Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom by Simon Winchester








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The latest example of the inadequacy of my education to date is that at age 58 I had not heard of Professor Joseph Needham until I read Simon Winchester’s book, The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom. Needham lived from 1900 to 1995 and was a Cambridge professor. He wrote a 24 volume masterwork titled Science and Civilization in China that explained China to the West in new ways. Here’s an excerpt of Winchester’s book, from the end of Chapter 5, “The Making of His Masterpiece,” pp. 197-198:

As word of the project spread, the honors began to trickle in. One that caused a peculiarly British kerfuffle came from the Republic of China, and was called with appropriate grandiloquence the Order of the Brilliant Star with Cravat. Needham was told about it by the Chinese embassy in Octo­ber 1947, was naturally thrilled, and casually asked his former bosses at the Foreign Office if accepting the honor would cause any diplomatic problems or offense. To his considerable astonishment he was told that yes, it would, and under no circumstances was he going to be allowed to wear a foreign honor unless given personal permission by His Majesty the King.

It took nearly two years for this permission to be secured. Letters from lofty figures in the various dusty British government departments that dealt either with protocol or treaties or had access to the corridors of Bucking­ham Palace tut-tutted their way around Whitehall. Eyebrows were raised at the notion that any foreigner could legitimately honor a man so exalted as a British diplomat (which is what Needham had been during the period for which the Chinese wanted to honor him). Discreet working lunches were held in offices at Westminster, and even more hushed dinners were held in clubs on Pall Mall, all to discuss this unprecedented (and to some, rather impertinently sycophantic) gesture.

Finally, in June 1949, Sir Alan Lascelles, a courtier of huge distinction at the monarch's side, agreed that Joseph Needham's work had done much to better relations between London and the Nationalist government, now back in Nanjing. He thus wrote to Needham at Caius College saying for­mally, "His Majesty King George VI has been Pleased to Give Restricted Permission for N. J. T. M. Needham, Esq. To Wear the Order of the Brilliant Star with Cravat Essentially while in China and in the Presence of High Officials in China."

The irony of fate intervened. It all turned out to be much too late. In China the Communists were fast assuming power; the People's Republic was declared the following October; and four months after the king had given his permission, Chiang Kai-shek, who had signed the warrant for Needham's award, fled for Taipei. Joseph Needham's much-vaunted honor, the source of so much fuss in London, had become overnight no more than a bauble, recognized only in Taiwan, and except as a collector's curio, barely worth the paper it was written on.

Moreover, at about the same time, suddenly, and without any warning, Jo­seph Needham made the most terrible blunder.

He made a decision, based on his lifelong romantic flirtation with international communism, that very nearly killed the entire project, almost before the first volume ever appeared. It was a fall from grace, and one for which Joseph Needham had no one to blame but himself, and it haunts the project even to this day.

It all came about by way of a mysterious telephoned invitation from a conference room in the capital of Norway. The caller was Chinese, and once the static on the line had cleared, he turned out to be one of Need-ham's oldest wartime friends. Would Joseph care to leave Cambridge for a while, the caller asked, and come back for a spell to China?


Needham’s lifelong accomplishments are outsized, and he is a legend of the 20th century. If, like me, you know little or nothing about him, read The Man Who Loved China.


Steve Hopkins, October 20, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the November 2008 issue of Executive Times


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