Reviewed by Rima Walker
Joseph Needham was a remarkable man and probably best known for an astounding work in at least 23 volumes called Science and Civilization in China, in which he revealed China’s early inventions and technologies created long before those in Europe. Science and civilization relate what Needham “discovered, recorded, and then later made sense of, the deepest secrets of the Middle Kingdom.” How did this very unusual socialist scientist come to spend about 50 years on this encyclopedic compendium? Winchester’s biography of this eccentric biochemist points out that he loved women, Morris dancing, and trains, but most of all he loved adventure. If his arduous travels through China in the late 30’s, when most of it was occupied by the Japanese, included all of these, he was indeed a happy man.
Why did Needham undertake his travels through parts of China in a dangerous atmosphere? Because he met a Chinese student, Lu Gwei-djen, fell in love with her and took her as his lifelong mistress (he was married to Dorothy Needham, also a scientist, who didn’t mind at all that Needham had a lover.). He decided to travel in China having posed an interesting question: The Chinese hundreds of years ago (and before the westerners) invented many devices in common use later in the west. Why did they stop further development of inventions around the 1500s, the same time when Europe’s Renaissance was just getting started. Needham’s pursuit to find answers brought him in contact with extraordinary people, some of whom became his friends, among them Zhou En Lai, Mao Zedong, American and British spies, one so famous that Needham wrote in his diary sparingly about him, using only his initials.
Needham left China after the war to work for UNESCO, but his left-wing tendencies were such that he resigned in 1947. In 1957 he returned to China to investigate germ warfare on the part of the Americans during the Korean War. His report was based on his faith in Chinese scientists, the conclusions they came to, and the fact that he was supportive of Red China. Needham was blacklisted during the age of McCarthyism and considered by some to be a traitor.
When Needham’s first volume came out, he was completely vindicated based on his “superb work of scholarship”. The book was considered a masterpiece and was compared to the great Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) and the Oxford English Dictionary. He became president of his Cambridge college, and was released from teaching so he could work on his magnum opus which he thought would run to about 7 or 8 volumes. Now, even after his death in 1995, the people who worked with him are completing several more.
Winchester’s book includes an 11-page listing called “Chinese Inventions and Discoveries with Dates of First Mention” that reach back to the third century BC and include everything from gunpowder to kites. Well written, and with a distinct ability to reveal Needham’s quirky but brilliant character, Winchester’s fascinating book is not to be missed. It is an exciting story about adventure and mystery that leaves the reader awed by the fact of one man’s very courageous journey of exploration.~