In 1937, while working as a biochemist at Cambridge University in England, Joseph Needham met a visiting scientist from China with whom he ultimately had a life-long affair, a relationship that would impact the course of his life, and by extension mankind’s understanding of China. Through her, he became acquainted with elements of the hidden story of China, its ancient technological and scientific past. Needham became deeply intrigued by the country, the culture, the people and the rich tradition of their inventiveness. As a result, Needham was determined to explore that blind spot in Western understanding of China, and after studying the Chinese language, accepted an invitation to visit China. That visit was the beginning of a decades-long relationship with the country, with a series of expeditions, which culminated in his writing a seventeen volume encyclopedia – Science and Civilization of China – documenting the comprehensive story of China’s history and their long list of technical innovations that the Western world has benefited from, but has up to that point little or no awareness or appreciation of their origins.
The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom reads much like an epic fast moving novel at times, with cinematic moments where Needham is visiting the most remote regions of China in search of rare books, or a escaping a city under attack from Japanese, which is doomed to fall two days later. Balancing intimate personal stories with accounts engaged with the struggle for international political advantage, Simon Winchester paints an informative and engaging picture of Needham’s life and work. Learning about Needham is indeed an important chapter of history to understand the world from a more informed perspective. I read this book after my own visit to China. I enjoyed it immensely, and felt richer after finishing it, and it provided added context to places I had visited. I highly recommend this informative and entertaining read. I would not be surprised if we see a movie of his life sometime in the near future.