Reading Simon Winchester is a bit like listening to a well-traveled friend at a cocktail party who’s always just come back from somewhere, brimming with interesting stories about people you would otherwise never have heard of. His previous books, among them the bestsellers The Professor and the Madman, Krakatoa, A Crack at the Edge of the World, and The Meaning of Everything, have shown the author’s unerring knack of unearthing subjects you would never have thought to explore and making page-turners of them. Before I discovered Winchester (courtesy of Professor some years back), I would never have given much thought to the Oxford English Dictionary, and Krakatoa would only have been a footnote in life that brought no small amount of amusement to my fifth-grade teachers.
Winchester returned in 2008* with The Man Who Loved China: The Fascinating Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom which, like The Professor and the Madman, is equal parts biography of the creation of a sprawling tome (in this case, the unfinished-but-still-in-progress Science and Civilisation in China) and of its creator, the eccentric polymath Joseph Neehdam. Needham set out to answer a single question: Why, after centuries of unparalleled innovation–times that saw the invention of movable type, gunpowder, suspension bridges, and the abacus, among scores of other useful stuff, sometimes centuries before their appearance in the West–did China suddenly, and for hundreds of years more, effectively shut off the lights, backsliding to the status of a scientific backwater? His quest to answer that question animates Winchester’s book, and–the author suggests–may yet underpin our understanding of a modern, very resurgent, China.
Joseph Needham was a man of tremendous talent, boundless curiosity, and appetites as prone to excess as eccentricity. He was, in no particular order, a serial adulterer whose Chinese mistress (much later his second wife) sparked his interest in, and abiding love for, all things Chinese; a Socialist whose idealism blinded him to the worst excesses of the Chinese Communist regime; a naif who would become an unwitting tool of that same regime; a scientist whose faith in the scientific method and in his fellow scientists left him with a serious blind spot toward the politicization of science. His fall from grace, when it came, would be nearly Shakespearean, but as befits such an outsized personality, so would his redemption.
This would be at least in part because on the balance–and Winchester’s portrait of the man, while unsparing, doesn’t overlook his many better traits–this was also someone who, it seemed, was naturally cut out for the task to which he set himself. If his intellectual pursuits were far-ranging (his purview included biochemistry, languages, Sinology, trainspotting, folk music, and Morris dancing, among a great many other things), his mind and temperament ensured that he wasn’t just, in effect, a multifaceted dilettante. Needham, Winchester implies, turned equal parts inquiry, curiosity, focus and discipline to any given subject. This would serve him well when it finally came time to turn his attention to the massive undertaking that was Science and Civilisation in China
Science and Civilisation in China could, in the wrong hands, have just been another exercise in ego. It’s a testament to Joseph Needham’s vision–coupled to a first-rate intellect, with a work ethic to match–that the whole thing came off as well as it did, and continues to do. In addition to the technology and “soft science” that makes up the bulk of the volumes, there are also digressions into such arcana as alchemy, the whole of the project united by an attention to detail and a knack for finding connections–much as Needham himself had done during his wanderings in China–in the unlikeliest of places.
While he could be supremely self-confident nearly to the point of arrogance, the success of the series wasn’t exactly a foregone conclusion, even in its creator’s own mind. As it is, the volumes have done so well since the first rolled off the presses fifty years ago that they’ve never been out of print yet. They have, in that time, brought great distinction to their author, and to Cambridge. More to the point, however, they also shed light on the immense breadth and depth of Chinese cultural and technical achievement, much of which–as Winchester takes pains to point out–had even been forgotten by the Chinese themselves. One of the sections Winchester appends to the book is simply a series of Chinese inventions, some mundane and others history-changing that, although it only scratches the surface, gives an ample taste of the forceful reminder Needham left of the Chinese impact upon the world.
There are some flaws to the book. Long stretches are given over to the vehicular difficulties Needham faced as he criscrossed China as a scientific attache during World War II; while these go some way toward illustrating the famous British stiff upper lip and Needham’s own generally phlegmatic disposition, one can’t help but wish there was more substance about the people and places Needham encountered. As it is, when these episodes do come–like a fascinating interlude with Rewi Alley–they sometimes seem like nothing more than a brief respite from gasket trouble.
More troubling, Winchester somehow manages to get the end date of World War I wrong, placing it in August, 1918. He also, in an epilogue on China sixty-plus years after Needham’s explorations, neglects to mention the Three Gorges Dam–a glaring omission given the project’s deep impact on China’s physical and psychological landscape, in the selfsame areas that birthed Needham’s greatest work and legacy. The story is compelling, the writing top-rate, but for a layperson (read: yours truly) to pick out two not insignificant errors is a bit like shaking a haystack and having two needles fall at your feet. They could, by chance, be the only two needles in the whole stack, but you can’t help but wonder if there are plenty more where they came from. It’s like watching a chariot race in a big-budget movie and seeing one of the protagonists wearing a wristwatch; small details, but things like that stick in your head and turn a great experience just a little bit pedestrian. Winchester’s writing and storytelling powers are undiminished, but one wishes he’d paid just a bit closer attention to the details.
*And will return again, in a sense, with the paperback edition in April, 2009.