With his new book, The Man Who Loved China, author Simon Winchester traces the explorations (and romances) of Joseph Needham (1900-1995), a British scientist who eventually became the Western world's preeminent Chinese scholar.
At the Asia Society, Winchester talked with China scholar John Major about his book's subject—an eccentric genius, adventurer, nudist, and giant of China studies.
In Winchester's view, Needham's life demonstrates that to truly understand a country, you have to love it. Needham fell in love with China, Chinese culture, Chinese politics, and the heritage of an ancient civilization.
He also fell in love with a young student, Lu Gwei-djen, who was to become his lifelong collaborator on his masterpiece, Science and Civilization in China.
Central to much of Needham's work is a puzzle historians identify as "Needham's question": Why was it that the nation that invented so much -- the compass, bureaucracy, printing, explosives, even the stirrup -- and had enjoyed 5,000 years of continuous civilization, had failed to prosper?
Needham came to believe that China, weakened in the recent past by invasions, warlords, and corruption, would eventually rise again to world prominence. Critics would ask whether his research supported this conclusion, but, according to Winchester, no one can deny today the significance of Needham's basic endeavor- Asia Society
John Major is the author of The Land and People of China (a Notable 1989 Children's Trade Books in Social Studies, NCSS/CBC) and The Land and People of Maylaysia & Brunei (a 1992 Books for the Teen Age, NY Public Library). He lives in New York, NY.
Simon Winchester studied geology at Oxford and has written for Conde Nast Traveler, Smithsonian, and National Geographic. Winchester was named an honorary fellow at St. Catherine's College, Oxford in October, 2009 and received an honorary degree from Dalhousie University in October 2010
He is the author of A Crack in the Edge of the World, Krakatoa, The Map That Changed the World, The Professor and the Madman, The Fracture Zone, Outposts, Korea, among many other titles. He lives in Massachusetts and in the Western Isles of Scotland.
Simon Winchester and John Major discuss Joseph Needham's lifelong assistant and mistress Lu Gwei-Djen, a lab scientist and expert on the History of science and technology in China. She co-authored the Science and Civilisation in China series with Joseph Needham and was the first person to pique his interest in China by teaching him Classical Chinese.
Journalist and author Simon Winchester and China researcher John Majors discuss the lifelong project of Joseph Needham, the 24 volume Science and Civilisation in China series.
Joseph Needham was was the original China scholar, spending most of his life researching its history of science and technology and attempting to discover how the West was able to surpass China despite its early successes in science and technology.
Winchester's newest book, The Man Who Loved China is about his life and work.
Simon Winchester and John Major discuss the famed China researcher Joseph Needham's political naiveté or, in their words -- "an unaccountable babe in the woods."
Needham often overlooked China's humanitarian and political outrages. For these lapses, Needham was banned from America from 1954-78 for falsifying a report that America had employed biological weapons.