The Man Who Loved China: Joseph Needham & the Making of a Masterpiece by Simon Winchester
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I found this book, as all books find my bookshelves, quite by accident. Nonchalantly skirting the entry wicket at the Huntington in Pasadena, I ducked into its gift shop exit, where this shiny penny distracted me from any desire to cop a stroll through the expensive grounds.
Well, the accident is in the finding, not in the recognition once I'd found it. Lots of people would be blind to its charms even were it thrust in front of their faces. Even if it were free.
I should have known of the book, since I've been packing the full original set of Needham's masterpiece Science and Civilization in China ever since I snuck it back through customs on the way home from Taiwan in maybe 1975. Before real China was real for us.
As continues now in China, there was then much book production without regard to international copyright protections. I was in no position to own the legitimate set, but the prices then and there were so impossibly attractive that I simply had to buy it. Once home, I never really did open it. It was too imposing.
Now here I am out of work again, and wasting time reading books with no particular relation to my prospects. But Winchester provides a cheap way in to Needham's work. And this pleasant read has been my companion as I delve back into the more weighty tomes with which I surround myself again now. After liberation from indentured servitude descended from onerous sumptuary laws whose transgression was impossible so long as my children were young.
Reveal the man, and perhaps his writings can then be made more accessible. There are good reasons for making scholarship impenetrable. It keeps everyone distracted by the inanities of the marketplace of ideas as mediated by the Internet and ubiquitous TV and a severely limited number of publishing outlets.
But I have a legitimate claim to this stuff. I spent way more time than Needham did learning to read classical Chinese. He was able to put his to use, while mine atrophied. still. Cause for each of us was passionate and perhaps even hormonal distraction. I loved a boat more than I did scholarship, while he loved a Chinese woman perhaps more than he did his academic wife.
Needham had already made an in to Cambridge based on a discipline - Biology - he could then discard. He could afford to fall in love with a Chinese woman, and then to fall in love with China. His transgressions would be sumptuously rewarded. The rest of us pay full price for our desires. And he's a hero.
Winchester documents Needham documenting not exactly the incredibly cataclysmic age and events that he lived through, but the buried history of China's primacy in most things scientific and technological. Needham's work beggars the question of why then we in the West laid claim to all of the advances descended from scientific and industrial revolutions. He didn't ever live to learn just how.
Needham was still embedded - the man's time, not the man - in assumptions of Western superiority. His challenge to those assumptions was of a piece, in a way, with his challenges to the prevalent political mainstream. He was a socialist and a free-thinker and a nudist and would apparently dance publicly in ways even the stoned among us now might be too embarrassed to indulge.
He was a man of appetites and uninhibited about demanding his space. Sated, he would work for hours and days on end, tackling this monumental project which he simply knew would never be attempted were he not to do it himself.
The world cheered. He was knighted and celebrated and forgiven for not thinking as did the rest of us since by then the West had started to become chastened. And granting China a certain amount of primacy was seemingly cost free.
Not that it ever mattered. We still worry now the same question which worried me when I was studying classical Chinese poetry. And which modern Chinese all now wonder about. What happened to China?
And I don't know if they're asking me the question "why would you want to study that???" relates more to their sense that I am invading their territory (I read that the study of classical literary Chinese is on the steep rise in China now) or that I am being absurdly impractical in ways that these famous social climbers never would be anymore. So why was China so backward, then?
Now their very uninhibited and crass clambering after our Western triumphalism betrays a kind of shame that they couldn't accomplish what Needham demonstrated should be their birthright. And I still wonder why all of us should be destroyed by the misguided and absurdly drawn out denouement of those bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Spoiler alert - you read here that Ted Koczynski got some of his inspiration from Needham. Can't we escape our love affair with technology???
The answer, you know, was already evident in the poetry, which in China in mockery of our constitutional Biblical obsessions here in the US of A was made part and parcel of what could be ones qualifications to enter the public service which was pointedly not to enter heaven. Such individualistic aspirations could only be combated by words whose mastery required fealty to the past: the ground of all meaning.
And how absurd indeed that in our boundedness to our future we shall have erased its very possibility. Dreams of eternal combustion will now shortly be fulfilled in meltdown, and China will once again have betrayed its own spirit and its history. By ignorance of its past.
What higher praise is there then for a book which makes it easier to read the real books on which unsung scholars still must labor. Unsung scholars whose dearest desire might be rendered as a plea, "Oh, please please steal my book." The cheap ones are so accessible. Read this book as introduction. And then go read the real stuff. Note to self.
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