The Man Who Loved China
Simon Winchester’s new book about the passions and pilgrimages of a British biochemist intimately illuminates China past and to come.
Simon Winchester is one of our most masterful storytellers. In the past he has turned his talents to explicating the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (in “The Professor and the Madman”), illuminating the evolution of geography (“The Map That Changed the World”), and tracking the causes and effects of the famous volcanic explosion of Krakatoa (“Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded”) and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (“A Crack in the Edge of the World”). In his new book, “The Man Who Loved China,” Winchester focuses on the extraordinary adventures of an English biochemist who ended up becoming a groundbreaking interpreter and champion of China to the West. The man who loved China is Joseph Needham, a brilliant, eccentric Cambridge don who fatefully fell in love with a visiting young Chinese researcher in 1937 – and ended up infatuated with her country and culture as well.
Needham’s love affair with China spread roots in Cambridge for five years as he studied the language and culture, then bloomed in 1943 when he was sent to the war-beleaguered country at the behest of the British government to help resuscitate its scientific efforts. Over the ensuing three years, from his base in Chongqing, the intrepid scientist embarked on torturous and sometimes dangerous expeditions to the far corners of the empire, exulting in the variety of people and landscapes he was encountering and especially in the astonishing range of technological inventions and innovations he was discovering. As he roamed and researched, he concluded that the Chinese were responsible for most of the creations -- from printing to gunpowder to toilet paper – that we have come to think of as defining civilization.
When he returned to England in 1946, Needham embarked on a monumental project that would occupy most of the rest of his life: “Science and Civilization in China,” the 24-volume magnum opus that would almost singlehandedly initiate a new understanding and appreciation of China as a global touchstone of technological invention.
Winchester’s account of Needham’s impassioned wanderings and discoveries is deeply enlightening and entertaining, quickened with his signature descriptive precision, wit, encyclopaedic background knowledge and keen attention to the illuminating idiosyncrasy. The atmospheric, intimate details he conjures to convey the settings and events of Needham’s life and work infuse his narrative with an almost breathtaking momentum. “The Man Who Loved China” brings the brilliant, obsessed, stereotype-toppling British biochemist to pulsing life – and through him, brings the historic achievements and enduring characteristics of China to life as well. In so doing, Winchester creates a riveting, revealing, highly personal guide to China past and to come.
[The Man Who Loved China; by Simon Winchester; published by HarperCollins Publishers; copyright 2008 by Simon Winchester; hardcover, 316 pages; $27.95.]
Here is a selection of Adventure Collection member trips to China:
Backroads: China Family Biking
Bushtracks Expeditions: The Himalays by Air, from East to West
Geographic Expeditions: Yunnan's Tribal Tapestry
Natural Habitat Adventures: Wild & Ancient China
For more on the wide world of Adventure Collection journeys, visit AdventureCollection.com.