Another formidable, absorbing reading experience by versatile Winchester (A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, 2005, etc.), this one about the British scholar who made China’s contributions to civilization known in the West.
Displaying the author’s habitual ability to make any subject seem urgently momentous, this admiring biography of Joseph Needham (1900–95) will send many readers rushing off to read Needham’s magnum opus, Science and Civilization in China, which catalogued the ancient empire’s many inventions and discoveries in an ever-expanding series of volumes beginning in 1954. When the Cambridge biochemist first visited in 1943, most outsiders viewed civil-war-torn, Japanese-occupied China with what Winchester describes as “a mixture of disdain, contempt, and utter exasperation.” Invited on an official mission to bolster the beleaguered scientific community, Needham already had a very different attitude, fostered by his lover and fellow biochemist, Lu Gwei-djen. She had come to Cambridge from Nanjing in 1937, just after the Japanese invasion, and “in falling headlong for Gwei-djen, Needham found that he also became enraptured by her country.” She taught him to read, write and speak her language, which stood Needham in good stead during his three years traveling to some of the country’s remotest regions, reveling in such marvels as the man-made cave in the Turkestan desert where the world’s oldest printed book had been found in 1907. This adventurous period ended with his departure for England to help establish the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, intended to promote the kind of international cooperation in which he fervently believed. Cold War strictures soon led the staunchly socialist Needham to resign and return to Cambridge, where he devoted the next five decades to detailing China’s historic innovations (gunpowder, printing and the compass, to name a few) and asking why these astonishing accomplishments failed to develop a modern, industrial state.
Reflects its subject’s passionate interests and makes scholarship positively sexy.