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Biographer Recaps U.K. Scientist’s Fascination With China

July 17, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Prolific author Simon Winchester discusses his latest book, "The Man Who Loved China," which chronicles the adventures of scientist Joseph Needham in the Asian nation.
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RAY SUAREZ: What makes China China? That was the focus, the obsession of one Joseph Needham.

He was a Cambridge University biochemist whose life took a dramatic turn in 1937. That’s when he fell in love with a visiting Chinese student. It was an affair tolerated by his wife and sparked a lifelong fascination with China.

In particular, he wanted to know why China, where so many advances in science and technology had originated, had been eclipsed by the West. He began his extensive travels in war-torn China in 1943. And by the time of his death in 1995, he was recognized as one of the world’s pre-eminent China scholars. His legacy was the monumental, 24-volume “Science and Civilization in China.”

Joseph Needham is the subject of a new book by Simon Winchester, “The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of an Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom.”

And, Simon Winchester, maybe this is a perfect time to be having this conversation, because, once again, we’re trying to open China and understand it, aren’t we?

SIMON WINCHESTER, Author, “The Man Who Loved China”: I think it is appropriate that we start focusing on what it is, as you said in your introduction, that makes China China.

And this majestic, monumental series of books really does, in its essence, bring out that. It’s an extraordinary work. And I’m thrilled that I found this man, this man who’s very little known in the West, but every Chinese person whose Chinese name is Li Yuese — and if you say “Li Yuese” to any Chinese schoolchild, he’d say, “That’s the greatest Englishman ever to have lived in China.”

Cambridge scientist falls in love

RAY SUAREZ: Yet kind of the result of a series of accidents, a man who fell in love with a Chinese woman, then with the Chinese language, and then finally with China itself.

SIMON WINCHESTER: Indeed. I mean, he was a married, left-wing biochemist living in Cambridge. And it would look as though his life with Dorothy, his wife who was an expert on muscles, like the muscles in your arm -- he was an expert on the egg -- it would have unrolled seamlessly as a sort of typical Cambridge intellectual scientific life.

And then, in 1937, into his life comes this young woman, Lu Gwei-djen, her name was. And Joseph, who was an eccentric man -- I mean, he was a nudist, he was a wild morris dancer (ph), he was an accordion player. People say, being a nudist, at least he wasn't a cymbals player.

He fell for this woman. I mean, he was a womanizer, too. And come the night when it's possible to track -- and I don't wish to be prurient here, but you can find the moment when they first -- when they consummate the relationship, which is early in 1938, he is shown the first ever Chinese character by her, after they have done whatever they did.

And then he asks her, "How do you write the character 'cigarette'?" And she writes it down for him. And he said, "At that moment, everything changed. I entered the glittering, crystalline world of the Chinese language," and through the Chinese language, as you said, then China itself.

RAY SUAREZ: This would have been an interesting story whenever it happened, I think. But the fact that a lot of this rolls out as the world -- as China is already plunged into war, through the invasion of Japan into China, then world war, and then cold war, and all the while Joseph Needham is putting together this intellectual tour de force in a country that's unraveling.

SIMON WINCHESTER: Well, absolutely. I mean, this had been unraveling, I suppose, ever since the 1840s, when the British took Hong Kong, and then the French took Hainan, and the Germans took Shandong, and then the Russians and the Japanese.

Then we had the revolution, which dismantled an empire which had been in place for 2,000 years. No wonder -- I mean, your poet, Emerson, I mean, he said China is this booby nation. Everyone disregarded China.

And then suddenly Needham, having been told by the woman he was having an affair with that, "Don't be too hasty. You Westerners are terribly arrogant in your view of China. China invented so much in antiquity, has such an intellectual background, you should keep an open mind."

And so he did. And when he arrived in China, on a cold, spring morning in March 1943, he immediately started investigating, what had the Chinese made first? The first thing he ever saw were grafting techniques for apples, realized they were far more ancient than anything done in the West.

Then the abacus, but then it went on and on and on. And it was air conditioning fans, and segmented arch bridges, and toilet paper, would you believe. And also the holy trinity, really, of the most important inventions in mankind's history, which Francis Bacon had said a couple of 100 years before were printing, gun powder, and the compass. All of them, it turned out, were initially made by the Chinese.

And this was what Needham devoted, as you say, his entire life to, from his first visit in 1943 until he died in '95.

An unconventional life

RAY SUAREZ: This long sweep, this one man's life, he also turns out to be the least well-known man who seemed to know everybody who was anybody in the 20th century.

SIMON WINCHESTER: He did, everyone from Julian Huxley to the great politicians of the time. But one person he came across -- actually, it was quite interesting. He was banned from America for a long time. He was extremely left-wing.

But when he came back finally to America -- he was given honorary degrees, more than you can imagine, once his intellectual talent was recognized, given one by the University of Chicago. So he came to America, having been banned for 25 years, finally turned up to give three lectures in Chicago.

The second one was on early Chinese explosives and the early use of gun powder. And who should be in the lecture theater that day, in the spring of 1978, Ted Kaczynski, who six weeks later constructed the first ever bomb, modeled on Needham's design that he had shown quite innocently at this lecture, and started his infamous career as the Unabomber.

RAY SUAREZ: I've talked to biographers for years. And some of them see, at the end of this long relationship that ends up with a book, some of them are tormented by their subjects, in love with them, fascinated with them, feel like they're living in the same skin. You seem pretty hooked by this guy.

SIMON WINCHESTER: I'm tremendously hooked. I mean, I love people who are enthusiastic anyway. I mean, he was polymathic.

I did a book some years ago about the English dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary. James Murray, its editor, was a similar character, but in a different era, Victorian times, who just loved the language.

Well, Needham was full of life. I mean, he was a tremendously exuberant, very tall man. He looked like Harry Potter. I mean, he was like Harry Potter on amphetamines, you know.

And he had this love affair with -- I mean, he would have been a brilliant biochemist. He did a three-volume book on embryology, which remains a classic to this day, when he was 25 years old. But then suddenly China fascinated him, as it fascinates me. I mean, I adore China.

And to find this man devoting all of his life and producing this monumental work, it's just -- I do. I'm enormously fond of him. I'm not obsessed by him, but I'm enormously fond of him.

RAY SUAREZ: "The Man Who Loved China," Simon Winchester, thanks a lot.

SIMON WINCHESTER: Thank you very much, indeed.