Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester

My paperback bought here in Suzhou
Simon Winchester's The Man Who Loved China tells the story of an eccentric English biochemist who, through the gateway of a love affair with Chinese student, traveled to China and fell in love with Chinese civilization. Winchester is an accomplished and widely praised storyteller, and in this book he plies his trade well. The subject of his book made his task easier. The man who loved China was Joseph Needham. By his early 20s, Needham had established himself as a scientific genius with a broad, inquisitive mind, and as a bit of an eccentric.

Young Joseph Needham
America has its share of eccentric academics, but the Brits seem to be always one up. Needham fits the picture of an eccentric British academic: tall, gangly, wearing oval glasses, unruly hair, riding a bicycle around the confines of Cambridge with the mortarboard hat and Harry Potter robes flowing behind him. (Okay, I don't know if he wore a mortarboard and flowing robes on his bicycle, but the rest of the description I believe accurate). In addition, he was quite fond of the ladies, and they quite popular of him. Yet he remained married for over 60 years—in an “open marriage” with his wife Dorothy. Indeed, as a part of this unusual marital arrangement, he conducted an affair (if this proves the right word) with a Chinese graduate student, Lu Gwei-djen, who came to Cambridge from Shanghai. This romantic relationship lasted from the late 1930’s, when they first met, to their eventual marriage (after the death of Needham's first wife, Dorothy) until Lu Gwei-djin's death. Lu Gwei-djen lived about 100 meters from Needham and Dorothy during the Dorothy’s lifetime, and despite what one might otherwise assume, this arrangement was apparently quite alright with Mrs. Needham.) Needham's encounter with Lu Gwei-djen prompted Needham’s interest in China and Chinese culture, and this led to a visit to China for the first time in 1943, during the chaos of the Second World War. One might add that Needham was Christian (of a liberal, rather unorthodox sort) and a committed leftist. A man of no small incongruities.
Lu Gwei-djin in late 1930s

But while this is makes for interesting background, it is Needham's eventual devotion to China and to the mysteries of Chinese civilization that makes for the story. Needham was willing to travel to China as a British diplomat and scientific liaison during the worst times of the war. His enthusiasm for all things in China, from modern factories and industrial techniques to ancient scrolls, show him to have been a truly Renaissance man. He learned written and spoken Chinese and took up all manner of Chinese customs and practices. He developed contacts within the nationalist camp and he became friends with Zhou En-lai. It was during this initial foray into China that Needham decided on what would become his life's work, Science and Civilization in China. This was in part sparked by the question, now known as “Needham's question," about why, after leading the West in technology up until about 1500, China fell behind western Europe and its progeny in science, technology, and industrialization. Also, Needham recognized that China had many firsts in technological development that far surpassed Western achievements up until around 1500, much to the surprise of Euro-centrics then in the majority.

Elder Needham & Zhou En-lai
For all his brilliance and dedication, Needham was not always a wise. During the Korean War he led an investigation into whether the US had used germ warfare against the North Koreans and Chinese. Relying on what he naively assumed were accurate and truthful reports from Chinese scientific colleagues, he concluded that the allegations were true. In the age of McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia, this was a blunder. (Winchester concludes that there is no convincing evidence that the US used germ warfare, and subsequent records show that the Chinese fabricated the allegations for propaganda.)

Retails at $255.19
A happy ending to the story comes about despite Needham’s having been ostracized by the British establishment for his report. He rehabilitated himself and engaged Cambridge University Press in the publication of his Science and Civilization in China project. The first volume proved a critical and commercial success. Between the mid-1950s up through Needham's death in 1992 (and continuing after his death), the multi-volume project has continued. Needham remained active on the project up until the time of his death.

Winchester concludes the book with a look at contemporary China, focusing on the metropolitan area of Chongqing, were Needham had spent time (in addition to having been in Kunming and Chengdu, among many other locations in China). Chongqing is now a huge metropolitan area, perhaps the largest in the world. With rising office towers, dense thick smog, and all the trappings of modern culture, Needham would have a hard time recognizing the city. It represents China undergoing rapid change. The degree of change that China has undergone since Needham's first visit during the midst of WWII is almost unfathomable. The ties of contemporary China to its historical past are visible, but loosened under the corrosive effect of industrialization, modernization, and consumer capitalism. One wonders what Joseph Needham would make of it all.

As one living in contemporary China and as one with some acquaintance (through reading) with the world of British academia, this book provided a double treat. Needham's genius and enthusiasm remains vibrant and compelling throughout the book. Winchester deftly balances Needham's personal and professional interests. For anyone interested in the work of a genius and the world of China, this book will provide a rewarding read.