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China: cradle of invention?

February 23, 2015

Simon Winchester has written a number of non-fiction books, ranging from subjects like how words were collected for the 20 versions of the Oxford English Dictionary, to the story of Krakatoa, the story of maps and one called ‘The meaning of everything’. Mr Winchester is always worth reading and the one I am reviewing now is as fascinating as anything else he has written.

“The man who loved China” is the story of an English scientist, Dr. Joseph Needham, a Cambridge Don who was brilliant and eccentric, and could speak French, German, Greek and Mandarin Chinese quite fluently. He was happily married to the same woman most of his adult life but also had for decades a Chinese mistress. He was the creator and author of a multi volume work, published by the Cambridge University Press as “Science and Civilisation in China”.

Now, you may well think that this could be a rather dull book but let me tell you that it is anything but!

joseph needhamJoseph Needham led an extraordinary life. This young , tall, good-looking man who, back in the early 1930’s fell in love with China, its language and its mysteries, got the opportunity to visit that country. While he travelled around uninterrupted he searched and found evidence to bolster his convictions that long before European invention and science took off, the Chinese had invented a raft of things such as printing (from wooden blocks), the magnetic compass, explosives, suspension bridges, coal as fuel, ball bearings, air conditioning, cast iron, the cross-bow, folding chairs, the handgun, paper, the stirrup, weather vanes, inoculation and much, much more. Some of these date back to before Christ.

Dr Needham discovered documentary evidence and hidden treasures which were the basis of his hand written notes. But this is not a book so much about academic research. It has more than its share of adventure, dangerous risk taking and escapes. It was, after all, the time the Japanese had invaded China and was in possession of a large chunk of it and pressing forward to take all of it, if it could. It was also not long before Mao Tse Tung’s long march after which the Nationalists were defeated and the Communists took over.

Joseph Needham was a socialist supporter while staying on good terms with everyone he came into contact with. He was later sent back to China to give material support to the scientific community. He crossed war-torn China on thrilling and dangerous journeys. On his return to England he wanted to change the west’s antiquated perception of China, its history and its contribution to world knowledge and civilisation.

By the time he died in 1995, he had produced, almost single-handedly, 17 volumes on every aspect of science and technology. Through him and through this excellent book by Simon Winchester, we get a truer picture of China and perhaps a better understanding of how and why this great country has emerged in the 21st century, as one of the foremost economic powers ‘going forward’ as the jargon has it.

– Larry Gordon

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From → Non-Fiction, Review

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