four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
36-Sept-Oct-2008
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0

A-The Man Who Loved ChinaIn the best-selling The Professor and the Madman (1998), Simon Winchester related the bizarre story of the Oxford English Dictionary; he has also hit the best seller list with The Map That Changed the World (the birth of modern geology), Krakatoa (the Indonesian volcano, 4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2003), and A Crack in the Edge of the World (the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, 2.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2006).

The Topic: Decades before Richard Nixon traveled to China to open relations between East and West, Cambridge don and eccentric biochemist Joseph Needham (1900–1995) made inroads into China’s secrets. An open-minded intellectual, nudist, accordion player, and highly regarded scientist, Needham became a Sinophile in the late 1930s at the urging of his Chinese mistress, who had come to Cambridge to study. In an effort to corroborate his notion that the Chinese were responsible for some of the most important technological innovations—including printing, the compass, and explosives—Needham traveled to China and embarked on adventures that no Westerner had ever attempted. What he brought back was an even greater appreciation for China’s culture, people, and inventiveness, as reflected in his 18-volume love letter to China, Science and Civilisation in China.
HarperCollins. 316 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 0060884592

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Winchester deftly captures [Needham’s] complex personality, a romantic adventurer propelled by intellectual curiosity—and his leftist political leanings that introduced him into the circle around Zhou Enlai, whose Communist army was headquartered in the wartime capital of Chongqing." Michael Kenney

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The Man Who Loved China is a charming literary and cultural adventure that captures the unadorned brilliance and infectious enthusiasm of this remarkable man, with his outsized intellectual ambition and his endearing zest for life." Seth Faison

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"This is a wonderfully entertaining book. While specialists may find its finer technical points a bit thin in places, and American readers might puzzle over its occasional ‘Britishisms,’ Winchester deftly probes the nexus of the public and private facets of one of scholarship’s most profound minds and eccentric personalities." Charles Desnoyers

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"[A]nother fascinating read, filled with expeditions across war-ravaged China, harrowing escapes from the Japanese army, more than a few amorous adventures, and path-breaking scholarship undertaken within the ancient rooms of Cambridge University." Steve Ruskin

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Winchester, so skilled at making the triumphs, tragedies and details of real life read like an engaging novel, portrays a Needham who lives up to the eccentric billing of the title. … Needham’s diary entries often merely report appointments and inadequate transportation, not what you’d expect or desire from a philandering daredevil." Amy Canfield

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Simon Winchester’s biography, The Man Who Loved China, presents a low-key, often beguiling view of a man who hardly beguiled the postwar American authorities—or, for a time, his own countrymen. … 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." Alida Becker

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Needham’s experiences in China, bringing laboratory equipment and journals to scientific colleagues and gathering materials for his research, were, alas, not all that dramatic. … So Winchester peppers the narrative with delicious digressions." Glenn C. Altschuler

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The importance of Needham’s work lies not only in the mega-projects for which China is most famous but also in the small-scale technologies that he lovingly detailed." Judith Shapiro

Critical Summary

With The Man Who Loved China, Simon Winchester turns out another compelling, readable, and relevant tale. Any good storyteller will embellish his subject, and Winchester effortlessly keeps readers interested in Needham’s adventures—even when they flag a bit. For the most part, though, Needham’s life is one that relatively few readers will know—and one that Winchester brings to life with a passel of research and an ever-present sense of wonder for his unique subject. Despite some errors and repetition, the book is also a good starting point for any reader who seeks another path to understanding the roots of Chinese civilization.