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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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on 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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on March 1, 2009
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.

"The Man Who Loved China" is Needham's exciting story that reads with all the intensity and passion of the most exciting thrillers - the story of the birth of his love for all things Chinese; his initial explorations of a Chinese countryside torn by war with imperial Japan in the 1940s that were frequently fraught with adventure and even danger; his discovery of the astonishing history of Chinese intellectual wealth whose advancements in science and technology pre-dated those of the west by hundreds of years; and his political missteps as he is branded a Communist by McCarthy's propaganda machine and banished from the USA.

Winchester also delves deeply into the scientific exploration of what has come to be called the "Needham question", the curious fact that despite China's prior ability to advance at an almost dizzying speed in such diverse fields as printing, explosives, navigation, hydraulics, ceramics and statecraft, its intellectual capacity fell into an almost completely moribund torpor around the time of the Renaissance, precisely the time when science in the west began the current acceleration which, for all intents and purposes, has never slowed down!

Simon Winchester has also taken us one step beyond Needham's work. In a wonderful compelling epilogue, readers are treated to an informative tour of contemporary China and left with the open-ended question as to whether its newly accelerating pace of development will continue and how China will interact with other nations on the world stage.

As readable as any novel, "The Man Who Loved China" is brilliantly organized, wonderfully paced, and more than complete enough while it also cleverly sidesteps the biographer's mind-numbing trap of listing tedious arcane details. Exciting narrative descriptions of action sequences, near poetic passages of scenery, cityscapes, sights and smells that seem to vividly leap off of the page directly into the reader's minds-eye and even realistic dialogue, make Winchester's work a five star story that even the most non-fiction phobic reader could enjoy! It is a certainty that Winchester's "The Man Who Loved China" will give birth to its own progeny - a second generation of lovers that will continue with Needham's exploration of this unique culture.

Well done. Highly recommended.

Paul Weiss
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon December 17, 2010
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. At the same time the author shares Needham's enthusiasm for enormous questions -- How much does the Western world owe to Eastern ingenuity? What accounts for the flaring up or dying down of a society's intellectual drive? All told, the book gives a highly thought-provoking love story. You gotta admire a guy whose passion for a Chinese woman led him to tear down walls of prejudice between civilizations.

--author of A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization
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on July 15, 2008
everything this man writes is excellent. This book is no exception. You will have hours of genuine entertainment ahead of you. I only wish I had not read it so that I could start it again.
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on July 30, 2013
An deep study of what one dedicated person went through to learned about China's historical greatness.
Highly recommended. No more xenophobia.
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on April 28, 2015
Simon Winchester is always a good read, and this one is no exception. Fabulous account of Chinese Science as well as a fascinating biography of Joseph Needham, the man who brought it all to the attention of the West. Love affairs, WWII adventure, just about everything!
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon November 1, 2010
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 a few other books by this author and wanted to read more. For some reason I don't now recall (unexpected travel or other priority commitment, perhaps), I got sidetracked after just beginning the book and I had to set it aside. Months later, I came across the book again and couldn't recall what it was about or why I had stopped reading it. I assumed I had not enjoyed what I read thus far and almost did not resume the read... I am very glad I ignored my initial impulse and started to re-read it again because it was a very riveting tale.

I'm tempted to say that this is be the best of Winchester's book that I have read so far (with the possible exception of The Professor And The Madman). The focus here is on a single individual but it spans both a lifetime and a globe and introduces the reader to all sorts of interesting secondary characters, some of whom are already famous in other contexts and some who would otherwise remain forgotten. I don't know if I actually care to go read more about Joseph Needham elsewhere (although I might like to read a volume or to of his 'magnum opus'), but I can say that this particularly biography entertained and diverted me for quite a number of hours.
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on February 15, 2009
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 of it.
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on April 10, 2013
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.
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