- The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom
Simon Winchester is a great storyteller who is particularly good at covering the lives of geniuses and peculiar people. His riveting best-seller about one of the greatest of the thousands of contributors to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary (William Chester Minor), a more than two-decades project in the late nineteenth century, is a case in point. When editor James Murray finally met the prolific contributor to the dictionary project, it was a shocking revelation. Minor was not only an American from New Haven, Connecticut, a formerly sexually promiscuous surgeon with the rank of captain in the U.S. Army, but for more than twenty years during the making of the dictionary had been an inmate of an asylum for the criminally insane.
Joseph Needham (1900–1995), though perhaps eccentric as a single-minded professor, was (with his wife, Dorothy) a believer in free love, liked performing morris (Moorish) dancing, swam in the nude, and insisted on burnt toast for the anecdotal effects of its charcoal. He was definitely a genius, but by no means a madman. Needham was the man who loved China and put the Middle Kingdom in its proper place of prominence in the history of science. For six and a half decades, he was the eminent (and, because of his politics, controversial) biochemistry professor and one-time Master of Gonville and Gaius College, Cambridge University. He was the sole driving force that produced twenty-four sizable tomes of Science and Civilisation in China within the last half century.
Li Yuese 李約瑟 or "Li Joseph" is the Chinese name given to him by thirty-three-year-old graduate student Lu Gwei-djen, 魯桂珍, who had come from Nanjing, China, to Oxford in 1937 with two other young Chinese scientists to study with the biochemistry professors Joseph and Dorothy Needham. Before long, Lu became and then remained Joseph Needham's mistress for the next half century. The two finally married in 1989, after the death of Dorothy, who was very much a part of the university circles that were "socially progressive and sexually tolerant" (p. 39).
This first lesson in the Chinese language happened one evening in February 1938 as the two, Needham and Lu, lay side by side while making love in his cramped single bed in his study. Xiangyan 香煙 ("fragrant smoke" or "cigarette") was another Chinese term (besides his name) Needham learned from Lu as they chain-smoked and talked. This particularly intellectual and amorous rendezvous of professor and student was described by Winchester as "more linguistic than [End Page 588] erotic" (p. 39), a defining moment that inspired the inquisitive Needham to begin his own systematic study of the Chinese language for no apparent reason other than fascination and intrigue over the gentility of diminutive Lu, and her two colleagues from China. Through his own dogged determination, Needham soon mastered the Chinese language and produced a dictionary, an unusual accomplishment but perhaps of little practical consequence. Such apparent folly on Needham's part added to his well-noted eccentricity throughout the Cambridge community.
However, an opportunity finally opened for him to go to China in 1942, a four-year venture that would determine the direction of his career for the rest of his life. The invitation for Needham came after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor when the United States and Britain finally declared war on Japan. Until then, paying only lip service to the atrocities in Japan's undeclared war upon and encroachment into China, both the United States and Britain, whose stated rationale was their neutrality, did nothing to help the suffering Chinese people. When the Pacific war finally came, the Chinese-speaking Needham, a representative of the Royal Society to which he had been elected only a year earlier, was a natural person to be asked...