Thursday, August 21, 2008

simon winchester, "the man who loved china" book review

"the man who loved china" - the eccentric scientist - was joseph needham. his magnum opus "science and civilisation in china" reached 18 volumes during his lifetime, is currently at 24, and more volumes are forthcoming. simon winchester has written an engaging and captivating biography of his life. despite the ponderous and lengthily subtitle, the overarching irony of needham's life - one that was immersed in all things chinese - was that he NEVER unlocked the mystery of the middle kingdom. he never answered the now famous "needham question:" how did a country that was in the forefront of scientific achievement suddenly stop short and fail to enter the modern world, and instead turned over the leadership to the western word?

in fact, the major shortcoming of winchester's book is that he too failed to answer the question, or rather winchester failed to grapple with needham's glaring failure to answer his own inquiry despite the long years of research (in the field and between the stacks) and publication! while winchester tossed out the entirely unsatisfactory, "they [china] just stopped trying," and briefly alluded to needham's half-hearted attempt at an explanation, the huge government bureaucracy stifled any possible innovation, he never took it beyond a cursory examination! the book's finish, without a more meaningful exploration of that question, seemed rushed and incomplete.

however, scholarship issue aside, the first half of the book is well-worth reading on it's own terms - as the fantastic story of an amazing person (and his off-beat adventures). a thumbnail sketch of needham, in no particular order: a university professor; an enthusiastic nudist; a man with a decades-long mistress (with the tacit approval of his wife); a man who, despite a wife and mistress, was serial womanizer; a committed socialist (and communist sympathizer - when it was decidedly dangerous to be one in the west) in all things political; a diplomat; an accordion player; a church goer; and, an unabashed chain-smoker to his last days! if that isn't enough, his travels in china during world war two had an element of indiana jones to them - especially as he toured the remotest parts of the country in a battered truck that repeatedly broke down!

however, his glory days were not without controversy. during his china stay, one of his colleagues was so enraged - and jealous - of needham's conduct that he fired off an explicit tell-all letter to the british state department which sought to inform them that needham not only had his mistress posted to china (alongside his wife, who was also currently stationed there), but that needham would take her on his "official" trips at british expense. so tolerant of needham was the british government at that time, that when needham wrote back his explanation, to wit, the other fellow was just plain "mad" - as in the delusional sense - the entire matter was dropped!

but the tables turned against needham dramatically in the early 50's when he was duped by the chinese and north korean governments into heading a committee that investigated the claim that the united states used chemical and biological weapons during the korean war. when needham and his committee agreed that the united states had used these weapons, the western world turned against him with a fury. the backlash was almost total. he was blacklisted and could not enter the united states again until the 1970's! his reputation only began its recovery in the late 50's, when the first and subsequent volumes of "science and civilization in china" were released - to increasingly positive reviews.

at the end of his life, to underscore that he'd lost none of his old pluck, he married his mistress after the death of his wife. following the death of his mistress, needham (now in his 90's) promptly asked two different women acquaintances of his (thankfully, not at the same time) to marry him. each one respectfully declined the invitation! the man was incorrigible!

"the man who loved china" was a stark contrast to the gene simmon's autobiography that preceded it on my reading list. but next up, the theodore roosevelt biography "lion in the white house," has more in common with the needham biography than the rock star's autobiography!


DawnB said...

heard it from a little birdie its your birthday!! Happy Birthday Frank!!

rundangerously said...

thanks dawn!!

Rose City Reader said...

Great review! I just read this book and reviewed it on Rose City Reader.

It didn't bug me too much that Winchester dodged the "Needham Question." I thought the quicky excuse -- "what does it matter, they are catching up now" -- to be lame, but it didn't really bother me because I never considered the answer to be within the scope of Winchester's biography.

I would like to post a link to your review on mine. Please leave a comment on my post and let me know if that is OK with you.