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The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom [Hardcover]

Simon Winchester
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 6 2008

In sumptuous and illuminating detail, Simon Winchester, the bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman ("Elegant and scrupulous"—New York Times Book Review) and Krakatoa ("A mesmerizing page-turner"—Time) brings to life the extraordinary story of Joseph Needham, the brilliant 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, who practiced nudism and was devoted to a quirky brand of folk dancing. In 1937, while working as a biochemist at Cambridge University, he instantly fell in love with a visiting Chinese student, with whom he began a lifelong affair.

He soon became fascinated with China, and his mistress swiftly persuaded the ever-enthusiastic Needham to travel to her home country, where he embarked on a series of extraordinary expeditions to the farthest frontiers of this ancient empire. He searched everywhere for evidence to bolster his conviction that the Chinese were responsible for hundreds of mankind's most familiar innovations—including printing, the compass, explosives, suspension bridges, even toilet paper—often centuries before the rest of the world. His thrilling and dangerous journeys, vividly recreated by Winchester, took him across war-torn China to far-flung outposts, consolidating his deep admiration for the Chinese people.

After the war, Needham was determined to tell the world what he had discovered, and began writing his majestic Science and Civilisation in China, describing the country's long and astonishing history of invention and technology. By the time he died, he had produced, essentially single-handedly, seventeen immense volumes, marking him as the greatest one-man encyclopedist ever.

Both epic and intimate, The Man Who Loved China tells the sweeping story of China through Needham's remarkable life. Here is an unforgettable tale of what makes men, nations, and, indeed, mankind itself great—related by one of the world's inimitable storytellers.

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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Joseph Needham (1900–1995) is the man who made China China, forming the West's understanding of a sophisticated culture with his masterpiece, Science and Civilization in China, says bestselling author Winchester. In a life devoted to recording the Middle Kingdom's intellectual wealth, Needham, an eccentric, brilliant Cambridge don, made a remarkable journey from son of a London doctor through scientist-adventurer to red scare target. In Winchester's (The Professor and the Madman) estimable hands, Needham's story comes to life straightaway. From the biochemist's arrival in WWII Chongqing (the smells, of incense smoke, car exhaust, hot cooking oil, a particularly acrid kind of pepper, human waste, oleander, and jasmine) to his steely discipline when crafting his research into prose (to an old friend: I am frightfully busy. You come without an appointment, so I am afraid I cannot see you), Winchester plunges the reader into the action with hardly a break. As the author notes in an outstanding epilogue—a swirling 12-page trip through the kaleidoscope of contemporary China—he is at pains to place Needham front and center in our understanding of the nation that now plays such a huge role in American life. B&w photos, maps. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"In this elegant and incisive book, Michael Walzer draws on everyday political experience to open up some of the theoretical dead-ends in which contemporary democratic theory has become stalled. The book’s positive, constructive emphasis will make it useful to anyone interested in issues of social equality."—Bernard Yack, Brandeis University

"This book is brim full of the acute intelligence, human understanding, and practical wisdom that we have come to expect from Michael Walzer. In Politics and Passion he combines a radical commitment to equality and democracy with a hard-won recognition of the realities of politics.

“This clearly and engagingly written book shows up the thinness of much contemporary liberal theory. Informed by his social democratic convictions, Walzer allows the real dilemmas of egalitarian liberalism to surface, and faces them honestly, without the conjuring tricks and obfuscation that philosophy can lend itself to.”--Charles Taylor, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, McGill University
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
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Most helpful customer reviews
25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Amusing Riddle of a Man June 26 2008
By Ian Gordon Malcomson HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Over the past decade, the English biographer, Simon Winchester, has become famous for probing the lives of the certifiably delusional, the mildly eccentric, the politically obsessed and the naturally traumatized. His latest offering, "The Man Who Loved China", is no different. If you read it, you will be treated to a story that encompasses two continents, the brilliant notions of an intellectual dedicated to bringing the past into line with the present, and a 20th century world rivened by ideological conflict. The life of Cambridge University's Dr. Joseph Needham - socialist, free-thinker, and polymath extraordinaire - becomes that focus in which you will move through modern times on a path rarely traveled. For starters, Winchester introduces us to the obscure beginnings of Needham: no great distinction here except an early propensity for languages resulting from his photographic memory and an identification with the underdog. As he became ensconced in academic life as a university don at Caius College, he developed an interest in the study of Chinese antiquity, namely the Middle Kingdom. Along came WW II when Needham finally got his chance to make a big impact on civilization. He was commissioned by the Churchill government to go to China as a leading expert on Chinese history (not a sinologist)to collect and catalogue important manuscripts before they fell into the hands of the invading Japanese armies. This mission was to take months of grueling and fascinating criss-crossing of China; the description of which will boggle the human imagination in terms of what Needham was searching for: why didn't the much vaunted Chinese technology ever make it to the West? You have to read to find the answer to that mystery. The book concludes with some interesting asides to Needham's political, academic and personal lives. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to be challenged as to the meaning of history in modern times.
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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 19 And Counting May 12 2008
There are 2 facets of Simon Winchester’s work that make him one of my favorite authors. Firstly, he brings amazing players in History forward that I very often have never heard of. Secondly, he makes reading History tremendously fascinating. The latter should be a given, how can our past be anything but fascinating? The reality is that History books can be painful to read.

Noel Joseph Terrence Montgomery Needham is the subject of Mr. Winchester’s 19th work, sound familiar? Not to me. However by the end of the book I look forward to seeking out more about this man as Mr. Winchester has a knack for catalyzing a reader’s interest well beyond the book he offers. Professor Needham was a astonishing man who filled his 94 years with remarkable travels, eccentric behavior and a decision so poor the reader will ask was he a fool or a knave? (Question posed by the author)

What is not in dispute is the marvelous history of China Professor Needham documented through first hand investigation over thousands of miles traveled in China (many in war time) and the decades of research that followed. The only other historian that comes to mind as being so single minded in his pursuit of a subject is Sir Martin Gilbert and his decades long work on Sir Winston Spencer Churchill.

The work is also timely as it coincides with China’s re-entry as a focal point for the world. China’s existence is best measured in millennia and her scientific contributions when listed are nearly as long and often pre-date conventional wisdom on who was first with a given invention. Think you know where printing was first documented, suspension bridges first built, how about the compass, blood circulation or perhaps a flame-thrower?

China’s recent history is no indicator of its fantastic past and may more likely be an indicator of what is yet to come. This is another great read by a wonderful author who never disappoints.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
In "The Man Who Loved China", Simon Winchester tells us the beguiling and utterly fascinating story of Joseph Needham - a lifelong learner, a libidinous lover, a licentious libertine, a pro-active left-wing Communist sympathizer, a linguist, a larger than life collection of laughably loopy eccentricities verging on the lunatic and now the little known but paradoxically near legendary author of "Science and Civilization in China".

This seminal work, this magnum opus, Needham's life work - spanning 50 years in the preparation and still incomplete at his death in 1995 - was, in essence, to burst the bubble of the West's parochial conceit that we are the birthplace of all that is important in science and technology.

Life as an accomplished, well-respected biochemist on the faculty of Cambridge University simply wasn't enough for the awesome intellect of an insatiable polymath like Joseph Needham. His love affair with the history of the Middle Kingdom began concurrently with a blossoming extra-marital love for Lu Gwei-djen, one of his students. This affair, conducted in a curiously open manner for such a staunchly staid, conservative and venerable institution as Cambridge, was, equally curiously, accepted and tolerated by Dorothy Needham, his wife and scientific colleague, for the duration of all three of their lives. As Lu Gwei-djen taught him her language, Needham dove headlong into an intense exploration of China's rich, sophisticated and exciting culture and history.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Thank you.
Published 2 months ago by Lorne Fisher
4.0 out of 5 stars Looking far beyond the Chinese in Chinatown, Chow Mein, and even the...
An deep study of what one dedicated person went through to learned about China's historical greatness.
Highly recommended. No more xenophobia.
Published 14 months ago by Nelson Pau
5.0 out of 5 stars A good historical documentation of the development of science in China
As a Chinese and a scientist I really enjoyed reading about the development of science in China. I think Simon Winchester did an xcellent job in his research.
Published 18 months ago by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars The Scientific Genius who was a Sinophilic Fool
I recently listened to my first China audio-book, The Man Who Loved China, by Simon Winchester. I had heard about this book, but admit the title put me off. Read more
Published on Dec 27 2011 by Troy Parfitt
5.0 out of 5 stars a fine bonfire of passion and intellect
Winchester's account of Joseph Needham shows a Needham-esque fascination with intricate detail -- be it the social world of Edwardian England or the topography of western China. Read more
Published on Dec 17 2010 by Brian Griffith
4.0 out of 5 stars An enjoyable treatment of an obscure topic
I bought this book quite a long time ago. I didn't order it because I had any particular interest in Joseph Needham (indeed, I had never heard of him) but rather because I had read... Read more
Published on Nov. 1 2010 by C. J. Thompson
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing
Simon Winchester is a wonderful storyteller and his bio of Joseph Needham brings to light an amazing man who followed his ideals and created a better world for all.
Published on Aug. 12 2010 by Becky2
3.0 out of 5 stars Writer is great - but the subject ...
I find the writer good but Needham does not seem quite worthy of a popular biography on this scale - I started to get bored despite Winchester's valiant attempts to make something... Read more
Published on Feb. 15 2009 by Dan Dupre
5.0 out of 5 stars everything this man writes is excellent
everything this man writes is excellent. This book is no exception. You will have hours of genuine entertainment ahead of you. Read more
Published on July 15 2008 by zhen de
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