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The Man Who Loved China (2008)

by Simon Winchester

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
1,411689,417 (3.79)1 / 111
The extraordinary story of Joseph Needham, the brilliant Cambridge scientist who unlocked the most closely held secrets of China--long the world's most technologically advanced country. This married Englishman, a freethinking intellectual, while working at Cambridge University in 1937, fell in love with a visiting Chinese student, with whom he began a lifelong affair. He became fascinated with China, and embarked on a series of extraordinary expeditions to the farthest frontiers of this ancient empire. He searched everywhere for evidence to bolster his conviction that the Chinese were responsible for hundreds of mankind's most familiar innovations--including printing, the compass, explosives, suspension bridges, even toilet paper--often centuries before the rest of the world. His dangerous journeys took him across war-torn China to far-flung outposts, consolidating his deep admiration for the Chinese people. After the war, Needham began writing what became a seventeen-volume encyclopedia, Science and Civilisation in China.--From publisher description.… (more)
  1. 30
    The shorter Science and civilisation in China: An abridgement of Joseph Needham's original text by Colin Alistair Ronan (wildbill)
    wildbill: An abridgment of Needham's great tome.
  2. 20
    The Places In Between by Rory Stewart (rakerman)
    rakerman: In many ways Rory Stewart is the modern equivalent of Joseph Needham - an informed observer of and participant in another country's history (Afghanistan, in Stewart's case)
  3. 00
    Ring of Fire by Lawrence Blair (rakerman)
    rakerman: because the Blairs were also mad English adventurers exploring a new land
  4. 00
    Time Exposure: The Autobiography of William Henry Jackson by William Henry Jackson (rakerman)
    rakerman: because William Henry Jackson did extraordinary things including documenting a new country, albeit as an American photographer, rather than a British scientist and scholar
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Showing 1-5 of 67 (next | show all)
I heard this years ago as a talking book but it was the pick for our book group so I read it with a degree of familiarity. Definitely as good as the first time around. I really like Simon Winchester's style of writing, it feels complete and well researched. I like his slight degree of understatement and his occasional bursts of enthusiasm. I've read quite a lot of his books and also like his choice of subject. Unlike Bill Bryson, his output quality never seems to vary, it is consistently excellent.

As to the subject matter, it sets out at the beginning to set the record straight about all the things that we white westerners claim to have invented but were in fact in usage in China, in some instance for centuries, before we came up with the same idea.

The title refers to a quote from somewhere about these three things being the most important inventions in human history. Having said that he doesn't really touch on any of them directly except for the invention of movable type around the 11th century in China and the mid 14th century in Europe.

Generally speaking, whatever you can think of the Chinese had it long before us.

The main character, Joseph Needham really comes to life in this book and you can clearly see him as a man before his time with views and actions well ahead of the era he lived in, except for maybe Morris Dancing :-)

Anyway, educate yourself! Go On! Get Smart! and get yourself a Chinese mistress too. Did I mention that? Oh well, you'll really have to read it now. ( )
  Ken-Me-Old-Mate | Sep 24, 2020 |
Very dry ( )
  elifra | Aug 8, 2020 |
Published as "Bomb, Book & Compass" in Australia ( )
  GeoffSC | Jul 25, 2020 |
Way more of a biography of Needham than I expected. Probably my fault for going into it expecting more about China the nation. Surprisingly lacks depth in both discussing Needham's life and perspectives and philosophy, and about China itself. ( )
  yazzy12 | May 17, 2020 |
So far, I just like Simon Winchester's writing. Everything I have read that was written by him, I learn something new. The subject of Joseph Needham adds nuances to other books I have read which were written by Charles Mann. Plus, Winchester answered some of my questions about China and what its people were doing in the midst of the development of what is now a nation. Just wish the maps had been readable on the Kindle.
  Elizabeth80 | Apr 10, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 67 (next | show all)
Simon Winchester tells the story, or part of it, in “The Man Who Loved China,” and like the other books of his I have read, it is amusing but unsatisfying. “The Professor and the Madman,” which first brought him to attention, was probably his best-crafted work. Since then he has tackled a number of curious and interesting topics, and instead of doing a good job of them has turned out incomplete bestsellers, full of chatty excursions and as much irrelevant salaciousness as he can fit into footnotes, but never quite telling the story that the subtitles pretend is inside the covers.
 
What happened after the rise of modern natural science c.1600 could not be like what came before, with the result that ‘both capitalist and socialist societies today are in qualitatively different situations from all preceding societies.’ There was no way back to the past, but there was a way forward. Needham never abandoned his belief in potential progress. Science and technology did not create the good society, but the tools that could bring it about, not least in China. ‘This is perhaps the promised peace on earth, and whoever puts first the real needs of real people will inherit it.’ All the same, Needham will not be remembered for his passionate longing for a better human future, or even for his biology-inspired organic Marxism, but for his extraordinary achievement in exploring and re-creating a past. Yet he remains a neglected thinker, remembered only in textbooks of developmental biology, and still awaits a biographer with a fuller understanding than Winchester’s of a remarkable man and the times and contexts that made him.
 
The name Joseph Needham is not well-known. Simon Winchester, who has written a succinct and enjoyable account of his life, first came across him while writing a travel book, The River at the Centre of the World (1996). He wanted to find out about the boats that plied the Yangtze, and Needham, he learnt, was one of two authorities on the matter. A notably eccentric Cambridge scholar, Needham was actually a biochemist by training, but his outstanding achievement was the 24-volumeScience and Civilisation in China, the first volume of which was published in 1954.
 
Winchester, who worked as a journalist in Asia, is no stranger to what he once called "this delicious strangeness of China." He knows the territory well, which helps explain why his chronicle of Needham's four years there shines so vividly. When the scene moves back to Cambridge and to the details of organizing and publishing Needham's scientific book, Winchester's writing loses some of its luster.
 
Winchester has spent a good deal of his career as a journalist in East Asia, so it’s not surprising that the liveliest stretch of his narrative presents Needham’s first encounter with the country whose language he had mastered from afar. Early in 1943, Needham was sent to China by the British Foreign Office, charged with organizing aid for Chinese scholars and scientists in flight from the Japanese invasion, who were attempting to re-establish their universities in the inner provinces. His travels over the next few years took him from the jungles of the Burmese border to the Gobi Desert and the seacoast of Fujian, on 11 expeditions that covered roughly 30,000 miles. He lived a life of grand adventure in wartime China, and Winchester presents its dangers and pleasures with panache. Whether Needham is donkey racing near ancient Buddhist caves or packed into a train full of refugees speeding across a soon-to-be-bombed railway bridge, the exhilaration of this part of his life is immediately engaging. And so are the colorful characters who come his way.
 
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(Prologue) The battered old Douglas C-47 Skytrain of the China National Aviation Corporation, its chocolate brown fuselage battle-scarred with bullet holes and dents, shuddered its way down through the rain clouds, the pilot following the slow bends of the Yangzi River until he had the sand-spit landing field in sight in front of him and the cliffs of China's capital city to his left.
Joseph Needham, a man highly regarded for his ability as a builder of bridges - between science and faith, privilege and poverty, the Old World and the New, and, most famously of all, between China and the West - was obliged to make an early start in the craft, as the only child of a mother and father who were ineluctably shacked in a spectacularly disastrous Edwardian marriage.
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The extraordinary story of Joseph Needham, the brilliant Cambridge scientist who unlocked the most closely held secrets of China--long the world's most technologically advanced country. This married Englishman, a freethinking intellectual, while working at Cambridge University in 1937, fell in love with a visiting Chinese student, with whom he began a lifelong affair. He became fascinated with China, and embarked on a series of extraordinary expeditions to the farthest frontiers of this ancient empire. He searched everywhere for evidence to bolster his conviction that the Chinese were responsible for hundreds of mankind's most familiar innovations--including printing, the compass, explosives, suspension bridges, even toilet paper--often centuries before the rest of the world. His dangerous journeys took him across war-torn China to far-flung outposts, consolidating his deep admiration for the Chinese people. After the war, Needham began writing what became a seventeen-volume encyclopedia, Science and Civilisation in China.--From publisher description.

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