A thoroughly entertaining background to the creation of one of the world’s great series on the history of science, Science and Civilization in China by Joseph Needham.
I have a couple of Needham texts as research matter for the new world I’m creating. The sheer size of my own project is rather intimidating–as are the books I’d like to read in order to do it! So this book seemed like a good entry point. It almost immediately made me feel relieved about the magnitude of my own project. I’m just looking at 3 to five novels, tops! Needham produced over 17 volumes of his work. And Winchester points out that Needham faced a similar challenge as the Japanese who took over parts of China during the period of Needham’s research: trying to get a grip on the vastness of the place. The Japanese ultimately failed.
Needham, on the other hand, gradually became one of the foremost scholars on the history of China, and in particular, on its technology. Winchester introduces him as an eccentric and fascinating individual: a lover of Morris dancing and pretty young women who is inspired to learn Chinese after falling for a visiting Chinese graduate student. The more he learned, the more fascinated he became not only with the language, but with the culture and history of her nation.
This book follows Needham to China and back again, with vivid descriptions of the arduous journeys Needham undertook. It manages to capture his enthusiasm for his subject matter, using letters, journals and other documents to fill in his character and surroundings. It goes on to cover the controversies about Needham’s own socialist leanings and how they affected the work and its reception.It also incorporates quotes from the eventual product of Needham’s research, Science and Civilization in China. I own volume 4 of the shorter edition, the one about mechanical engineering, which, by itself, is a huge undertaking.
If you are interested in China, the Asian front in WWII, Joseph Needham, or the history of science and technology, this is an entertaining introduction.