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

3.79  ·  Rating details ·  3,461 Ratings  ·  549 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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Will Byrnes
Feb 11, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, science
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
"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
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
Feb 04, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

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
Jim Fonseca
Sep 08, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 18, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
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
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
Jul 21, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  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
Jun 27, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Mar 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  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
Andrew Georgiadis
Also known as "The Man Who Loved China" in American editions (because our versions are necessarily dumbed-down), this is the story of Joseph Needham's quest to understand an Eastern culture to which he was introduced in adulthood. A professor of chemistry and one with no official qualifications to undertake a work of rigorous history, he embarked on one of the most ambitious, lengthy, and meticulously researched pieces of scholarship in human history. At twenty-eight volumes and still in print, ...more
Nov 27, 2012 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
My major problem with this book was that the author never gave me any reason to care who Joseph Needham was. The book is entirely about Needham's life - there's not really anything about the work that's purportedly the reason for the book (his histories of China). It was all justabout the life of this guy who doesn't seem very likeable - he was a big-time communist and supporter of the rise of Mao, as well as a personal friend of Zhou Enlai. Even though he did have some interesting adventures, W ...more
Grace Tjan
May 20, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, china, 2009
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
carl  theaker
Nov 29, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ww2, history

A history professor friend of mine gave me this book, as he'd
received 2 copies, with the intro that he had no interest
in the history of China, much less the history of technology
in China, yet he found it fascinating.

Author Winchester does indeed tell a good tale, I'm certain
he could write an interesting yarn about grass growing. The
subject here though is the eccentric, brilliant, Cambridge
smartypants Joseph Needham, a fellow who picks up languages like
the average person does groceries.

May 15, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: hookah, cheshire
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
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

Aug 03, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  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
Aug 07, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book got me from the very start with his constant question of Why no developement. I was very impressed by the comment of former Secretary of State Haye (Haye?) about 1920 to the effect that one could tell what policy to adopt for the next five hundred years by watching China, despite the at that time apparent lack of effect China had on the world. What I love about the book overall is Needham's single-minded devotion to learning in detail about the language, although there is more than one ...more
As another man who loves China (18 years in Taiwan), I can't decide if Needham is just an interesting British eccentric or a total tool. Devout Christian, unwavering Communist, free love enthusiast and devoted nudist, Morris dancer (and check that out on youtube if you're not familiar with it) and - according to the book - all-around egotistical "fat head," Needham is certainly a character; and his accomplishments in bringing the truth of China's early inventiveness to the West cannot be underes ...more
Feb 18, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A book about a man that wrote a book doesn't exactly sound like a formula for an entertaining work but Winchester pulls it off. It tells the story of Joseph Needham who spent his 90something years writing the definitive history of Science & Civilisation in China which he typed with 2 fingers. While it does read like a pop history book and has been consequently criticised on those grounds, it does filter a huge amount of information to a layman like myself. The fact remains that here is the s ...more
Val Dusek
Great subject, well written, but lacks the philosophy, politics, and science of Needham.

Winchester's life of Joseph Needham is indeed well written, but we still need a full and more knowledgeable life of Needham. Winchester is good on Needham's sex life and its role in his initial love of China (discretely avoided in most academic discussions of his work), on his early travels in China, and on the controversy about his accusation that the US used germ warfare in the Korean War.

However, Wincheste
Aug 05, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, science, ebook
If you have an interest in China, science or British and American history in the 20th Century this book is for you. A fascinating story of a British professor every bit as good as "The Professor and the Madman" and another story of a remarkable book to come out of a British University.
Apr 03, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Dec 20, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, asia, china
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
Sep 29, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: for-fun-modern
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
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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
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“Without haste, without fear, we conquer the world.” 2 likes
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