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Man Who Loved China, The

by: Simon Winchester

New York NY: HarperCollinsPublishers 2008, Hardbound
ISBN: 978-0-06-088459-8

Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Summer Volume: 2009 Issue: 16(2) page(s): 22

The cover page says: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom. Be mesmerized as this volume brings to life an extraordinary English don who fell in love with China and a Chinese student he met in 1936 when she came to study with him. He was married at the time, traveled to her home country in 1943, embarked upon a set of extraordinary adventures, and searched for information about anything scientific he could learn in China. After his wife died, he did marry this student; but before he did, she was his mistress.

Determined to share discoveries with the world, Needham gathered information and informative materials, detailed everything he learned nightly in carefully scribed notebooks. Once back in England at his university, he began writing what he believed would be seven volumes. Science and Civilization in China evolved into a larger multi-volume treatise, twenty-four volumes encyclopedic in nature, the last few completed by others who worked with him. The number seven remains but reality is that many books make up one volume. Only Volume I is one book, it is the Introduction.

Volume II looks at Chinese philosophy, mostly Confucian and Daoist. Volume III is what Needham called the pre-sciences, today called pure sciences. Volume IV explores Chinese technology. Volume V looks at what changes occurred in the China of five centuries ago. Volume VI looks at China's development in relation to the general history of civilization. Volume VII was intended to be the grand finale exploring what would be China's future. The problem was, he quickly realized China stopped being in the forefront of things, other countries were advancing science, and what became the Needham question was, why had all these things come to a stop in China? While he did wonder why no scientific progress was forthcoming; were he alive today, he might say it was but a pause in their scientific development.

Through 2004, twenty-four volumes were published, the last few, as was Volume VI:5 done by an associate named H.T. Huang. The Joseph Needham Institute is still going through his papers; and more information may be forthcoming. In the meantime, read this story of this eccentric man who really did love China. It is must reading for anyone with a mild interest in the country he loved. It reflects not only his passionate interest but also what passionate, albeit unusual, scholarship can be. Winchester is a formidable writer, the topic mesmerizing, as is the man he is writing about. This book is a must read, and that is an understatement!

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