The Man Who Loved China

Joseph Needham (1900-1995) is the man who made China China, forming the West’s understanding of a sophisticated culture with his masterpiece, Science and Civilization in China, says bestselling author Winchester. In a life devoted to recording the Middle Kingdom’s intellectual wealth, Needham, an eccentric, brilliant Cambridge don, made a remarkable journey from son of a London doctor through scientist-adventurer to red scare target. In Winchester’s (The Professor and the Madman) estimable hands, Needham’s story comes to life straightaway. From the biochemist’s arrival in WWII Chongqing (the smells, of incense smoke, car exhaust, hot cooking oil, a particularly acrid kind of pepper, human waste, oleander, and jasmine) to his steely discipline when crafting his research into prose (to an old friend: I am frightfully busy. You come without an appointment, so I am afraid I cannot see you), Winchester plunges the reader into the action with hardly a break. As the author notes in an outstanding epilogue-a swirling 12-page trip through the kaleidoscope of contemporary China-he is at pains to place Needham front and center in our understanding of the nation that now plays such a huge role in American life. B&w photos, maps. (May) Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Simon Winchester " The Man Who Loved China

Field of Interest/Specialty: Physics
Posted On: 05/19/2011

Jane Shamitko
Physics, Grades 11-12
Trinity High School
May 2011
Simon Winchester’s book, The Man Who Loved China, is a fascinating story about Joseph Needham, a professor of biochemistry at Cambridge University, who through a Chinese graduate student ( she was his mistress) became fascinated with China and its people. His fascination grew into a love which extended not only to their language ,both spoken and written, (which he taught himself) but to the Chinese people and their culture. In the Spring of 1943, he had the opportunity to travel to China to answer a burning question of his “ If the Chinese were so technologically creative for so long, why did modern science develop in Europe, but not China? Why was there never a true industrial revolution in China? How did the brilliant early nation evolve into Emerson’s “booby nation” after the 1800’s.? ( Winchester Pg 260) This book chronicles his lifetime opus of creating a a17 volume masterpiece called “Science and Civilization in China”. Although, Needham never completely answered those questions, his encyclopedia is one of the most detailed works ever done on China’s scientific achievements. Joseph Needham was truly a genius.
Since I am a science teacher, I too had the same questions as Needham and was very excited to read this book. Although, the book dealt more about the life of Joseph Needham , the author does address Needham’s question in the epilogue and offers some good insights. I would not recommend this book as a reading assignment for high school students in my Physics class, but I found it to be a good resource for me to use as part of my curriculum. For instance, there is a great appendix listing “Chinese inventions and discoveries with date of first Mention”. Winchester also introduces each chapter with a quote from Needham’s volumes, which can serve as a good discussion topic with my students.
For those, however, who just want a good book to read, that gives a great look at genius and his eccentricities and a journey through China during the 1940’s, I highly recommend this book.