"Four thousand years ago, when we couldn't even read, the Chinese knew all the absolutely useful things we boast about today," wrote French philosophe Voltaire in 1764. But if today in the West we widely acknowledge those words to be true, that's largely due to an Englishman.
Joseph Needham, a brilliant Cambridge don, was a "bespectacled, owlish, fearless adventurer ... a nudist, a wild dancer, an accordian player, and a chain-smoking churchgoer." He was also the man who dragged China's reputation in the West from the dustbin ("this booby nation," as Ralph Waldo Emerson called it in 1824) to its rightful place as a principal forger of human civilization.
Needham is the subject of The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester, former journalist and bestselling nonfiction author ("The Professor and the Madman," "Krakatoa," and "The Map That Changed the World.") Winchester stumbled on Needham's name while researching another project and was surprised to realize that he knew nothing about the eccentric professor who had authored a massive, multivolume encyclopedia called "Science and Civilisation in China."
Readers might be forgiven for imagining that the life of an encyclopedist of scientific history would have all the zip of a tax seminar. But not in the case of Needham.
He was trained as a biochemist – and a brilliant one at that. But Needham was also a being stuffed to the brim with energy and passion. His enthusiasms spilled over into many areas – leftist politics, railways, morris dancing – and beautiful women.
His marriage to another brainy young biochemist (both with bright futures at Cambridge University) did not prevent him from falling headlong for a Chinese scientist named Lu Gwei-djen.
Needham's passion for Gwei-djen led him to learn her language, a study that he found to be "a liberation, like going for a swim on a hot day ... into the glittering crystalline world of ideological characters."
Once fluent in Chinese, Needham was invited by the British government in 1943 to make a diplomatic mission to China while it was under siege by the Japanese. Needham accepted with alacrity and spent the next few years traveling the country.
Winchester draws heavily on Needham's own writing and does a lively job of helping readers to see the China that so entranced him – a land of "narrow streets ... fizzing with lanterns, jammed with stalls, and crowded with tides of humanity" and "great mountain passes, overwhelming scenery, unpredictable roads, bridges broken down."
He also re-creates the fury with which the ever-curious Needham tore through the Chinese countryside, exploring the Chinese origin of everything from the orange to the magnetic compass. The more he learned, the more awed Needham was by the depth and breadth of early Chinese ingenuity.
Needham would never return to the study of biochemistry. Instead, he would spend the rest of his life puzzling over a question he first scribbled on the back of a letter while voyaging: "Sci. in general in China – why not develop?"
In other words, why had China failed to capitalize on its early, historical promise? It was a question he would never fully answer.
Needham lived to be 94, a life filled with multiple journeys to China and a privileged position at Cambridge. Needham's career, however, was not without controversy. In the 1950s he headed a commission that charged that the US had used biological weapons against North Korea (a charge now largely presumed to be false). He also turned a blind eye to what many Westerners saw as the abuses of Mao's government. ("The first freedom is to eat – and now the Chinese people are being fed," he insisted in defense of his friends in the country's Commmunist government.)
"The Man Who Loved China" has a breathless quality. The land that Needham loved is vast – as are his own accomplishments. Readers travel at warp speed to reach the end of such a career in less than 300 pages of text. Perhaps as a result, we see Needham in action – constantly – but we learn surprisingly little of his interior.
However, with all eyes turned to China this summer, those interested in the achievements of the Olympics' behemoth host will do well to take a tour with this remarkable guide.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to email@example.com.