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The Man Who Loved China: Joseph Needham & the Making of a Masterpiece

3.76 of 5 stars 3.76  ·  rating details  ·  2,514 ratings  ·  437 reviews

In sumptuous and illuminating detail, Simon Winchester, the bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman ("Elegant and scrupulous"—New York Times Book Review) and Krakatoa ("A mesmerizing page-turner"—Time) 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

Kindle Edition, 352 pages
Published (first published January 1st 2008)
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"No knowledge is ever to be wasted or despised."
(Dr Needham, snr)
Every hobby has an intellectual angle, and Needham (jr) was obsessively interested in everything.

An exhilarating change from my usual fare (though it fits with my fondness for China and Cambridge): a biography of Joseph Needham (1900-1995), an eccentric but brilliant multilingual Cambridge biochemist who fell in love with a Chinese woman, then her language and her country, becoming the world expert in and ambassador for the histor
Will Byrnes
He decided initially to make a great historical list, a list of every mechanical invention and abstract idea—the building blocks of modern world civilization—that had been first conceived and made in China. If he could managed to establish a flawless catalog of just what the Chinese had created first, of exactly which of the world’s ideas and concepts had actually originated in the Middle Kingdom, he would be on to something. If he could delve behind the unforgettable remark that emperor Qianl
Riku Sayuj

Great background reading for anyone contemplating the epic task of taking on the fifteen (and more) volumes of Science and Civilisation in China -- one the greatest compendiums of knowledge, a supreme feat of imagination and will power, and one of the most lasting bridges built between the east and the west.

Winchester provides the historic and political backdrop for the composition and allows us to understand why it was such an important work — why it was so necessary and so brave an undertaking
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
This book is hard work, but as with most things in life, when you put in the effort it is usually rewarded. It was our Goodreads book club selection and so I decided to give it a try, though I could only find a copy online and so I purchased the audible version. It is indeed a remarkable story, and one that needs to be known, as there is so little understanding of China in the western world, and in South Africa that is no exception. So one of the drivers to read this book was curiosity, and if y ...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
Joshua Rigsby
This book follows the life of the eccentric Cambridge professor Joseph Needham as he becomes enraptured by the intellectual history of China. Needham was a fascinating character to say the least. A committed nudist and Morris dancer, a polyglot and a dogged researcher, it would be difficult to find his equal in any epoch of history. The research and discoveries he made about the intellectual advancements of the Chinese are still being mined to this day.

Simon Winchester does well with this story
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
Lee Granas
This was a cool book to read after spending 3 weeks in China. I really enjoyed learning so much about life in England in the 1930s and 40s, and it was fascinating to see so many things that we think of as modern and edgy today (polyamory, nudity, etc) being practiced back then at Cambridge. I learned a ton from this book! It's amazing how much was happening between Japan and China in WWII that I didn't realize. It's also amazing how adventurous the protagonist was. I really liked the Rewi Alley ...more
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
Steve Greenleaf
Simon Winchester's The Man Who Loved China tells the story of an eccentric English biochemist who, through the gateway of a love affair with Chinese student, traveled to China and fell in love with Chinese civilization. Winchester is an accomplished and widely praised storyteller, and in this book he plies his trade well. The subject of his book made his task easier. The man who loved China was Joseph Needham. By his early 20s, Needham had established himself as a scientific genius with a broad, ...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

A biography of Joseph Needham. One of the ancients said a full life, like a full day, is long enough. When Needham died in his early 90's, two days after he came to work his usual full day in the library, he went to a long-deserved rest. He was the author (and is some cases co-author or organizer) of the 20-plus volumes of Science and Civilization in China, a work of such magnitude that it has been compared to the OED. The work, published between 1954 and 2008 is still in print, and it has has b ...more
I may be out of step with other reviewers, but having read a good number of Winchester's books (including The Professor and the Madman and The Map that Changed the World) this one is very disappointing. The author has never had a problem in picking interesting topics. The best parts of the book are its early descriptions of Needham "on the ground" in China and the appendix listing Chinese inventions. In between the narrative is sloppy and unfocused. It is mostly a chronological recitation of the ...more
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
This is the story of Joseph Needham, a polymath Cambridge don who became enamored of China after meeting a Chinese scholar, Lu Gwei-Djen, who also became his long time mistress. He went to China during the second world war as a British diplomat, charged with determining what materials and support that Chinese universities needed to continue to conduct research, given the circumstances. Once there he took the opportunity to collect books and documents, and otherwise research the history of scienc ...more
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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 publ ...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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