Book Provides Comprehensive Account of Man's Fruitful Obsession with China

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With the recent protests surrounding the upcoming Olympics in Beijing and rampant allegations of human rights violations, it's hard to find good press about China these days. Simon Winchester, author of "The Professor and the Madman," follows up his novel about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary with another tale of a British eccentric.

"The Man Who Loved China" is the detailed, extensively researched story of Joseph Needham, a Cambridge-educated scientist who fell in love with a Chinese woman in 1937 and then fell in love with China. His fascination culminated in the publication of a 24-volume opus about the science and civilization of the ancient kingdom.

Needham, however, was more than a scholar, and his complexities help explain Winchester's interest in the subject. He was a nudist, a communist, a dancer. His wife and his mistress lived in harmony for more than 50 years. Needham became fluent in spoken and written Mandarin, exploring the depths of war-stricken China to great danger and great acclaim. Years later, he was vilified by the international community when he helped verify questionable claims about American use of biological weapons during the Korean War.

Winchester's newest novel is more than a dry historical list of facts. "The Man Who Loved China" is a character study and an adventure novel, a mishmash of intriguing details and a suspenseful tale of daring among approaching Japanese forces.

The book is composed of painstaking research; Winchester must have gone through hundreds upon thousands of documents to reach this level of detail. Letters, diaries, notes, contemporary articles, Needham's epic tomes not to mention the author's obvious first-hand experience observing the different settings mentioned in the pages.

This research leads to gems like Winchester's description of one small city visited during Needham's travels. Yibin is a "grubby little city known today for little else than a distillery that makes a disgusting Chinese version of Scotch whisky." Sentences like these ground his sometimes rambling explorations. In another section, Winchester livens a laundry list of Needham's lunch dates with a quote from a Foreign Office librarian's accomplished obituary.

The author's detail-oriented approach to writing only adds to an engaging style that can be seen in all of Winchester's slightly dense historical non-fiction. Parts read like an unfolding adventure, complete with suspenseful cliffhangers like, "There came a soft knock on his door. He had a visitor."

Toward the end of the book, Needham visits Mao Zedong when he ruled China. Winchester retells a perhaps fictional conversation that is supposed to have taken place between the two. The exchange is layered, the internal monologue intriguing, the dialogue snappy. Although this conversation was never confirmed, Winchester's imagining is so compelling that it is impossible to see the meeting taking place any other way.

As a story, the book is well-paced and moves swiftly through Needham's life before and after his China voyage. Only within the confines of the country does the narrative hit a snag. Since Needham spent the majority of his life chronicling the rich scientific civilization of China, inclusion of Winchester's luxuriant geographic and historical accounts makes sense. However, the middle section of the book drags on, and the descriptions, absorbing at first, become distracting and cloying.

Still, the book is worth the struggle. As Needham discovers, between the Han and the Ming dynasties, the Chinese dreamed up nearly fifteen new scientific ideas every century. For the UC Berkeley students who think Gutenberg invented the first printing press, "The Man Who Loved China" is an eye-opening look at the discoveries of the ancient Orient and the man who pioneered those studies.


Fall in love with the Far East with Rebecca at [email protected]

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