BOOK TALK by Y.N. Yiu (January 2010)

The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester

This is a story of the extraordinary life of Joseph Needham (1900-1995). In
China he is known as 李約瑟 (Li Yue-se).

He was a brilliant scientist who made his name at Cambridge early in his life but
spent his last 50 years writing Science and Civilization in China which eventually
ran up to 18 volumes at the time of death. This project makes him the greatest
historian of Chinese science and technology. He accredited China with hundreds of
innovations. The well-known four inventions – paper, printing, compass and
gunpowder – he confirmed to the world without the slightest doubt. There were
many unheard of inventions in ancient China such as suspension bridges,
fermented beverage (7000), natural gas as fuel (4th century BC) toilet paper (6th
century AD), to mention just a few. Even the Chinese themselves would be
surprised to know that fork made of bone (2400- 1900 BC) was in use long before
the chopstick.

Needham showed the world that China was very advanced in science and
technology when Europe was in the dark Ages. However, he was intrigued by the
fact that China’s development stopped at the middle of the 15th century. His famous
question “why not develop?” which he scribbled in his notebook, did not get a
satisfactory answer even at the end of his life.

Simon Winchester , author of a number of bestsellers, portraits the fantastic life and
achievements of Needham with great skills and fluency. He brings to life Needham’s
long career as a scientist and historian and his great love for a Chinese woman that
aroused his love for China.

Needham was happily married at the time when he fell in love at first sight with a
Chinese woman when she visited his laboratory in the course of her research at
Cambridge in 1937. The woman was Lu Gwei-djen (魯桂珍), a biochemist, who
became his mistress for the rest of his long life.  When his wife, Dorothy Needham,
also a chemist at Cambridge, died in 1987, he married Lu soon afterwards. They
were both in their eighties then. Dorothy Needham knew their affair and accepted it
gracefully. The two women maintained their good friendship throughout their long
lives. They lived within walking distance in Cambridge and the three often met for
tea and had other activities together.  Lu taught Needham Chinese and encouraged
him to visit China when an opportunity arrived. He started his hazardous journey to
China in early 1943 at the time when China was invaded by the Japanese and the
Chinese government had retreated westward and established its new capital in

Needham went to China as a member of the British diplomatic corps and he used
this privilege to travel to all over the regions not occupied by the Japanese,
including the most remote sites and treacherous frontiers. Conditions in free China
were appalling.  The whole country was in chaos, overcrowding with millions of
refugees, grossly lack of food and accommodation; transport and communication
were mostly broken down; people’s lives were continuously threaten by Japanese
bombing. Needham was deeply impressed by the resilience of the Chinese in
coping with the horrendous situation. Professors and teachers and students
escaped with their libraries and other educational equipment and set up their
universities and schools in whatever accommodation they could find– temples,
ancestral halls, playgrounds even bomb shelters to continue the education of the
young to maintain the lifeline of China’s great civilization.

During his visits to China he dug deep and wide into the history of ancient Chinese
science and civilization . He met , interviewed and befriended many Chinese and old
China hands from abroad and took massive detailed notes. He collected loads of
precious books, manuscripts, documents and other artifacts which became the main
source of his grand project. It ran up to 18 volumes when he died in 1995. Some of
the subjects were co-authored with Lu Gwei-djen and other Chinese researchers.
The publication has become the pride of Cambridge University Press. It reveals to
the world China’s long history of scientific and technological inventions hitherto
unknown to or conveniently ignored by the West.

Needham was strongly pro-communist and befriended Zhao Enlai and met Mao
Zedong while he was in Chongqing during the War. During the Korean War he was
invited to head a   commission of international scientists to investigate the Chinese
allegation that US forces had spread germs in northeast China. Needham was led
to believe the allegation on the evidence given by his Chinese scientist friends
whom he had known in China during WW2. The commission confirmed to the world
China’s allegation. His report was condemned by the United States and severely
criticized by allied countries.  He was declared persona non grata by the United
States and banned from travelling to the country. He was shunned in England. The
episode nearly cost him his prestigious status in Cambridge and the survival of his
project. Despite this setback he almost single-handedly continued his project. His
circumstances improved a few years later and the project was able to move forward
more smoothly.

The Author begins the Epilogue with a quotation from Votaire: Four thousand years
ago, when we couldn’t even read, the Chinese knew all the absolutely useful things
we boast about today. He then gives a brief description of Chongqing to-day in stark
contrast to its war time days. It is now the largest city in China with massive
development. He also points to modern China’s technological development,
particularly in space science to indicate that China has woken up after sleeping for
five centuries to continue to develop and that Needham must have been pleased to
see that.

The book is informative and entertaining. It is recommended to those who are
interested in China. Any Chinese who reads it will feel even more proud of his/her

photo of Lu Gwei-djen
Below is a response to the Book Review from John H. Crook, Ph.D. D.Sc. He is the
first European Dharma Heir of the Venerable Master Sheng-yen (聖嚴法師的傳法弟
子), the Teacher of the Western Chan Fellowship, and author of World Crisis and
Buddhist Humanism. It gives a first hand impression of Joseph Needham.Ed.

It is a very good summary although I have not seen this book . I have several
volumes of Needham ‘s famous great work .

When I “went up” to Cambridge after my military service in Hong Kong I got to know
Joseph Needham . He was an outstanding scholar both in biochemistry and in his
Chinese research , extremely intelligent with a great grasp of many matters. He was
beginning his work on China while I was in Cambridge . When we first met, he was
so enthusiastic that he thought I knew Chinese and he wanted me to study Zoology
as found in Chinese literature and contribute to his great work . I wished I did know
Chinese because working with him would have been inspirational . He showed me
around his study . The room was absolutely full of shelves full of Chinese books .I
met his “assistant” there without knowing she was his mistress – a very nice person I

Needham was a generous man , devoted to idealistic Communism. He always
refused to believe anything bad about China but he may also have realised that his
frequent return there and access to places and people depended on his influential
support of Chinese politics. His support may not always have been completely
genuine, but he was prepared to suffer for his stated views. Cambridge had many
communists or communist sympathisers at that time, so he did not suffer too badly
except in the newspapers. Certainly his support of Chinese allegations against the
Americans caused a furor but in Cambridge it soon died down. Cambridge could
support any possible opinion with a degree of tolerance. He was politely interested
in Buddhism but discussed it in a scientific, neutral way. He preferred Taoism and
respected Confucianism . He was not very interested in psychology. In public
debates he was skilled in argument but generous in his way of addressing an
opponent. I was very influenced by him as I mentioned in my recent book. This was
because he demonstrated so well how a scientist could expand his studies to broad
international themes.

Of course, Chinese Communism, even in its present capitalistic form, is not very
wise in science. I understand that the great dam on the Yangtse River is now
beginning to reveal all the horrors that had been predicted — ie steady silting up and
huge pollution from the sewers and factories of Chong King. The environmental
problems in China are extremely severe – so I understand.

Jan 2010