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An Amusing Riddle of a Man
on June 26, 2008
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.