He Rode the Depth and the Breadth of China

The Man Who Loved China
Simon Winchester

My gift this fine February morning, is sparing you the three-line subtitle that reads like pre-DDB body copy. Editors, it seems, have decided such copy makes the sale.

I have no idea whether that is actually true. In a category other than publishing, I’d utter my favorite “let’s-not-have-an-argument” statement and say it was a testable proposition. In book publishing, though, I don’t think testing of any sort is the norm.

Perhaps it should be because what we have here is product. And if you’re going to manufacture and market products then I think there’s some value in doing it right. Publishing, though, has its own rules, hidebound though some of them may be, and I don’t expect even the largest global publishing houses to adopt FMCG/CPG practice anytime soon.

An apology might be in order about now because writing about a book shouldn’t necessarily devolve into a screed about publishing. But that descent results from the book itself. In some ways, this book is representative of modern trends in the business and since those trends operate at the expense of the reader I think they’re fair game. They also, to traffic in the vernacular, piss me off.

I’ve written innumerable times about ‘author brands.’ Google the term and you’ll turn up more instructive commentary on the subject than you can imagine. Allow me to clarify my position: an author brand is not ipso facto a bad thing. Like any brand, it can indicate a certain level of quality and help alleviate fear of the unknown.

Science and Civilisation in China
If one is to obsess on a subject, a prodigious output helps allay worries about the author’s sanity.

The issue isn’t commerce; William Shakespeare worried about selling tickets. The issue is the ever-present need for the next thing. In a way, writers of mystery series have it easier than non-fiction writers, unless the latter works in an especially broad niche, such as travel.

Let’s turn to Mr. Winchester‘s brand. At this point, he’s had a number of bestsellers. The first I read, The Professor and the Madman, was about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary and the person who submitted the most definitions. As I recall, that contributor was a resident of what at the time was probably referred to as a lunatic asylum.

The next title I consumed was about William Smith‘s geological map of Great Britain, a work that foreshadowed Charles Lyell‘s revolution in geologic thought. The present volume is the tale of Joseph Needham, a biochemist who wrote a multi-volume treatise on the development of science and technology in China.

The framework established, let’s interrogate the brand promise. Is it to offer interesting stories of unknown intellectual accomplishments? Seems too narrow. Eccentric English authors? A bit tautological, no?  The unknown stories behind massive scholarly undertakings? That unknown story bit seems promising. All of the above? Maybe. But how many times can you pull it off? The China book suggests the limits of Winchester’s brand

Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham
Before China caught his attention he literally wrote the book on chemical embryology.

I’ve  always suspected that, with the exception of Romantic flamboyance,  it’s hard to wring a lot of drama out of what is essentially a lonely, interior process. I’ve tended to let the work speak for itself. So what’s this work saying?

Broadly speaking it’s the story of how one man encountered another culture,  lost his cultural blinders and shared that experience in the manner he best understood to have a lasting impact. Needham was an academic biochemist, a world-class biochemist. He knew the value of publication and documentation and a prestigious university press. Of course, once he had his realization, he would write a book. It’s what professors do.

Needham’s affinity, or, as the title has it, love for China is a bit less solid. I came away with no strong sense that some early encounter with the “mysteries of the East,” to used dated language, gnawed at him from an early age. In fact, given the regimen his father designed for him I wouldn’t think there would be time to stumble into any mysteries while you were developing a deep foundation in Western civilization, science and languages.

More than likely it has to do with a woman. Needham was almost a cartoon English academic eccentric. A free-thinking nudist married to one of the first woman Phds in a hard science, first husband and wife Fellows of the Royal Academy, he benefited from an open marriage and a long-term, though not necessarily singular, affair with a younger female biochemist from China.

Lu Gwei-djen (1904-1991) and her father
There really was a woman at the heart of this tale.

I’ve developed plenty of interests while pursuing a girl and even prodigious intellects are human. Perhaps his curiosity was piqued by his affair. He was certainly motivated enough to learn how to speak, read and write in Mandarin. What is language for if not to woo women?

It was that language facility, coupled with his interest and scientific acumen, that found him posted to China in the middle of WWII. His mission was to gauge the state of science in China and support it as much as possible. This he did and in two long overland journeys he encountered much in the way of engineering and practice that struck him as different, akin to, superior to and often older than Western practice, At some point, he decided he needed to catalog and categorize these achievements to break down the parochialism of the west.

The project was green-lighted just after the war and the book became a multi-volume series. To date, more than 7 volumes have been published over more than half a century. Needham worked on it, and not much else, for more than 45 years with a few close collaborators. Along the way, there were hiccups–Needham’s avowed socialist politics and naivete about the mores of science being stronger than totalitarian government got him in a pickle–but in the end, he got the job done.

it’s almost a meta-moment when you discover the work has been translated into Chinese.

You see, all the brand hallmarks are there: a multi-volume academic achievement. A massive undertaking driven by a singular intellect who may be, to use a less polite term, a bit of a nutter. Even hints of sexual abandon. Yet In the end this is the story of a man who spent decades at a typewriter.

I could pick nits. There are some odd inclusions for a book published in the quick-not-to-offend 2000s. Even with access to Needham’s diaries more than a few statements of his state of mind require a leap of faith.  There’s more than a little speculation not flagged as such.

Mostly, though, it’s two truck trips and a lot of time at the typewriter.  It would have made a great New Yorker article. I can’t say the same for it as a book.


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