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Originally published Friday, May 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"The Man Who Loved China": For love of a woman — and her land

In a new biography, "The Man Who Loved China — Joseph Needham and the Making of a Masterpiece," Simon Winchester says Needham "succeeded, as few others are ever privileged to do, in making a significant and positive change to mankind's mutual understanding."

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Simon Winchester

The author of "The Man Who Loved China" will discuss his book at 1 p.m. May 14 at Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333; www.thirdplacebooks.com). He will appear at 7:30 p.m. May 14 at Kane Hall on the University of Washington campus. Sponsored by the University

Book Store as part of the Seattle Science Lecture Series. Tickets are $5 (206-634-3400; www.ubookstore.com).

"The Man Who Loved China — Joseph Needham and the Making of a Masterpiece"

by Simon Winchester

HarperCollins, 336 pp., $27.95

Joseph Needham was one of those rare persons who are so good at so many things that they astonish and irritate the rest of us. Cambridge-educated in anatomy, physiology and chemistry, Needham became the West's leading authority on Chinese history. In a new biography, "The Man Who Loved China — Joseph Needham and the Making of a Masterpiece," Simon Winchester says Needham "succeeded, as few others are ever privileged to do, in making a significant and positive change to mankind's mutual understanding."

A simple listing of the British professor's fascinations would fill pages and would include auto mechanics, irrigation, horticulture, public health, military and political science, and Chinese calligraphy. His stupendous work, "Science and Civilisation in China," the product of 50 years of research and writing, fills 23 huge volumes. His collaborators are completing five more. (Needham died in 1995, at age 94).

Happily for author Winchester ("The Professor and the Madman," "The Meaning of Everything") and his readers, Needham's life was a great deal more than scholarly. He was an explorer, adventurer, and womanizer whose wife and mistress remained friends for 50 years while he carried on affairs with other women in other countries. He was a communist who never joined the party — but he nearly lost his academic standing when he was taken in by a scientific hoax, organized by leaders of the Soviet Union and designed to make it appear the U.S. had committed biological warfare during the Korean War.

The matter of an academic superstar romancing a beautiful graduate student could have been something of a ho-hum story. But when it happened to Joseph Needham and Lu Gwei-djen, the love affair propelled events that would change dramatically the Western world's perceptions of China. As his mistress for life, she taught him the meticulous art of Chinese calligraphy. In studying her language, he fell in love with a country he had never seen. The outcome was the historical tome that Winchester regards, along with the Oxford English Dictionary, as one of the great intellectual achievements of all time.

In 1943, Japanese troops occupied two-thirds of China, destroying scores of colleges, killing and brutalizing university faculty. Cambridge and the British Diplomatic Corps sent Needham to China to assess what the Chinese universities needed and — with support from the academic establishment — to pressure the Churchill government to provide it. It was the beginning of a lifelong quest to know everything about China and write it all down. For the rest of his life he worked "all in the consequence of his love for a Chinese woman ... to change the way the people of the West looked on the people of the East."

A puzzle often identified by historians as "Needham's question," and central to much of his work is this: Why did China, having given the world its earliest understandings of the pure sciences, having invented printing, gunpowder, the wheelbarrow, the fishing reel, chain-pumps, the magnetic compass and hundreds of other practical devices at a pace "unmatched by the world's other great civilizations including the Greeks" suddenly shut down in the 1500s? Why did this enormous country become isolated and xenophobic, just when modern science and industry began blooming in the West? Needham struggled with this mystery for decades, without a solution that suited him.

He concluded, as has Winchester, that the riddle is of less consequence these days. The more urgent need, Winchester writes for both himself and Needham, is to understand as much as possible of "everything, good and ill, about the awe-inspiring, terrifying entity that is today's new China," as it moves in the direction of world supremacy.

Bob Simmons spent more than four decades as a full-time broadcast and print journalist. He is a former commentator for KING-TV and former writer for the Seattle Weekly.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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