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

3.76 of 5 stars 3.76  ·  rating details  ·  2,223 ratings  ·  411 reviews
In sumptuous and illuminating detail, Simon Winchester, bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman, brings to life the extraordinary story of Joseph Needham—the brilliant Cambridge scientist, freethinking intellectual, and practicing nudist who unlocked the most closely held secrets of China, once the world's most technologically advanced country.
Paperback, 352 pages
Published April 28th 2009 by Harper Perennial (first published October 15th 1996)
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Jason Koivu

Joseph Needham


A man with a beautiful mind, one seemingly forged for the hard sciences - he worked in a college laboratory at Cambridge University specializing in embryology and morphogenesis - betrayed itself with that willful miscreant known as love, and in this case it was a love for China. Needham threw himself into the study of Chinese history and some thought at the time that he'd thrown away all he had to offer the world. But he provided them wrong, proved there was more in him than they'd
Simon Winchester never fails to entice the reader, and here in the audiobook version he marvelously reads his own book. He teaches effortlessly. He infuses humor into his lines. He writes about characters and places and times that are interesting. His books focus not only on the details but also encompass the larger picture; you are delivered not only one man's life but also world events.

In this book we follow Joseph Needham from childhood to death. He lived from 1900-1995. He was a bio-chemist
Dr. Carl Ludwig Dorsch

A chatty, repetitive, but easily readable map of the life of Joseph Needham, a diligent weaving of what must have been many hundreds of notes into an often cinematic narrative with countless curious digressions along the way.

As with perhaps any biography though, I am left with questions, large and small. I’ll list four I cannot escape.

Before that however, I feel compelled to note the occasional and surprising instances of Winchester verging on unpleasant condescension toward the Chinese themse
Yet another fascinating book and story by a master. There is one thing you can say about Simon Winchester, he does like a good polymath and that love of learning and the learned shines through every page.

In a world where the next Vice President of the USA (or President if the Bible’s allotted three score and ten are anything to go by) could be someone who could more accurately be described as a polymoron – someone dangerously ignorant of just about everything except, obviously, how to skin a moo
I found this book an absolutely wonderful read.

Its title is perfect. Joseph Needham was an academic, a socialist and a biochemist - and he did indeed love China very deeply.

The first part of the book covers his trip to China in 1943. China was at war with the Japanese, and they had overrun a third of the country to the east. He was sent to western China – which was free of Japanese influence. His task there was to do what he could help Chinese scientists carry on working – basically he was an e
Aug 04, 2008 J. rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: ..China Science & Culture readers...
Slightly rickety account of the remarkable 20th century life of Joseph Needham, Cambridge Master and author of the mega-sized multi-volume Science & Civilisation In China. In a wildly stormy life that veered from being a founding father of UNESCO to meetings with Mao & Zhou EnLai before there was a Peoples Republic, Mr Needham saw quite a lot. Needham was in a pivotal position during the many phases of the origin of Modern China as a British Foreign Office scientific representative, arri ...more
When I was a student at the University of Oslo studying Chinese, Joseph Needham used to come up to our department. As one of the few students with a car, it was my job to pick him up at the airport, ferry him about town, and generally take care of him. I was with him at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo while he studied the construction of the Viking ships, remarking at some of the similarities with ancient Chinese shipbuilding (a subject mentioned in the book). When he left one of his ever-present ...more
Simon Winchester does the kind of research that could never be accomplished with a Google search. His work is layered and so impossibly thorough that reading his books makes me fearful that this kind of scholarship could become extinct with the quick-draw research that the net generation has become accustomed to.

The Man Who Loved China is about Joseph Needham, a researcher much like Winchester. In fact, it is very meta that one of the world's greatest researchers should write a book about one o
hmmm amazon has brought back their Big Deal, 500 ebooks at 85% off, and one can't go very wrong getting a big-6 published (Harper Collins, in this case) non-fiction history work at 1.99. well, it's 316 pages, less the 20% of the book that is the "searchable index" so popular to include with ebooks (obvious marketing trick, since most ebook readers permit searches in any case). I forgive. 250 pages at 1.99 is still less than .01c a page. the penny dreadful returns!

there's already a pretty profess
As I read this book, I couldn't help thinking of a Broadway tune written back in 1917 called "China - We Owe a Lot to You." Part of it goes:

"Chin-a , way out in Asia Mi-nor
No country could be fi-ner
Be-neath the sun.
You gave us silk to dress our lovely women in
‘Twas worth the price
And when we couldn’t get potatoes
You gave us rice
We mix chop suey with your chop sticks
You’ve taught us quite a few tricks
We never knew
We take our hats off to one thing we’ve seen
Your laundries keep our country clean
Grace Tjan
Ever since I picked up the condensed, popular version of Needham's book years ago, I've been curious about the man who wrote it. Now Simon Winchester provides us with the biography of the fascinating man behind the book, an eccentric Cambridge Don of prodigious intellect, an uncritical China lover, a playboy who spent most of his life in a menage a trois with his wife and mistress, as well as a comitted Catholic and socialist. The most interesting part of the book is the section describing Needh ...more
Well, this was a very interesting subject and the writing was fine except for weird editing laziness where he kept introducing a bit of information like it wasn't already introduced. The book was enjoyable except for this strange feeling where I felt like the writer was afraid to just say something so passed it off quite passively like it was an afterthought or maybe a joke. Like he has these opinions he was too afraid to just say. Either say them or leave them out of what is supposed to be non- ...more
A story of an eccentric English scientist, Joseph Needham, who fell in love with China, having fallen in love with a female Chinese scientist first. He got interested in Chinese scientific achievements, and in 1942 he organized a rescue expedition to help Chinese scientists survive the hard times of the Japanese invasion. From the moment of his landing in Chungking, he found himself mesmerized with Chinese ways of doing things and their vast and ancient scientific knowledge. His stay expanded fr ...more
May 29, 2011 Mike rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I do not often hand out a “5” (one was for Winchester’s “The Professor and the Madman”) and will decide on the start count after I finish this review. It is worth no less than a “4.5” if such a ranking existed.

After reading “The Professor and the Madman” I could not imagine the author topping or equaling that book. While it may not be everyone’s opinion I thought that that story was so well researched, written, and presented (even the afterwards bits) that anythin
Well it turns out that the biography of the man behind Cambridge's endlessly massive publications on Chinese Science and Civilisation (, is almost as fascinating as that book series itself. This is one of those books that one cannot put down. I ended up reading it from cover to cover without cease, which is a rare experience. More often I take 10 years to finish any one book. I seem to prefer reading in spurts. But this book is a page turner.

One of the ma
Dave Gaston
Every book Simon Winchester writes I’ll read. He is my favorite nerdy writer and I’m charmed by his technique, intelligence and his prigish dry wit. I also love his impeccable proper English. His active use of an expanded vocabulary challenges the mundane, not to mention a challenge to my own limited vocabulary. China was a little lighter than his earliest pursuit, not quite the manic deep dive expressed in, “The Professor and the Madman.” Winchester continues to highlight obscure (and quirky) s ...more
Kris Madaus

I really like the other Simon Winchester books I have read including Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 and A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, so I had high hopes for this book. I wasn't completely let down, but it certainly wasn't his best.

One reason for this is probably the slightly less earth-shattering subject. When you compare this book, a biography of Joseph Needham, to oe of the biggest volcanic eruptions in recent his

Early in this fascinating biography of Dr. Joseph Needham, the brilliant scientist who compiled the massive multivolume work on Science and Civilisation in Ancient China, the author quotes former U.S. Secretary of State John Hay’s 1899 statement that China was the “storm center of the world,” and that anyone who took the time and trouble to understand “this mighty empire” would have a key to politics for the next five centuries. (p. 8) Hay was quite prescient, considering that we are a fifth of ...more
This book is the extraordinary story of Joseph Needham, a scientist at Cambridge University. Needham is a scholar, teacher, Morris dancer, nudist, socialist or communist (he never officially joined either party), and expert on science and technology in Chinese history. While married and living at Cambridge, he began a life-long affair with a visiting Chinese student who taught him to speak, read, and write Chinese. During World War II, Needham spent several years in China and realized that the C ...more
Once again, Simon Winchester lends his excellent research and story-telling skills to history - focusing this time on scientist/historian Joseph Needham and his creation of the expansive "Science and Civilization in China" - an encyclopedia of sorts of Chinese scientific accomplishment.

Though Winchester's writing is strong, I found the subject matter less rich than some of his other works. While "Science and Civilization" is an amazing achievement, Needham is not the most likable of protagonist
Jennifer (JC-S)
This book should be of interest to both those who are interested in remarkable individuals as well as those interested in the history of Chinese invention.
Joseph Needham (1900-1992), a biochemist with a bright future at Cambridge, became fascinated by Chinese language and history. The story of Joseph Needham, his determination and passion, his relationships, intelligence and eccentricity is interesting of itself. The fact that he turned his formidable investigative intelligence to uncovering Chi
Joseph Needham was a top British scholar who traveled to China during World War II, where he conceived his masterpiece, Science and Civilization in China. He spent much of his life trying to make the western world understand that China has a rich history of science and technological development. I enjoyed the descriptions of China during World War II, but the story of Joseph Needham--boldly nudist, essentially polygamist, and so passionate about his studies of China that he drove all over the wa ...more
Aug 03, 2011 Julia rated it 2 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Only Winchester die-hard fans
Recommended to Julia by: Saw it on shelf in library
Love Simon Winchester! He's the literary equivalent of PBS's Ken Burns: an incredibly deft interpreter of history, who makes each subject spring to vivid life for his audience. I would watch a documentary on literally ANYTHING Ken Burns decided was a worthy subject, and read the same for Winchester. He's a master of non-fiction writing, and if you haven't read his "Krakatoa, Or the Day the World Exploded," do yourself a big ol' favor and get it out from the library now. So, my fault with this bo ...more
Another great read by Winchester! I listened to this one, read by the author who as always, was a delight to listen to. I had no idea who Joseph Needham was or that he had contributed so much to the West's udnerstanding of China. His life was quite itneresting, especially as he had so many hobbies which took up time, such as Morris dancing. I would liek to find out more about his wife, and what she thought of his long-standing affair with the Chinese woman who inspired his interest in China. (Si ...more
We checked out several audio books from the library for our recent trip to North Carolina. This was the serious one we picked. (or I picked). Read by the author, which always adds a certain tone to non-fiction book like this. And certainly is helpful with all the Chinese names and words. An uncritical biography, to be sure, of one of those amazing English, eccentric polymaths that have created huge pieces of research. One review criticized the lists that took up a good part of the end of the boo ...more
Simon Winchester, the bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman and Krakatoa, discusses his new book The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom. In sumptuous and illuminating detail, Winchester brings to life the extraordinary story of Joseph Needham, the brilliant Cambridge scientist who unlocked the most closely held secrets of China, long the world's most technologically advanced country.

We met Simon Winche
Jane Mettee
Very well written biography. Needham (a scientist from London, Columbia University) documented China's knowledge of science and just about everything else over a 5000 year period in 17 volumes. He began in the 1930s and devoted his life to this immense project. His travels all over China, even as they were being attacked by Japan are amazing. He becomes the keeper of volumes of ancient Chinese manuscripts and saved them from destruction during the cultural revolution. He married a fellow scient ...more
Joseph Gendron
Another very interesting book from Simon Winchester, this one is about English scientist Joseph Needham and his very unusual life, loves, predilections and habits. It was very enjoyable reading with a lot of descriptions of his life at Cambridge and his journeys thru China while compiling data for his writing. The back country mechanical machinations that were undertaken w/o adequate supplies to keep his vehicles running were amazing. The book includes a lot of history, including the time when J ...more
Don Weidinger
advanced civilization, confidence from longevity and innovative history make life steadily more comfortable, 15 major inventions per century, we possess all things needed, unique degree of self-knowledge, why at times stop trying, state kills technological progress, books present roadmap of where been and going, without haste without fear we conquer the world.
Lyrical writing and incredible story crafted around the real life of Joseph Needham. Investigating the inventions of ancient China Needham paid visits to the country from pre-communist days to close the present. This is a book that you really don't want to come to an end.
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Simon Winchester, OBE, is a British writer, journalist and broadcaster who resides in the United States. Through his career at The Guardian, Winchester covered numerous significant events including Bloody Sunday and the Watergate Scandal. As an author, Simon Winchester has written or contributed to over a dozen nonfiction books and authored one novel and his articles appear in several travel publi ...more
More about Simon Winchester...
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded The Map That Changed the World A Crack in the Edge of the World The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary

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