Review: Simon Winchester – The Man Who Loved China

The Man Who Loved China
Simon Winchester
Harper Perennial: 2008
Paperback, 265 pages



In illuminating detail, Winchester, bestselling author of The Professor & the Madman (“Elegant & scrupulous”—NY Times Book Review) & Krakatoa (“A mesmerizing page-turner”—Time) tells the story of Joseph Needham, the Cambridge scientist who unlocked the most closely held secrets of China, long the world’s most technologically advanced country.
No cloistered don, this tall, married Englishman was a freethinking intellectual. A nudist, he was devoted to quirky folk dancing. In 1937, while working as a biochemist at Cambridge, he fell in love with a visiting Chinese student, with whom he began a lifelong affair. His mistress persuaded him to travel to her home country, where he embarked on a series of expeditions to the frontiers of the ancient empire. He searched for evidence to bolster a conviction that the Chinese were responsible for hundreds of humankind’s most familiar innovations—including printing, the compass, explosives, suspension bridges, even toilet paper—often centuries before others. His journeys took him across war-torn China, consolidating his admiration for the Chinese. After the war, he determined to announce what he’d discovered & began writing Science & Civilisation in China, describing the country’s long history of invention & technology. By the time he died, he’d produced, almost single-handedly, 17 volumes, making him the greatest one-man encyclopedist ever.
Epic & intimate, The Man Who Loved China tells the sweeping story of China thru Needham’s life. Here’s a tale of what makes men, nations & humankind great—related by one of the world’s best storytellers.



As I made my way through The Man Who Loved China, for one brief moment I was reminded of a book I read earlier this summer – The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. Similarities: you follow the chronicles of a man who leads an extraodinary life who meets these amazing people who changed world history. Differences: The Man Who Loved China is non-fiction – and truly about a man from Britain, Joseph Needham – who truly made some amazing connections and been a part of contemporary world history. He was able to even call Mao Zedong an acquaintance and Zhou Enlai a friend. How many people can really say that?

The book is a biography about Joseph Needham – the Cambridge scientist who enlightened the world with his multiple volumes of Science and Civilization in China that are detailed and historically records and documents the inventions and developments of ancient China. His fascination first started from his affair with his Chinese mistress and brought him the opportunity to actually visit China and gather information and research that he would eventually put together in his volumes of work. Throughout The Man Who Loved China, we are given glimpses into his personal life, his adventures, and some of the information that he learned and brought into light about the Chinese civilization.

This is not typically the type of book I’d pick up on my own. I tend to enjoy more fiction than non-fiction and aside from the occasional books about the Holocaust, I stay away from non-fiction that involves history. So the chance to read The Man Who Loved China arose when it was chosen as this month’s book club selection. My friend who chose it – and will be hosting the book club meeting later this month – because it was recommended to her and she thought that it’d be an interesting way to learn more about China. Most of my book club members are Chinese-born Canadians and while I may be the most in touch and familiar with the Chinese culture, history and language, most of my friends – like most CBCs – aren’t and have become more “Canadianized” if you will.

So reading this book actually allowed me to gain more insight into the country that my ancestors came from. While there were historical events and significant inventions that I learned when I was younger in Chinese school, there were still so much that I was able to pick up from this book. My knowledge about Chinese history is very limited – which isn’t surprising considering the thousands of years of Chinese history there is. And the book provided an insight into the past century of Chinese history that I had not noticed prior to this.

This is not a book that I’d lightly recommend to others. History and biographies are not for everyone and not usually the kind of light reading that people prefer. But if you are interested in a bit of Chinese history or if you’ve heard of Science and Civilization in China and have wondered how an Oxford fellow became the one to bring it together, you may actually be interested in this biography. It allows you to learn about Chinese history and a bit of world history from the 20th century onward without having to actually crack open a history textbook.


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