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The first Sinophile

Book>> The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester Harper Collins, New York 2008

By Pratul Raturi
Published: Saturday 15 November 2008


China's growing economic muscle means that Western universities are interested in Chinese studies like never before. Not surprisingly there has been a glut of publications on the forbidden country of yesteryear. So it was about time we had a biography of the pioneer of this interest Joseph Needham. In the 1950s, the English biologist reminded the Western world that China was not always an intellectual backwater. Its backwardness had been preceded by centuries of remarkable creativity--including crucial inventions like gunpowder, printing and the compass. The first volume of his Science and Civilisation in China was published in 1954 and has never gone out of print. There are 24 volumes of that magnum opus now.

Simon Winchester has many qualifications that make him an apt biographer of the modern West's first Sinophile.He has written extensively about Asia and science. He has resuscitated brilliant oddballs before-in his 1998 bestseller, The Surgeon of Crowthorne, he described killer and amateur philologist William Chester Minor's contribution to the first Oxford English Dictionary.

Down to Earth  
Top Joseph Needham in Chungking in Chinese army uniform in 1946; Top right On horseback with Chinese guides, Bottom right With the then
number two in Chinese polity Zhou Enlai in 1964
Down to Earth
Down to Earth

Winchester first came across Needham in 1996 while writing a travel book, The River at the Centre of the World. He wanted to find out about the boats that plied the Yangtze, and Needham, he learnt, was one of the authorities on the matter. In The Man Who Loved China the British journalist follows Needham on 11 expeditions across 50,000 km from the East China Sea to the Silk Route to uncover the Chinese origin of almost everything, from the abacus to the zoetrope. Using letters, notes, and other archival documents, Winchester weaves together the threads of a life that includes an early period of scientific stardom, an intense phase of cultural exploration in wartime China, and a return to England, where Needham transformed himself into an eminent historian.

Winchester successfully depicts Needham as a complex and driven man, with diverse talents and a few eccentricities. An enthusiastic singer, nudist, left-winger, chain-smoker and churchgoer, he also played the accordion, drove at excessive speed, and insisted that his breakfast toast be burnt to a cinder. He befriended Zhou Enlai, number two to Mao Zedong, and managed, like many other intellectuals, to excuse or ignore the brutality and totalitarianism of communist rule.

Good scientific biographies require a vibrant depiction of people who are not instantly familiar to us. Winchester succeeds in this respect. But he spends little time substantively grappling with Needham's work, intellectual milieu, or influence, beyond making clear that Needham brought a mountain of new knowledge to the West. Only briefly does he describe the volumes of Science and Civilzation and their critical reception, noting that Needham "never fully worked out the answers" to his own grand question.

By the 1980s, scholars were contesting various Needham claims. The historian David Landes, for example, repudiated Needham's assertion that China's water-powered astronomical clocks were the forerunners of Europe's mechanical time-clocks, underscoring a larger point That China got there first does not mean the country's innovations were the forbears of those in Europe. Winchester does not reference this debate and is inconsistent about this principle, stating China was "possibly the fount of just about everything else important that was known to the outside world," while later agreeing that the Western development of steel, for example, was "entirely homegrown. "

While some scholars have therefore questioned the extent of China's influence on the world, or perceive greater differences between East and West than Needham, their disagreements show why Needham matters. In confronting his work, we are forced to define science across cultures, say how it relates to technology, and consider how each is intertwined with political, economic or religious forces.

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