from the Mastership one year later. The Needham Research Institute at Cambridge for the study of East Asian history, science and technology preserves his name, while in China he is known as Li Yue-se, the name given to him by the woman who later became his second wife at the outset of his Chinese language studies "[i]n order to commingle her pupil's identity with his linguistic passion, and thus more effectively bind him to the wheel" (p. 40).
The descriptions I heard as an undergraduate of Needham as a "Marxist Catholic" [sic.] and "a great Chinese scholar" barely do justice to the man. Though I never remember having a conversation with the Great Man and was quite in awe of him, I often saw his slightly stooping figure - crowned somewhat mysteriously by a beret - walking in the old courts of the College. (He also sent me a telegram which I remember verbatim and treasure to this day: "Elected Scholarship Caius College. Congratulations Needham Master.")
Needham was - as Winchester says - a sociable man and invited us freshmen (including Alastair Campbell, later spin-doctor to Tony Blair) to meet him once in the Master's Lodge. In his address in the Hall to our group of Caius freshmen - the last he would welcome into the College - he told us in a somewhat cavalier way not to seek singlemindedly for distinction, or aim for a first class degree, but to enjoy and make the most of our time at the University and be happy about any honours which happened to come our way. (I have attempted to follow his benevolent advice!)
Simon Winchester's skilful book is an overdue tribute to this great British academic-eccentric. It is a fair and impartial account, and does the subject ample justice. There are one or two very minor typographical errors. Nevertheless, I read the book rapidly and almost in one sitting, which is rare for me and a testament to its readability.
Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham, whatever his flaws and errors of judgment may have been, deserves greater fame outside Cambridge and China. This carefully crafted must-read page-turner of a work will surely supply it, and stimulate in many readers a desire to read some of Needham's own books. (After this I want to read more by Simon Winchester too - he certainly likes to write about big literary creations and their creators!)
Ian Ruxton, editor of The Diaries of Sir Ernest Satow, British Envoy in Peking (1900-06), Vol. 1. (I guess Needham's influence extended to my research also, to a considerable degree!)
on July 23, 2008
I have decided to elevate Joseph Needham to the ranks of my primary heroes. That means he joins Vinegar Joe Stilwell (the American General who tried to teach Chiang Kai Shek how to run an army so that he might win a war; he failed, as you probably know) and Alfred Russell Wallace (the man who found that evolution works via natural selection, but had a marketing disadvantage to his colleague Charles Darwin; the theory is called Darwinism, not Wallacism, as you might know). Needham wrote close to 20000 pages on the history of Chinese science and civilization, he was a most amazing alround scientist. The 'book', or should we call it a library, is unsurpassed in his subject - but have you ever heard of it? I mean you, the non-expert on China. Let me know. I suspect very few people outside an inner circle ever heard of it.
Winchester has published quite a few books on diverse subjects. I mainly like his travel books: first a walk through South Korea, then a ship ride up the Yangzi. Given that he is an experienced travel writer, I am a bit puzzled by some of his geographical gaffes: flying over the hump from India to Kunming, the connection from British India to National China during WW2, W. claims the plane had to cross glaciers. Well, not likely. Better look it up on a map. Glacial melting can't have progressed that much since then. Or: Needham's first stop in China is Kunming, where he allegedly watches the sun set over the distant Tibetan hills on his first evening after arriving. Odd in view of the hundreds km distance from Kunming to Tibet and the fact that the city has its own hills to the West.
Apart from Needham's scientific formidability, he was also a prime specimen of British excentricity (they allow every excentricity in Cambridge, as long as it doesn't frighten the horses): a biochemist with highest distinctions early on, married to a brillant colleague, a freethinker, nudist, socialist, folk dancer, playboy, leftist activist, member of the left establishment, language genius, lay preacher (yes, he was also religious).
And then: he meets his lifetime love, a Chinese colleague from Nanjing (whom he will marry half a century later), who makes him learn the language. He manages to get an assignment with the Foreign Service during WW2 and moves to Chongqing in 43, as Counsellor to the Embassy.
That's the beginning of the end. The man starts researching and writing... 20 volumes? He is obsessed with Chinese history and goes on his decade long rampage.
As implied above, he was somewhat of a political fool, but it's hard for me to begrudge him that. Not everybody looked at it so generously though. For a while he had a key position in UNESCO, in charge of science (he put the S into UNECO), when Julian Huxley was the DG. The US pushed him out for his communist sympathies.
Worse was to come: he let himself be misused by China for Cold War propaganda in connection with the Korean War, as head of an 'independant' commission that was to investigate alleged US uses of biological weapons against Korea and China. From what is known today, no such thing happened, the whole show was staged by the Soviets and the Chinese, and Needham spoiled his name for years to come. He got blacklisted in the US for 20 years. He was just too naive and believed that everybody else was as honest and serious as he was himself.
One sad thing I learned from the book: the recent earthquake in Sichuan hit a place of magnificent historical importance, the great water works at Dujiangyan, built 250 BC, comprising dikes, dams, canals.
on May 31, 2008
Winchester's life of Joseph Needham is indeed well written, but we still need a full and more knowledgeable life of Needham. Winchester is good on Needham's sex life and its role in his initial love of China (discretely avoided in most academic discussions of his work), on his early travels in China, and on the controversy about his accusation that the US used germ warfare in the Korean War.
However, Winchester's account says little about Needham's early scientific and historical work in biochemical embryology (perhaps thinking it irrelevant to his China studies).(This topic is discussed in Haraway's book Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields: Metaphors of Organicism in Twentieth-Century Developmental Biology.) Needham had an organismic and historical view of developmental biology, combining an interest in modern scientific techniques with process and holistic views of reality. This organismic view of science fit well with the approach of Chinese traditional thinkers toward reality.
Needham's philosophical interests also played a role in his recognition and appreciation of the traditional Chinese approach to science.
Needham's association with the British Marxist biologists J. D. Bernal and J. B. S. Haldane is touched on in a sentence and a footnote. (See Gary Weskey, The Visible College: A Collective Biography of British Scientists and Socialists of the 1930s" for a discussion of Needham in relation to Bernal, Haldane, Hogben, and Levy, all British Marxist scientists of the period.) Also omitted is the dramatic story of the surprise visit to London by plane of a dozen scientific superstars led by Nikolai Bukharin (about to be purged along with the plant geographer Vavilov) and the effect of their talks in inspiring Needham. (See Science at the Crossroads (Social history of science, no. 23) or the reprint of the central paper at this conference, Boris Hessen, "The Social and Economic Roots of Newton's Principia.") Needham said he heard "the trumpet blast" of their notion of a truly social and political history of science. No explanation is given by Winchester of the aspects of Marxism and process philosophy as philosophies of nature that were congenial with Needham's sympathy for traditional Chinese visions of nature. There is a non-reductionistic materialism or naturalism which recognizes levels of organization and development and a process view of nature in Marxism.
Needham also found the process view worked out in the logician and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead's metaphysical process philosophy, which emphasized the role of feeling throughout nature and the replacement of substances (enduring objects) with a vision of reality in terms of events and processes. Unfortunately Winchester neglects these conceptual roots of Needham's reconstruction of the Chinese vision of nature.
Likewise, Winchester does not discuss the political controversy upon the publications of the earlier volumes of Needham's magnum opus that ensued from Needham's Marxism. For instance,an early review of C. Gillispie, leading historian of science, attempted to discredit Needham's claims about the amazing technological and scientific discoveries the early Chinese made by claiming that Needham's Marxism makes his historical claims untrustworthy Chinese Communist propaganda. Gillispie presumably was later embarassed by this erroneous accusation.
Finally, Winchester has very little discussion of the involved historical controversy about Needham's explanation of why the Chinese did not develop modern science, despite being far ahead of the West in technology and natural history observation until at least 1500. Winchester dismisses this issue by saying that now China is industrializing and developing modern science. True, but the issue of why China didn't develop experimental and mathematical science back in the early modern period while the comparatively backward Europe did is still a puzzle. Needham's explanation involves the role of individualism (tied to atomism), capitalism, and formal legal systems (which Needham claims were metaphorically and practically extended in the later middle ages to the notion of laws of nature -- for instance in the court trials of animals) in the West which were largely lacking in China. The Mohists, or followers of Mo Tzu were the only ancient Chinese group that held a causal, mechanical, and analytical view of nature similar to that of western science. The Mohists were craftsmen and military engineers, and their philosophy along with their religious and political movement disapeared with the centralization of China under the First Emperor. This sort of social explanation also smacks of Marxism or at least of Max Weber's sociology of rationalization, which may be why Winchester doesn't discuss it.
(See my The Holistic Inspirations of Physics: The Underground History of Electromagnetic Theory for a discussion, among other things of the currents of Chinese philosophy philosophy of nature and their contrasts and similarities with strands of western philosophy and three approaches to the sociology of China as explanations for the dominantly holistic Chinese approach to nature.)
Simon Winchester's forte is creating a microscopic view of events. They may be great events, like the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 or events that but for his eye might have slipped unnoticed into the annals of history, like the story of the madman and the Professor.
With this story of the life and work of Joseph Needham, Winchester once again works his very special magic. Without Winchester, it is most likely that only a diminishing number of academics would know of Needham at all, much less the results of his work, a comprehensive history of Chinese scientific acheivements.
Instead Winchester tells us the story of an extraordinary, eccentric Englishman who became a Professor at Cambridge. A socialist, if not a Communist, Winchester married, but agreed with his wife that their relationship would be open. Thus, Needham added to the relationship a Chinese mistress who was a part of his and his wife's lives for the next 50-some years. It is his mistress, Gwei-djen, a competent scientist in her own right, who awakens in Needham an interest in China.
Needham's interest in China - he taught himself to write and speak Mandarin - brings him an appointment in WWII to go to China and be a liason between British and Chinese institutions of learning. Bear in mind that much of China was occupied by Japan at this time.
Needham did much more than was requested of him and the result was ther idea of creating a masterwork that would record the history of China's scientific invention, which was much greater and impressive than was commonly believed in the West at the time. Thus began Needham's multi-volume masterpiece which is still considered a classic today.
Winchester's genius is first being able to spot the seed of a good story, in this case acquiring a single volume of Needham's "Science and Civilisation [sic] In China". Next is Winchester's ability and willingness to research, which has been evident in all his books. It is indeed the glue that makes his compelling stories possible. No detail is to small, apparently, to escape Winchester's scrutiny. One can only imagine how much Winchester is forced to leave out. Finally, Winchester is a superb, mellifluous writer. He is one of the few today who can (and does) use almost archaic or very rarely used words properly to make his point. Unlike the poseurs writing in some magazines, Winchester uses the words properly and not merely in an attempt to impress.
It is remarkable that Winchester was able to fully describe Needham's life in a mere 265 pages. Other authors might have taken several hundred more, but Winchester has a laudable economy of style.
Joseph Needham was certainly a very interesting man who led a very interesting life, but without Simon Winchester, Needham most likely would have slipped into oblivion in the not very distant future.
I have few criticisms of this book. I found one editing error in the book, a near-miracle these days, where Winchester refers to the use of chopsticks in China for the past thirty decades. I believe the reference may have been intended to be to centuries, not decades. Next, in describing Needham's politics which were unabashedly left-wing, Winchester makes his own views apparent, which I felt was out of character for him and inappropriate to the book. These are small issues and do not detract from the book as a whole.
Overall, "The Man Who Loved China" is a fantastic history of an extraordinary man written by a truly competent author. Very much worth reading.
By writing an intriguing and seemingly forthright biography of Joseph Needham, Winchester peels away years of myopic Western thinking about the backwardness of China. Needham roars to life as a fascinating, flirtatious Cambridge don filled with contradictions. Though he leaned way left as an English socialist with a fawning and blindness to Red China, the biography commendably focuses on Needham's persistent and life long work in gathering the background and writing his magnus opus, Science and Civilization in China. Winchester confronts what he calls the Needham question; what caused Chinese invention and scholarship to come to an abrupt halt in the 15th century? The explanation is plausible and understandable. With a long addendum at the end of the book listing the inventions of China, Winchester's scholarship is a welcome bon voyage for one's trip to China.
on November 6, 2009
This is an easy to read and very accessible introduction to the life and work of a great polymath of the twentieth century Joseph Needham. Needham having trained as a biologist and achieving recognition in that field re-invented himself as a Sinologist. It was in his adopted discipline (in which he had no formal training) that Needham became most well known. Over several decades and with the assistance of Chinese colleagues, he produced his opus magnum "Science and Civilisation in China". His work represented the product of trawling through masses of documents and other evidence from China and cataloguing the vast array of scientific and technological achievement from the earliest times through to the Ming. The object of Needham's work was to restore to the West's grand narrative of history the enormous contribution of China to the world's science and technology, a contribution that during the nineteenth and early twentieth century had been forgotten or airbrushed out of the narrative. A catalogue of those contributions are set out in the Annex to Winchester's book and include gunpowder, the compass, the printed book, moveable type, paper, paper money, mechanical clocks and canal locks.
Needham's engagement with China began with an intimate relationship with a Chinese post-graduate student who remained his lifelong companion. His wife tolerated the relationship and Needham remained with his wife in an "open marriage" until her death. Needham reached China as a British diplomat in 1943 where his serious research on China began ending in his re-invention as a Sinologist. His discovery of China begins with an epic journey through the heart of China accompanied by danger and meetings with larger than life characters. Winchester brings to life that journey in his easy prose that has the excitement of a Tintin story. Needham eventually returned to Cambridge where he commenced his work that spanned several decades. His work received early acclaim not just in Britain and China but as far afield as the USSR, Germany, India and Sri Lanka.
Needham's efforts in restoring to the narrative the Chinese contribution to world science were deeply appreciated by the Chinese government. He became a friend of Zhou En Lai and also knew Chairman Mao. His career and reputation however received a serious but temporary setback when he sat on a committee to investigate allegations of biological warfare suspected to have been waged by the USA during the Korean War. He concluded that the allegations were well founded. As a result , Needham was severely criticised in the US and in Britain. It later transpired that the evidence of biological warfare observed by Needham and his colleagues had been planted by the PRC government with Soviet help. Needham had been duped and used. Nevertheless, Needham remained supportive of the PRC throughout. The anger of the Americans towards Needham remained unabated for a long time. They eventually relented and lifted a ban on his entry into the US in the seventies.
Winchester's book also provided interesting and sometimes entertaining insights into university life at the Cambridge college of which Needham was a fellow. Needham was an eccentric. Apart from his work in biology and Chinese studies, Needham was also a socialist, a Christian, a chain smoker, Morris dancer and nudist. Winchester brings back to life a lost period when eccentrics such as Needham were tolerated and indeed thrived in British universities in contrast to the more straight laced times of today.
Winchester's book does not examine scholarly criticism on Needham's work. Winchester largely described Needham's work and conclusions without going further. Needham's work has been criticised for overemphasising Chinese contributions to world science and technology. Stirrups for example are claimed as a Chinese invention. However, there is evidence for earlier use of stirrups in India and Central Asia. Many things Needham found may be first recorded in Chinese books which Needham substantially relied on. This does not necessarily mean that the thing recorded is a Chinese invention. If something is invented elsewhere but not recorded by the inventors, its later adoption and recording by China does not make it a Chinese invention. The "hard" evidence supplied by archaeology in this respect may be more reliable than the written record. Needham may also view China through rose tinted glasses as a friendly foreigner captivated by another country often does. This is also often seen in Western scholars' writings about India.
Needham's buy-in to the idea of Chinese exceptionalism in terms of their role as inventors and scientific thinkers may also be questionable. Their achievements were and remain great. No exaggeration is required to highlight the magnitude of the Chinese achievement. However, Indians, Iraqis, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, Islam and of course Western Europeans even before 1500 all have a long an old tradition of science and thinking that deserves similar recognition.
Winchester's discussion of the famous "Needham question" could also go further . That question briefly which Needham spent his lifetime addressing but never really answered was why China after such a long period of leadership in science and technology stopped about the fifteenth century and was overtaken by Western Europe. Winchester simply leaves it on the basis that China all of a sudden dropped the ball - and left the field to Europe. Contemporary scholarship however would disagree. The Qing did not in fact drop the ball and achieved much. During their rule, China expanded enormously and according to scholars such as Frank (" Reorient") maintained Chinese pre-eminence into the nineteenth century (see also Bin Wong "China Transformed and Pomeranz "The Great Divergence"). Benjamin Ellman's book "On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550-1900" sets out the broad contours of the development of science in China right until the end of imperial times. China not only did not drop the ball but kept at it. What happened was that Europe in the end travelled faster, and then overtook and overwhelmed China . The real question might be better framed as to why the West rose. There is of course a vast amount written on the subject. While there may be differences in view on some things, a common theme in the answer is the "free kick" Western Europeans received through colonising the Americas, not only in terms of the silver they extracted from Peru to make them very rich but also in the land and resources they appropriated, allowing them with this huge new found wealth to outdo the Ottomans, Mughals in India and eventually the Chinese. The efforts of scholars such as Frank, James Blaut and Jack Goody covering this subject may render the Needham question redundant.
Needham also emphases inventiveness as a key capability. However, what may be equally if not more important is the ability to assimilate and deploy technology regardless of its origin. Chinese tungs or hand led guns are very similar to the derivatives in Europe used in the fourteenth century. However, the Europeans were very successful in assimilating and making their own the Chinese technology in question and becoming leaders. Chinese inventiveness therefore was in the end less important than the ability of Europeans to use their inventions and outdo the Chinese. Similarly, the British later on were able to assimilate and domesticate textile technology from India and in the end outdo India through the application of steam power to textile production. Today, the shoe may be on the other foot. It is Westerners who may (still) be the most inventive people in the world but it is the ability of China (and India) to adopt and apply Western industrial technology and deploy it on a vast scale that is the story of our times. Despite the origins of the technology in the West, it is the successful imitators who in the end may have the day. Needham's question on why the Chinese were so inventive in past times may be recast more meaningfully for our own times with the question " Why are the Chinese so good at adopting and domesticating complex technology that is not their own"? China is also beginning to see the fruits of its large R & D spend with its own groundbreaking research. Working out the rice genome is a good example. That these developments occur against the context of a decline of Marxist-Leninism in China and a return of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism should finally set at rest the old theories about the alleged backwardness of the older Chinese ways of thinking. One equally hopes that China's success does not encourage arguments for Chinese cultural superiority (one sees this already in some form) as a reply to equivalent ways of thinking that dominated the Western intellectual landscape until quite recently. Needham' s work employed for such a purpose would be a sad end to his life and work - and this may be happening to a limited extent already as an internet search of the blogosphere would indicate.
Even if the Needham question as he posed may no longer be of much interest, this does not derogate from Needham's scholarly achievement. That achievement is the compilation of a vast encyclopaedia of Chinese scientific and technological achievement over millennia. No such work exists to my knowledge that covers in a similar way Islamic, Indian or Western achievements. Perhaps, these are tasks waiting for someone in the future.
Needham's admiring writings about China even if sometimes overstated are politically important. It is noteworthy that Needham produced his work at a time of Britain's imperial decline. Had he written a work fifty years previously expounding the greatness of China, the reception might have been different. This was at a time when Britain as at its imperial peak and negativity towards China in the West was high. China was in decline at the time and Chinese do not of course forget Britain's role in that decline as any visitor to the Summer Palace in Beijing learns quickly. In a strange kind of way, Needham in trying to set the record straight and going a little overboard in doing this, offers to the Chinese whether knowingly or not a form of ideological reparations which the Chinese appear to have accepted in their appreciation of his work. The admiring writings on ancient India by another English scholar of the era, AL Basham - and the Indian reception of his work are in this regard comparable.
Needham's importance as a bridge between the West and China is recognised by Winchester. Britain's imperial engagement with China was unhappy to say the least. However, relations between the PRC and Britain after 1949 were generally good and travelled down a relatively smooth trajectory. By contrast, after Britain quit America in 1776, the enmity between the two countries lasted for more than a century. The efforts of Needham and others like him may have had something to do with this happier outcome for Anglo-Chinese relations.
Winchester's book despite the need for further analytical depth is a welcome contribution to contemporary books on China and reminds us of a great polymath who was able to straddle many areas. Such a breed is now rare if not extinct in a time when what is valued is depth of specialist expertise in a particular area rather than breath of knowledge across many areas. Winchester's book reminds us of an era when an intellectual could and did credibly straddle multiple areas of expertise.
If you look back at the titles of some of Mr. Winchester's older books, it's clear that Joseph Needham, the subject of this book, isn't the only man who loves China. Clearly, Winchester himself has a fascination for Asia and China. Admittedly, I have not read these earlier titles, having come to Mr. Winchester--like many I suspect--through the pages of The Professor and the Madman. However, I have kept up with his work since then and it's nice to see him able to bring his passion for China to the fore again.
Today, Joseph Needham is most remembered for the decades he spent putting together Science and Civilization in China, a series of books documenting the many advances made in China that pre-date the better known inventions/inventors in the West. What this ultimately means, as it was the West that took widest advantage of scientific and technical successes, is open to debate; however, it is fascinating to think about how far ahead the Chinese must have been at various points in their history, even into antiquity. A less inward-looking culture might have changed the entire face of world history.
Mr. Winchester gives us tidbits of these scientific facts to contemplate, but this book is really about Needham himself: a Cambridge scholar who was undoubtedly brilliant but in many ways controversial. He was very sexually liberated for his time, being married to a devoted woman who tolerated his many affairs, including a long-term affair with a Chinese woman, Lu Gwei-djen, who was likely the inspiration for much of his passion about China. He was sympathetic to communism and maintained a connection to communist China even when such a relationship was frowned upon. He dabbled in realpolitik which often caused him grief. But in the end, it is his work that is best remembered.
He started his career as a very successful scientist who parlayed his success and love of China into a diplomatic assignment to the country at the height of World War II. In the midst of his diplomatic duties--being a materials conduit for Chinese scientists--he made a number of trips across China, collecting information and artifacts which he periodically shipped home. When he returned, instead of resuming his scientific work, he devoted the rest of his life to history, assessing the materials he'd brought back and writing his magnum opus.
Mr. Winchester has an amazing facility for telling the stories of eccentrics and science. Here, he shows his skills yet again. This is a wonderfully readable book about a comparatively unknown scholar who deserves better. Mr. Winchester has done Needham--and the reading public--a real service.
on May 19, 2008
Winchester is to the world of nonfiction what Steinbeck is to fiction. His writing is lush and literate with people and places described in both the letter and spirit of their reality. My book club has selected a Simon Winchester book the last two years and, "The Man Who Loved China" will be recommended for next year.
In, "The Man Who Loved China" Winchester paints a picture of Joseph Needham that is at once three dimensional and larger than life. From the first paragraph you know that the book is going to be pure Winchester and pure enjoyment. But, and this is the most intriguing part of this book, Needham's love for and insights into China--its history, culture and science--distilled for us by Simon Winchester are instantly relevant to the news coming from China today.
Whether you love China, are intrigued with Joseph Needham, or enjoy the superlative prose of Simon Winchester, this is the book for you.
on July 4, 2008
After hearing an interview on our local NPR affiliate with Simon Winchester, I bought this book in audio format in preparation for a long road trip. We were spellbound by this incredible story, listening almost non-stop to the 14 hour production. If you've never heard of Joseph Needham, don't feel bad - neither had we, or most anyone else I've asked. But he was one of the most interesting, eccentric, and brilliant people of the 20th century. The story is beautifully told by Simon Winchester, with anecdotes and historical background that amaze you. Such a detailed biography could stumble into confusing territory, but not in Winchester's skilled hands. The plot, Needham's life, unfolds in wondrous and surprising ways; I must have exclaimed 50 times "how could I not have known about this??" And the revelations about China are fascinating too - the remarkable history of an enlightened scientific culture, its slide into communism, and its economic resurgence. I strongly recommend this book.