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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography

The Man Who Loved China
(Bomb, Book and Compass)

Simon Winchester

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Man Who Loved China

Title: The Man Who Loved China
Author: Simon Winchester
Genre: Biography
Written: 2008
Length: 265 pages
Availability: The Man Who Loved China - US
Bomb, Book and Compass - UK
The Man Who Loved China - Canada
Der Mann, der China liebte - Deutschland
L'uomo che amava la Cina - Italia
  • US title: The Man Who Loved China
  • UK title: Bomb, Book and Compass
  • US sub-title: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom
  • UK sub-title: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China
  • With numerous illustrations
  • With appendices on 'Chinese Inventions and Discoveries with Dates of First Mention' and 'States, Kingdoms, and Dynasties of China'

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Our Assessment:

B : fascinating life, breezy introduction

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 6-8/2008 Bryan Walsh
Christian Science Monitor . 6/5/2008 Marjorie Kehe
The Economist . 5/6/2008 .
Entertainment Weekly B+ 2/5/2008 Gregory Kirschling
Financial Times . 4/8/2008 Henry Hitchings
New Statesman . 16/10/2008 Isabel Hilton
The NY Rev. of Books . 14/8/2008 Jonathan D. Spence
The NY Times Book Rev. . 8/6/2008 Alida Becker
The Observer . 28/9/2008 Andrew Anthony
Salon . 19/5/2008 Andrew Leonard
Sunday Times . 28/9/2008 Kevin Jackson
The Times . 12/9/2008 Zachary Karabell
USA Today . 7/5/2008 Deirdre Donahue
The Washington Post . 25/5/2008 Judith Shapiro

  From the Reviews:
  • "More straightforward than some of Winchester’s idiosyncratic recent books, such as his 2005 study of the 1906 California earthquake, The Man Who Loved China does justice to Needham’s impressive accomplishments. But what serves Winchester best is his appreciation clearly of a piece with Needham’s own -- of China’s true place in the world." - Bryan Walsh, Bookforum

  • "The Man Who Loved China has a breathless quality. The land that Needham loved is vast -- as are his own accomplishments. Readers travel at warp speed to reach the end of such a career in less than 300 pages of text. Perhaps as a result, we see Needham in action -- constantly -- but we learn surprisingly little of his interior." - Marjorie Kehe, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Mr Winchester draws much from Needham’s diaries which describe an unconventional lifestyle, an open marriage and numerous extra-marital affairs, as well as exotic adventures travelling across China in search of its science." - The Economist

  • "The Man Who Loved China is an offbeat character study, not a regurgitation of the nation's history, but because Winchester (The Professor and the Madman) is such a fantastic storyteller, you emerge with a clearer picture of a mysterious country." - Gregory Kirschling, Entertainment Weekly

  • "(T)hough he’s good at quick character sketches, Winchester does not probe his subjects’ psychology as deeply as one might like. But he tells his story engagingly, and this is a salutary reminder of the singular achievements of the Chinese -- as well as of the perils of Eurocentrism." - Henry Hitchings, Financial Times

  • "Winchester tells the story with colourful enthusiasm and Needham is a compendious subject, sympathetically treated with the help of the scholar's copious notes, letters and diaries. He remains an enigmatic character, however, and the key figures in his life rarely acquire substance for the reader. A little more of their insight might have helped us understand the astonishing scholar who was Joseph Needham." - Isabel Hilton, New Statesman

  • "It was a bold idea of Simon Winchester's to try to tell the two stories, one intimate and the other intricate, to a wide general audience, and I was initially skeptical that the attempt could succeed. But I feel that he has pulled it off, and drawn the reader into several disparate worlds at once. Sometimes, I feel, all three of the leading protagonists resist Winchester's attempts at interpretation, but he cannot be blamed for that." - Jonathan D. Spence, The New York Review of Books

  • "Simon Winchester’s biography, The Man Who Loved China, presents a low-key, often beguiling view of a man who hardly beguiled the postwar American authorities -- or, for a time, his own countrymen. (...) Winchester has spent a good deal of his career as a journalist in East Asia, so it’s not surprising that the liveliest stretch of his narrative presents Needham’s first encounter with the country whose language he had mastered from afar." - Alida Becker, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The finest sections of Winchester's book describe the excursions Needham made to the further reaches of China, ostensibly goodwill trips, but really as a way of gathering data for the book that would become Science and Civilisation in China. Here we see Needham at his most intrepid and eccentric, a sort of Waugh character by way of Indiana Jones." - Andrew Anthony, The Observer

  • "In The Man Who Loved China, Winchester hits the eccentricity jackpot. (...) (A)n enjoyable, breezy read, well suited for reading on the chaise longue, gin-and-tonic in hand. But there is also a telling, unresolved paradox running through Winchester's tale. After an early and hugely successful career as a biochemist, capped off by being named a member of the ultra-prestigious Royal Society at the tender age of 41, Needham devoted the remainder of his life to, on the one hand, documenting how technologically far ahead China had been for millennia when compared to the West, and on the other hand, striving to understand why Europe suddenly jumped in front -- a monumental tectonic shift that dominates the reality of globalization to this day." - Andrew Leonard, Salon

  • "(A)dmirably readable (.....) But while Winchester’s breezy narrative abounds in human detail, it tends to want depth. Although a notable improvement on its main precursor, a terse Unesco publication by Maurice Goldsmith, it is still too short to be more than an entertaining primer." - Kevin Jackson, Sunday Times

  • "Winchester does have a tendency to hyperbole (.....) There is also a nagging tree-falls-in-the-forest question, namely, if Needham's fame and work has faded in such a short time since his death in 1994, how true can it be that his work fundamentally altered our collective understanding of China's central role in human history. (...) (W)e are left in the end with one man's graceful, diverting account of another man's passion, and that has its own worth." - Zachary Karabell, The Times

  • "This is the rare book where you wish the author had included more detail, not less. Needham was a complicated man, and few topics are more complex than China. In skillfully keeping his narrative from bogging down, Winchester ends with a book that feels a touch thin." - Deirdre Donahue, USA Today

  • "Despite Winchester's extraordinary narrative skills, he gets some details wrong. (...) In retelling Needham's story, Winchester focuses on the inventiveness of the Chinese people, whose creativity once surpassed that of all other civilizations. If this resourcefulness can be renewed and harnessed in the service of sustainability, then perhaps there is hope not only for China but for the planet." - Judith Shapiro, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Man Who Loved China of the (American) title is Joseph Needham, the British scholar behind Science and Civilisation in China which Simon Winchester (accurately) describes as:

a vastly important monument of scholarship, an undertaking which, when completed, would rival James Murray's Oxford English Dictionary and Leslie Stephen's Dictionary of National Biography as among the greatest intellectual accomplishments of all time.
       The story of how this biochemist, whose first great piece of scholarship was the three-volume Chemical Embryology, became the leading authority on the history of science in China is a fascinating one. And it helps that Needham was quite the charcter, too: a gymnosophist (nudist), very religious but also extremely left-wing, and someone who apparently couldn't pass up the chance to flirt and bed the ladies whenever possible (which his wife didn't seem to mind). One woman he was particularly taken with was a Chinese scientist, Lu Gwei-djen, who became his mistress -- and, after some five decades, after his first wife passed away, his second wife. She led him to pick up the language, and when in 1942 the British wanted to send someone to China he was their man.
       Much of Winchester's account focusses on that long trip through China, in the middle of the war, with Needham curious about everything, trying both to help the Chinese sustain scientific research at a time when supplies were hard to come by and conditions were terrible and also to collect as much information about Chinese science as he could. It became apparent to him that the Chinese had made many scientific discoveries long before the 'West', and he collected information on that. This also led him to the famous 'Needham question' -- succinctly put in his first mention of it: "Chinese sci. Why not develop ?" -- i.e. why didn't the Chinese build on their scientific discoveries, and why did science stagnate there ?
       Winchester has an easy manner in describing many of the expeditions and what Needham found and who he met, but in such a short account he can do little more than zip across the surface. Like in a good magazine-profile he gives a good impression of the man and his career, but it really feels like he is just scratching the surface. Winchester goes into some detail about some of the more significant incidents, and presents a good summary of everything that went into the making of Science and Civilisation in China, from the bureaucratic hurdles to the plan of the multi-volume undertaking (always threatening to get ever-more out of hand), but it never feels like it is enough.
       Winchester's book is an entertaining introduction to the man, covering most of the essentials, but one longs for a fuller biography.

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The Man Who Loved China: Reviews: Joseph Needham: Simon Winchester: Other books by Simon Winchester under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Simon Winchester works as a journalist and has written a multitude of books.

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© 2008-2011 the complete review

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