The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom (P.S. Series)

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In sumptuous and illuminating detail, Simon Winchester, bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman, brings to life the extraordinary story of Joseph Needham—the brilliant Cambridge scientist, freethinking intellectual, and practicing nudist who unlocked the most closely held secrets of China, once the world's most technologically advanced country.

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In sumptuous and illuminating detail, Simon Winchester, bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman, brings to life the extraordinary story of Joseph Needham—the brilliant Cambridge scientist, freethinking intellectual, and practicing nudist who unlocked the most closely held secrets of China, once the world's most technologically advanced country.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Somehow, Simon Winchester is always able to surprise us. With books like The Crack in the Edge of the World, The Professor and the Madman, and The Map That Changed the World, Winchester breathed new life into pedestrian history. In The Man Who Loved China, he uncovers the captivating story of a now neglected British scientist who forever changed our sense of world history. Joseph Needham (1900–95) was an eccentric biochemist and Sinologist who devoted much of his life to the writing of a multi-volume series entitled Science and Civilization in China. Winchester shows that this highly detailed tribute to ancient Chinese technological achievements was just the most lasting vestige of Needham's romance with Asian culture, which, unfortunately for him, developed during some of the darkest days of the Cold War. This is an unforgettable, enlivening read.
Judith Shapiro
In The Man Who Loved China, Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman, builds on his success in writing about eccentric British intellectuals. Needham makes a great subject. A Cambridge University polymath who made his youthful mark as a biochemist, he was also a nudist, a performer of English folk dances involving ankle bells and sticks, an accordion player and an active Communist…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.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Simon Winchester's reading, like his clear, concise, graceful writing, reflects his endless fascination with his subject-the British scientist Joseph Needham-and with his subject's subject: Chinese scientists' every invention and contribution to every field of science over five centuries (before the West began to think of such things as the printing press and gunpowder). Winchester reads rapidly, but his diction is so precise (yet never stuffy) that not a word is lost. The vocal warmth and charm mirror his endless awe of Needham's lifetime work on his multivolume magnum opus on Chinese scientific thought. Winchester's tone reveals his delight with Needham's love affairs, his unconventional marriage and relation to his lifelong inamorata who first inspired his love of Chinese language, people and thought. As with every book he's written and narrated, Winchester makes abstruse subjects available and fascinating for every reader and listener. A Harper hardcover (Reviews, Mar. 10). (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

The masterpiece of the subtitle is Joseph Needham's Science and Civilization in China, a multivolume unfinished work documenting China's stupendous early achievements in science and technology. Winchester, the prolific British author of many acclaimed books (e.g., The Professor and the Madman), loses no momentum here. Needham (1900-95), a brilliant and somewhat eccentric Cambridge biochemist who became entranced with the study of China's early scientific advances, is well worth a biography, and Winchester is just the writer to undertake it. He explores Needham's fascinating and sometimes controversial personal life, his travels to China, and especially the significance and topicality of his scholarship on the early accomplishments of Chinese science and technology: why did China achieve so much so early, and why did it cease doing so for several centuries? Winchester carries the exploration further: now that China has resumed its technological advances, where will it take itself and the world? These are major questions superbly posed in an accessible and provocative book. Essential for all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ1/08.]
—Harold M. Otness

Kirkus Reviews
Another formidable, absorbing reading experience by versatile Winchester (A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, 2005, etc.), this one about the British scholar who made China's contributions to civilization known in the West. Displaying the author's habitual ability to make any subject seem urgently momentous, this admiring biography of Joseph Needham (1900-95) will send many readers rushing off to read Needham's magnum opus, Science and Civilization in China, which catalogued the ancient empire's many inventions and discoveries in an ever-expanding series of volumes beginning in 1954. When the Cambridge biochemist first visited in 1943, most outsiders viewed civil-war-torn, Japanese-occupied China with what Winchester describes as "a mixture of disdain, contempt, and utter exasperation." Invited on an official mission to bolster the beleaguered scientific community, Needham already had a very different attitude, fostered by his lover and fellow biochemist, Lu Gwei-djen. She had come to Cambridge from Nanjing in 1937, just after the Japanese invasion, and "in falling headlong for Gwei-djen, Needham found that he also became enraptured by her country." She taught him to read, write and speak her language, which stood Needham in good stead during his three years traveling to some of the country's remotest regions, reveling in such marvels as the man-made cave in the Turkestan desert where the world's oldest printed book had been found in 1907. This adventurous period ended with his departure for England to help establish the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, intended to promote the kind of internationalcooperation in which he fervently believed. Cold War strictures soon led the staunchly socialist Needham to resign and return to Cambridge, where he devoted the next five decades to detailing China's historic innovations (gunpowder, printing and the compass, to name a few) and asking why these astonishing accomplishments failed to develop a modern, industrial state. Reflects its subject's passionate interests and makes scholarship positively sexy. Agent: Suzanne Gluck/William Morris Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060884611
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/28/2009
  • Series: P.S. Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 331,843
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Simon Winchester is the acclaimed author of many books, including The Professor and the Madman, Atlantic, The Man Who Loved China, A Crack in the Edge of the World, and Krakatoa. In 2006, Mr. Winchester was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Her Majesty the Queen. He lives in western Massachusetts.


One of the leading practitioners of the offbeat, narrative nonfiction genre The New York Times affectionately calls "cocktail-party science," Simon Winchester studied geology at Oxford, worked on offshore oil rigs, and traveled extensively before settling into a writing career. For twenty years, he worked as a foreign correspondent for the Guardian, augmenting his income by writing articles and well-written but little-read travel books. Then, an obscure footnote in a book he was reading for sheer recreation sparked the idea of a lifetime.

The book in question was Jonathon Green's Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made, and the footnote read, "Readers will of course be familiar with the story of W.C. Minor, the convicted, deranged, American lunatic murderer, contributor to the OED." Immediately, Winchester knew he had stumbled on a real story, one filled with drama, intrigue, and human interest. Published in 1998, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Oxford English Dictionary was an overnight success, garnering rave reviews on both sides of the pond, and remained on The New York Times hardcover bestseller list for more than a year.

Fueled by curiosity, passion, and a journalist's instinct for what makes "good copy," Winchester has gone on to explore the obscure, arcane, and idiosyncratic in blockbusters like The Map that Changed the World, Krakatoa, and The Man Who Loved China. Coincidentally, his subjects have placed him squarely in the forefront of the new wave of nonfiction so popular at the start of the 21st century. In an interview with Atlantic Monthly, Winchester explained the phenomenon thusly: ""It shows, I think, that there is deep, deep down -- but underserved for a long time -- an eagerness for real stories, real narratives, about rich and interesting things. We -- writers, editors -- just ignored this, by passed this. Now we are tapping into it again."

Good To Know

Winchester once spent three months looking at whirlpools on assignment for Smithsonian magazine.

He once wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times to correct a factual error in an article about where the millennium would first hit land on the morning of Jan. 1, 2000. (It was the island of Tafahi, not the coral atoll Kirabati.)

He reportedly loves the words "butterfly" and "dawn."

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    1. Hometown:
      New York; Massachusetts; Scotland
    1. Date of Birth:
      September 28, 1944
    2. Place of Birth:
      London, England
    1. Education:
      M.A., St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, 1966
    2. Website:

Table of Contents

Maps and Illustrations

1 The Barbarian and the Celestial 11

2 Bringing Fuel in Snowy Weather 61

3 The Discovering of China 97

4 The Rewards of Restlessness 133

5 The Making of His Masterpiece 168

6 Persona Non Grata: The Certain Fall from Grace 199

7 The Passage to the Gate 217

Appendix I Chinese Inventions and Discoveries with Dates of First Mention 267

Appendix 11 States, Kingdoms, and Dynasties of China 279

Suggested Further Reading 285

Index 295

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 29 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 29 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2008

    A reviewer

    I was absolutely captivated reading Simon Winchester's 'The Man Who Loved China.' While reading the book you're thinking this might be just a very interesting look into the life of a very eccentric scholar. At the finish you are overwhelmed with the largeness and scope of what Mr. Winchester has documented that explaines the what and why China evolved the way it did.....and to give pause and possible insight to the reader that this might be the evolutionary path of all progressive nations....even our very own. It was quite an eye opener. If you like reading historical 19th and 20th century tales, you will find it difficult to put this book down.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 1, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    In "The Man Who Loved China", Simon Winchester tells us the beguiling and utterly fascinating story of Joseph Needham - a lifelong learner, a libidinous lover, a licentious libertine, a

    This seminal work, this magnum opus, Needham's life work - spanning 50 years in the preparation and still incomplete at his death in 1995 - was, in essence, to burst the bubble of the West's parochial conceit that we are the birthplace of all that is important in science and technology.

    Life as an accomplished, well-respected biochemist on the faculty of Cambridge University simply wasn't enough for the awesome intellect of an insatiable polymath like Joseph Needham. His love affair with the history of the Middle Kingdom began concurrently with a blossoming extra-marital love for Lu Gwei-djen, one of his students. This affair, conducted in a curiously open manner for such a staunchly staid, conservative and venerable institution as Cambridge, was, equally curiously, accepted and tolerated by Dorothy Needham, his wife and scientific colleague, for the duration of all three of their lives. As Lu Gwei-djen taught him her language, Needham dove headlong into an intense exploration of China's rich, sophisticated and exciting culture and history.

    "The Man Who Loved China" is Needham's exciting story that reads with all the intensity and passion of the most exciting thrillers - the story of the birth of his love for all things Chinese; his initial explorations of a Chinese countryside torn by war with imperial Japan in the 1940s that were frequently fraught with adventure and even danger; his discovery of the astonishing history of Chinese intellectual wealth whose advancements in science and technology pre-dated those of the west by hundreds of years; and his political missteps as he is branded a Communist by McCarthy's propaganda machine and banished from the USA.

    Winchester also delves deeply into the scientific exploration of what has come to be called the "Needham question", the curious fact that despite China's prior ability to advance at an almost dizzying speed in such diverse fields as printing, explosives, navigation, hydraulics, ceramics and statecraft, its intellectual capacity fell into an almost completely moribund torpor around the time of the Renaissance, precisely the time when science in the west began the current acceleration which, for all intents and purposes, has never slowed down!

    Simon Winchester has also taken us one step beyond Needham's work. In a wonderful compelling epilogue, readers are treated to an informative tour of contemporary China and left with the open-ended question as to whether its newly accelerating pace of development will continue and how China will interact with other nations on the world stage.

    As readable as any novel, "The Man Who Loved China" is brilliantly organized, wonderfully paced, and more than complete enough while it also cleverly sidesteps the biographer's mind-numbing trap of listing tedious arcane details. Exciting narrative descriptions of action sequences, near poetic passages of scenery, cityscapes, sights and smells that seem to vividly leap off of the page directly into the reader's minds-eye and even realistic dialogue, make Winchester's wo

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 25, 2010

    Great Book - But Beware the Nook Version

    Loved the book. As usual, Winchester's storytelling and information is unparalleled. I have one issue: I read the book on my new nook, and the footnotes appear to be inaccessible. I researched ways to read notes and all the suggested ways to do so were unavailable on this version of the ebook. Again, the book is tremendous, and there are not a excessive amount of footnotes, so I wouldn't want anyone to not read the book, but either confirm that the footnotes are fixed or get a bound copy of the book.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2009

    A fascinating look at Chinese contributions to the world

    We are traveling to China this summer and Joseph Needham's travels during World War II have absolutely nothing to do with what we should expect! This book, however, gives us plenty of insight into the vast contributions to civilization made by the Chinese over many, many centuries. Needham undertakes an exacting project and has just the right personality and work ethic to see it through. He is also an eccentric, socialist, genius of a man which makes the book even more compelling.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 30, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    What I did not know about China

    A great read about ancient Chinese technology and a great introduction to Chinese culture to novices. It is also a fascinating examination of a brillant, eccentric scienctist, Joseph Needham.

    I highly recommend this book to anyone who has any interest in China and scienece in general.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 12, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    This is a terrific biography

    This is a fascinating biography of Cambridge University biochemist Joseph Needham. Although married to a scientific peer Dorothy, he fell in love with a student Lu Gwei-djen in the 1930s. She taught him her language and her love for her culture. Needham began exploring the country even as the war with Japan in the late 1930s and 1940s made it unsafe for anyone especially a British professor. Still he continued his travels and soon began to uncover the incredible historical intellect of China, investing new technologies and learning scientific secrets centuries before the west. His efforts led to McCarthy naming him a Communist and banning him from America. That did not stop him as he searched for why an anomaly occurred; while the Renaissance reawakened scientific curiosity in the West, in China suddenly scientific discovery ended. Known as the "Needham Question", this remains unresolved as China explodes into the modern world at am exponential pace that mirrors what it once did during the Middle Kingdom. This is a terrific biography.---------------

    Harriet Klausner

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 11, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Winchester does it again!

    I've read several of Simon Winchester's works and this is on a par with his best. He takes an interesting character and recounts an epic adventure in China. His "Professor and The Madman", "Krakatoa" and "Crack in the Edge of The World" were great but this story just flows from his pen like no other.
    Truly one of the GREAT authors of our time!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2014

    It's too bad this is a readable book, because it is poor history

    It's too bad this is a readable book, because it is poor history. The notion that Joseph Needham heroically discovered China and particularly Chinese science in the 1940s -- the theme loudly promoted by this study -- is vastly overstated. There are far more historically informed accounts of Westerners in China, who interacted with the Chinese in a scientific way, including many works by Jonathan Spence, Mary Bullock (her several books on the Rockefeller Foundation in China beginning in 1915), and multiple scholarly studies of Christian medical missionaries who worked in tandem with indigenous medicine. If Winchester's book might be defended on the grounds that Needham was more sympathetic to Chinese science than contemporaneous Westerners, that argument strikes me as weak. To be sure, many Westerners took a patronizing attitude toward Chinese science, but Needham comes across in this book as an unpleasantly arrogant, egotistical man, and a misogenist as well. He seems to be the T. E. Lawrence of World War II-era China, captivating but hardly heroic, as Winchester claims. Winchester's shrill promoting of Needham as some kind of hero ruins what might otherwise have been an informative story.

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  • Posted December 27, 2012

    Winchester's account of Joseph Needham shows a Needham-esque fas

    Winchester's account of Joseph Needham shows a Needham-esque fascination with intricate detail -- be it the social world of Edwardian England or the topography of western China. At the same time, the author shares Needham's enthusiasm for enormous questions -- How much does the Western world owe to Eastern ingenuity? What accounts for the flaring up or dying down of a society's intellectual drive? All told, the book gives a highly thought-provoking love story. You gotta admire a guy whose passion for a Chinese woman led him to tear down walls of prejudice between civilizations.

    --author of A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2009

    It's Winchester again

    If you've ever read anything by Winchester this will not be a disappointment. He has a way of bringing to life and enlightening that few others would attempt.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2009

    Good for History Lovers

    We read this for our book club and it was very interesting but I do not like historical novels written like this. I would prefer this book if it had more of a human side to the story. However, it really shows you how a lot of items that we use were thought of or originally created in China. This book makes you realize that the world is a small place and that you don't always realize what you have until it is not there any longer.

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  • Posted April 7, 2009

    Quite a good read

    The contents are balanced. Comments on Joseph Needham by those who were not overly impressed with either his personality or scholarship results are covered toward the end of the book. The reader does get a sense of Needham's determination to expose a new western reconsideration of the Middle Kingdom's history. One does also learn of the weaknesses in Needham's character especially with regard to the practicality of socialist regimes on the world stage. Overall this was a good read.

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