The Man Who Loved China

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2010-02-16
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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In sumptuous and illuminating detail, Simon Winchester, bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman, brings to life the extraordinary story of Joseph Needham-the brilliant Cambridge scientist, freethinking intellectual, and practicing nudist who unlocked the most closely held secrets of China, once the world's most technologically advanced country.

Author Biography

Simon Winchester has written many books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Professor and the Madman, The Map That Changed the World, A Crack in the Edge of the World, and Krakatoa. He was made Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Her Majesty The Queen in 2006, and he lives in western Massachusetts.

Table of Contents

Maps and Illustrationsp. xi
Author's Notep. xiii
Prologuep. 1
The Barbarian and the Celestialp. 11
Bringing Fuel in Snowy Weatherp. 61
The Discovering of Chinap. 97
The Rewards of Restlessnessp. 133
The Making of His Masterpiecep. 168
Persona Non Grata: The Certain Fall from Gracep. 199
The Passage to the Gatep. 217
Epiloguep. 253
Chinese Inventions and Discoveries with Dates of First Mentionp. 267
States, Kingdoms, and Dynasties of Chinap. 279
Acknowledgmentsp. 281
Suggested Further Readingp. 285
Indexp. 295
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.


The Man Who Loved China
The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom

Chapter One

The Barbarian and the Celestial

On the Worldwide Repute of Early Chinese Bridges

Foreign admirers of Chinese bridges could be adduced from nearly every century of the Empire. Between AD 838 and 847 Ennin never found a bridge out of commission, and marvelled at the effective crossing of one of the branches of the Yellow River by a floating bridge 330 yards long, followed by a bridge of many arches, when on his way from Shandong to Chang'an. In the last decades of the 13th century Marco Polo reacted in a similar way, and speaks at length of the bridges in China, though he never mentions one in any other part of the world. . . . It is interesting that one of the things which the early Portuguese visitors to China in the 16th century found most extraordinary about the bridges was the fact that they existed along the roads often far from any human habitation. "What is to be wondered at in China," wrote Gaspar da Cruz, the Dominican who was there is 1556, "is that there are many bridges in uninhabited places throughout the country, and these are not less well built nor less costly than those which are nigh the cities, but rather they are all costly and all well wrought."

—Joseph Needham, 1971
From Science and Civilisation in China, Volume IV, Part 3

Joseph Needham, a man highly regarded for his ability as a builder of bridges—between science and faith, privilege and poverty, the Old World and the New, and, most famously of all, between China and the West—was obliged to make an early start in the craft, as the only child of a mother and father who were ineluctably shackled in a spectacularly disastrous Edwardian marriage.

Joseph Needham, the father, was a London doctor, a steady, unexciting, reliable sobersides. It was as a lonely widower, in 1892, that he met the young flame-haired Irishwoman who was to become his second, and singularly ill-chosen, wife. It took him only six weeks to decide to marry Alicia Adelaide Montgomery, the daughter of the union between the town clerk of Bangor, County Down, and a French gentlewoman. It took him the better part of thirty turbulent years in the genteel London suburb of Clapham to repent.

Alicia Needham was generously described as having "an artistic temperament," which in her case meant a combination of wild, childlike exuberance and the staging of almighty tantrums, which were colored by her liking for throwing things (plates, mainly) at her husband. She was profoundly erratic, moods blowing up like storms, her torrents of tears being followed by gales of cackling laughter. She was fascinated by psychic phenomena, knew all of south London's local mediums, read tarot cards, held séances, was interested in ectoplasm, and took photographs of spirits. She spent money like a drunken sailor, her spending binges frequently bringing the family close to ruin.

It was eight years before she became pregnant. The son who in the closing days of 1900 entered this most fractious of households was to be their only child. Trouble began at the font: such was his parents' animosity toward each other that each chose to use a different Christian name for the boy: from the four he was given at birth his mother selected Terence; his father, perhaps mindful of the time of year the child was born, instead chose to use Noël. The boy would sign letters to each with the name each preferred; but when finally left alone to choose, for both convenience and filial compromise generally used, and eventually settled on, Joseph.

His was a solitary, contemplative childhood, lived out in his fourth-floor room, where he played alone with his Meccano erector set and his building blocks and a large model railway layout, and was bathed, shampooed, and dressed by a humorless French governess shipped in direct from Paris. But it was also an intellectually stimulating upbringing. His severe and learned father, to whom he was by far the closer, saw to it that he had a solid grounding in worlds both bookish and practical. He taught the boy how to write when Joseph was little more than an infant (his mother banging hysterically on the locked door protesting that the child was far too young), leaving a lifetime legacy of the neatest handwriting, perfectly legible and elegant. He taught him woodwork, bird-watching, the geography of Europe, the taxonomy of the back garden, and an antimaterialist philosophy that would remain with him all his life: the need to "give things only a passing glance."

There was spiritual instruction, albeit of an unusually rigorous kind. The family took the clanking steam train up to the medieval Templars' church in the center of London each Sabbath day to hear the controversial mathematician and priest E. W. Barnes preach one of his so-called "gorilla sermons." Barnes, who would later become bishop of Birmingham, was at the forefront of a movement to remodel Christian doctrine in the light of scientific discovery—most notably Darwinian evolution, from which the "gorilla sermons" took their name.

He was an uncritical supporter of Darwin, denied the existence of miracles, opposed the fundamental beliefs about the sacraments, and outraged the orthodox members of the Church of England, who accused him of heresy and demanded his condemnation by Canterbury. And the schoolboy Needham listened to him enraptured. In an interview much later in life Needham explained the legacy that Barnes had left, summing it up by saying he had basically liberated religion from the "creepiness" that put off so many other people. Barnes and his modernizing zeal transformed faith, thought Needham, into the best of good sense.

Not content with keeping up the academic pressure on his son even on Sundays, the elder Joseph Needham also took the boy to France on study holidays. The parents, ever fighting, invariably (and prudently) took separate holidays, and young Joseph, fearful of being embarassed by his high-strung mother, rarely went with her, except for a couple of times when he traveled to see a rather pretty niece who lived in Ireland. So much did he like France that he eventually spent a term at school there, at Saint-Valéry-sur-Somme, and was able to speak passable French by the time he was twelve, with some help from his gloomy governess.

The Man Who Loved China
The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom
. Copyright © by Simon Winchester. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom by Simon Winchester
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Customer Reviews

Excellent Story August 2, 2011
A fascinating biography of Joseph Needham, who fulfilled the stereotype of the brilliant, original, eccentric, and supremely self-confident English academician. And also, politically naive. Winchester writes in an easy, flowing, chatty, and even gossipy manner that compels the reader--at least this one--to keep turning pages deep into the night. This is first and foremost a lively biography and not a history of China or of Chinese science, although there is an appendix alphabetically listing Chinese scientific firsts, and an extensive reading list for those who might wish to further explore Chinese history and culture. There is a film, lurking within these pages.
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The Man Who Loved China: 5 out of 5 stars based on 1 user reviews.

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