Viking £20 (317pp) £18 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
Bomb, Book and Compass, By Simon Winchester
Friday 24 October 2008
Joseph Needham initiated and wrote much of one of the most impressive scholarly achievements of modern times: the multi-volume Science and Civilisation in China. Earlier, he shone as a biochemist, and helped set up Unesco. He died in 1995, aged 94. But until now, no biography has appeared.
Here, Simon Winchester goes some way toward making amends, taking us through a teasingly eccentric life. Needham cemented his scientific credentials with Chemical Embryology (1931) and Biology and Morphogenesis (1942). But his life changed when Nanjing-born Lu Gwei-djen enrolled at Cambridge as a postgraduate. He became enamoured with her, and her culture. A gifted linguist, he swiftly learned Chinese.
That Needham was already married, to Dorothy Moyle, was no hindrance. Moyle and the college authorities turned a blind eye. Needham and Lu were married after Moyle died in 1987. The marriage was short-lived: when Lu died, Needham the nonagenarian tried but failed to net a third wife.
Needham was a nudist, and campaigned for the relaxation of draconian laws restricting homosexuality. But it wasn't for this that his politics landed him in trouble. Based at Chongqing during the war, he visited beleaguered scholars, collecting rare texts, and made contact with Mao's communists.
In the Korean war, the Communists accused the US of air-dropping animals infected with cholera and plague upon civilians. Invited to lead an "international commission", Needham affirmed the claim. Back home he was branded a traitor. Only when the US deployed chemical weapons in Vietnam was he rehabilitated. Soviet documents revealed there was no substance to the North Korean propaganda.
All this is admirably retold. But Bomb, Book & Compass falls short of the critical biography Needham deserves. Understandably, Winchester baulks at offering an assessment of his early biochemistry; but also disappoints when it comes to Science and Civilisation in China. He tells us about its gestation, but little about its contents. He asks why China's prodigious record of technological discovery dried up around 1500, just as science was beginning to bud in Europe – but has no adequate resolution.
Needham's intellect remains undefined. Equally, some misleading generalisations intrude. Needham, Winchester writes, "worked single-handedly to change the way the people of the West looked on the people of the East". Not only did he assemble a team around him, but so did others: Arthur Waley, for instance, or Lafcadio Hearn.
Justin Wintle is the Editor of 'The Concise New Makers of Modern Culture', published by Routledge in November
TVJamie's Sugar Rush reveal's campaigning chef's new foe
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 What marriage would look like if we actually followed the Bible
- 2 If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
- 3 The Chinese city where men have 'three girlfriends because there are so many women'
- 4 'Heartbreaking' Syria orphan photo wasn't taken in Syria and not of orphan
- 5 Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Three million books were judged by their covers - this is what happened
The Gamechangers trailer: Daniel Radcliffe stars in GTA movie
Joan Aiken: Today's Google Doodle celebrates life of British fantasy novelist
Photographer captures the beauty and intensity of his girlfriend giving birth at home
Jamie’s Sugar Rush, TV review: Defeated by school dinners, Oliver takes on a new enemy
Britain to take more refugees as Cameron bows to pressure after more than 250,000 back our campaign
Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
Make your voice heard: Sign The Independent's petition to welcome refugees