sometimes witty book reviews
Joseph Needham. Never heard of him?
He is perhaps, one of Western history’s greatest unsung heroes. Before the second world war, the then thirty seven year old Cambridge biochemistry lecturer who was spoke no Chinese.
By the time war broke out he was one of the West’s leading China experts. By the end of the war Needham was one of the Allies’ key sources of Sino-Japanese intelligence. By the end of the first half of the century, Needham was friends with Chaiman Mao himself. Thanks in no small part to his lifelong lover, Lu Gwei-djen, Needham fell desperately in love with this country. Everything about it fascinated him.
No, really – everything.
From pea-farming to boat building, the history of ancient Warlords to the history of dumplings. Needham devoured Chinese history. In 1954 the first volume of his series ‘Science and Civilisation in China’ was published. At the time of Simon Winchester’s publication of The Man who loved China (2008) there were a total of twenty seven volumes – and counting. Which is a quite a feat considering Needham died in 1991.
That Simon Winchester even thought to attempt to reduce sinologist Joseph Needham’s life into barely 300 pages is a wonder. But he did it, and very well at that. Not only an expert in China, Needham’s vast memory and learning meant he also found time to translate Russian textbooks, out-knowledge roomfuls of obscure-topic experts time and again and also successfully maintain both his marriage (to Dorothy Moyle) and affair with Lu for half a century.
Though at times bewilderingly full of names, dates and subjects, Winchester has rather successfully reintroduced Joseph Needham to the West at the start of a century that will be defined by China.