The Man Who Loved China, by Simon Winchester

Winchester has written a number of masterful books — most notably (the oustanding) The Professor and the Madman and Krakatoa, as well as the more recent A Crack in the Edge of the World. Anything he writes, I’ll pick up — he’s just a very careful and thoughtful historian who’s able to contextualize a great number of contemporary world events and help you make sense of the real history.

Anyway, this is a bit of an unusual book — it chronicles the life of Joseph Needham, a Cambridge scientist who became enamored with China and it’s amazing history of scientific innovation (especially from antiquity to the 1500s or so). He was right to be fascinated, of course — the Chinese invented printing, gunpowder, chain link, the segmented arch bridge, and on and on. He learned about all this as a British diplomat during and after WWII. Then later in life, back at Cambridge, put together a colossus of a history called Science and Civilization in China. Weighing in at 7 gigantic volumes, it’s never been out of print since its introduction (of volume 1) in 1956.

The book also details a bunch of Needham’s adventurous (escaping parts of China just before the Japanese occupation forces closed the roads, for example), peculiar (a confirmed nudist, clearly polyamorous, etc), and and controversial (blacklisted as a communist by McCarthy, duped by Mao’s government into condemning the US for alleged (and apparently false) claims of using biological weapons during the Korean war) paths through life.

I didn’t love this book — it was a little too long for so narrow a look — but am glad that I read it. Would recommend his other books first. But I’ll pick up his next book, for sure, no matter what the topic is.


  1. Needham is one of my favorite modern figures in relationship to China. I actually have a copy of this on its way to me as I type this. Getting a copy of his seven volume set has been a dream of mine but it is actually rather hard to get for a reasonable price.

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