Book Review: The Man Who Loved China

By Saliem Fakir · 9 Oct 2008

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Picture: Independentman
Picture: Independentman

 Book: The Man Who Loved China

 The fantastic story of the eccentric scientist  who unlocked the mysteries of the Middle  Kingdom

 Author: Simon Winchester

 Publisher: Harper Collins

 Reviewer: Saliem Fakir

In 1824, the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote off China as 'the booby nation'. Emerson’s attitude marked the pervasive western prejudice doing its rounds on China: a poor backward country, suffering from squalor and poverty. Not much was known about China other than its fame for silk, porcelain and a few other things. 

By 1911 the Chinese Empire had all but collapsed. China was in a perilous state. It was governed by warring regions, while the rise of the nationalist and communist movements sent China into the throes of political upheaval. In 1937, China suffered a brutal invasion by Japan, which occupied a third of the country until the end of the second-World War.

It was largely through Joseph Needham’s (1900-1995) pioneering work Science and Civilisation in China that a different picture of the Chinese civilization emerged. Ironically, both the western world as well as the Chinese discovered more about China than was known at the time. Needham published his first book on Chinese technology in 1945. It was titled Chinese Science.

This was later followed by a much larger effort lasting four decades. Needham’s monumental work done in collaboration with other international experts forever changed the nature of scholarship about China. His work spans 18 volumes of close to 15 000 pages -- approximating three million words.

Simon Winchester’s biography of Needham is a window into the personal life of the tall enigmatic British biochemist who became famous for writing a book on the history of embryology and whose later love for China led him to investigate its immense technological and scientific history.

Needham was eccentric in other ways. He married a fellow biochemist, Dorothy Moyle, with whom he had a 'modern' marriage. By mutual agreement, they consented to the idea of an open relationship if it so ever happened that they met somebody they liked.

Needham was also a member of a local Gymnosophist Society in which a group of people practiced nudism in secret, given the prudish culture that prevailed over Britain at the time. Needham’s political inclinations were leftist. He was in favour of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917. He hung onto communist ideals till his death -- at times to his own detriment.

He also joined the Communist Party in Britain and campaigned to have Britain boycott the Olympics in Nazi Germany. In 1936 he enlisted with other leftists in Britain in support of the Republican movement during the Spanish war. But, unlike George Orwell, Needham never joined the resistance; he stayed home doing science and teaching.

Needham was not spared the savage witch-hunt and purging that seemed to engulf American politics in the late 1940s and onwards. Because of his communist beliefs, Needham was a victim of an American purge. President Truman’s men hounded him out as advisor and head of the Natural Science division of UNESCO (United Nation's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). Needham was hired by Julian Huxley, UNESCO’s first head, to help establish the scientific component of UNESCO’s programme following his work in China.

But the Americans would not have it and circulated a rumour that Needham was a Communist spy and in so doing, forced him to resign his position.

In 1937, while still plodding through his biochemistry work, there came along a beautiful young aspirant Chinese biochemist, Lu Gwei-djen, from Nanjing. She had heard of the Needham couple and looked forward to working with the two esteemed biochemist in Cambridge.

It was not long that Needham and Gwei-djen would fall in-love. She became Needham’s mistress with the express consent of Needham’s wife. It was from Gwei-djen that Needham learned about the great scientific works done in China. Needham’s enthusiasm for China grew and he learned from Gwei-djen how to read Chinese.

Following its earlier silence over Japan's intense bombing of China, Britain sought to amend its diplomatic relations with China in 1943; and Needham was chosen to go on diplomatic mission to foster greater scientific and cultural ties with China’s scientific establishment. Needham became the director of the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office in Chongqinq from 1942 to 1946.

It was to have been a short mission, but Needham extended his stay for a few more years. He traversed 30 000 miles across China with a Chinese guide and assistant speaking to people, collecting books and other material. When he came back, he began his monumental work.

Relations with China did not end there.

In 1952, Needham led an International Commission on investigating the use of biological weapons in North Korea. Needham’s name was proposed by the Chinese. Needham seemed to get so carried away with his infatuation with China that he concluded an investigation that favoured the Chinese and North Korean suspicions that the Americans may have used biological weapons in North Korea.

For this deed Needham was not spared his reputation. He was attacked by the press and nearly lost his post and funding for his grand project. Needham was also placed on a blacklist by the US government and was banned from entering the US -- he was declared persona non-grata.

Needham, so in-love with communism, was duped by communist spy-masters that the Americans carried out germ-warfare. He took at face-value the scientific work done on his behalf by Chinese scientist whom he trusted.

However, files held by the KGB and only released in 1998 showed that false areas of exposure were created to damage the Americans. Needham was used to lend credibility to North Korean allegations, orchestrated by Chinese and Russian intelligence agents, engaged in a war of disinformation against the Americans.

Despite all of this, Needham managed to survive and continue his work.

Needham helped uncover 5000 years of Chinese civilization hitherto never known to the western world. His discoveries led him to set for himself a personal challenge: answering the question why Chinese science collapsed suddenly allowing the west to eclipse it? Sometimes also referred to as the Needham question. Needham didn’t quite answer it.

China is on the rise again and 5000 years of triumph and tragedy continues to inform Chinese sense of self and its confident march into the future. Somehow, Needham too, had a hand in this.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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