Englishman Joseph Needham was a Cambridge-trained biochemist with supreme confidence that he could accomplish anything he set his mind to do. He was also a nonconformist, naively enchanted by communist rhetoric, who both loved his English wife and Chinese mistress passionately. During the darkest days of World War II, he jumped at the chance to serve as a diplomatic envoy to China, where he spent years visiting many remote regions, taking needed books and supplies to university scientists around the Asian country. After learning a few facts about China's forgotten early dominance in science, he resolved to write a definitive history about Chinese scientific and technical achievement. According to popular British author Simon Winchester in The Man Who Loved China, Needham spent the rest of his long life writing the many volumes of Science and Civilization in China.
Winchester credits Needham with changing the way that European people thought about China, which before the 1940s was viewed by many as just poor and backward. What Needham never resolved, however, is how China fell from being the most advanced nation on earth, with claims to many scientific firsts, to being poor and complacent. The mystery is still called the Needham Question in academic circles.
Needham was shunned by many in academics and diplomatic circles for his championing China even after the rise of the communist government Mao Zedong. He once met Mao, who asked him whether the Chinese should replace their bicycles with automobiles. Needham recommended sticking to the bikes. For years, he was denied visas to the United States as a undesirable, despite the acclaim in universities for his monumental history of China. Winchester recounts Needham's single-minded devotion that was eyed suspiciously by both western governments and Chinese authorities.
I enjoyed listening to The Man Who Loved China on an unabridged audiobook, read ably by Winchester himself. It is a great choice for readers of adventure and science biography.
Winchester, Simon. The Man Who Loved China. Recorded Books, 2008. ISBN 9781436107129