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The Man who Loved China

Simon Winchester's book, The Man who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom, was enthralling to the end, but once I hit more elements of the history of science - as opposed to biography and twentieth-century history about which I didn't know nearly enough - of course I found more things to trip over.

I think many of the problems may be derived directly from Needham himself: an implicit faith in the myth of the apoliticality of science, despite a crisis later in his life which undermines the concept. The gushing eloquence for the "purity" of Needham's love for China. The unspoken categorical implication that technologies are all subsets of science, i.e. applied science. An occasional curious flatness to the earlier history, in which "ancient China" can encompass everything from 300 BCE to 1200 CE in a nearly undifferentiated lump, when usually Winchester is pretty good about including dates. A thoroughly obnoxious line, particularly for Celticists, about how, while the Chinese had already developed sophisticated water engineering methods, people in Western Europe "still coated themselves with woad and did little more than grunt" (109).

Needham did indeed lead a fascinating and well-documented life, such that there were many interludes of which I would have loved to know more. I could see why, for narrative focus, his years spent "putting the 'S' into UNESCO" were glossed over (165), although I'm not sure why only half a sentence was relevant to the original editor of the book series, when the gestation of the series was so much a part of the plot. Even passing mentions, however, helped orient me in some ways, such as explaining Francesca Bray's role in the process of developing Science and Civilization in China, or the foundation of Robinson College.

Overall, I'm really glad I read this book, both for what it taught me about twentieth-century history, and field-specific historiography. It was generally well-written with a compelling narrative, documenting the life of a fascinating individual. As ever, however, it's entirely possible that I could enjoy it so much because I didn't know that much about the central biographical subject. Ignorance is so often bliss.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 23rd, 2010 01:02 pm (UTC)
No-one respects Celticists enough, alas. I blame Mel Gibson for the woad, though.
Apr. 23rd, 2010 03:00 pm (UTC)
Apr. 23rd, 2010 04:05 pm (UTC)
Disraeli did something similar, when he said "Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the Right Honourable Gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon."
Apr. 23rd, 2010 06:50 pm (UTC)
A thoroughly obnoxious line

And I'd be interested to know just how far the line, even stripped of the anti-Celtic insults, would still be regarded as true, at least for the early centuries CE. Needham had very good reasons for believing "ancient Chinese" water engineering to surpass anything done in the West during the same period - but our most sophisticated examples of Roman water engineering all seem to have been discovered through archaeology in recent decades (and to date from about the "decadent" fourth century CE).
Apr. 23rd, 2010 10:51 pm (UTC)
(replying to both the entry and your comment here) Needham did tend to give all the credit possible (even when nigh impossible) to China where he could--at least in the early volumes of Science and Civilization in China (which, since I'm mostly looking at the "esoteric mathematics" category, to wit astronomy, astrology and mathematical divination, is where I tend to hang out). In part it sounds like a very hard push-back against those who ascribed everything Chinese to the West. Including gunpowder (!), and denying the Chinese their own constellations. I think the "dark ages" were still considered quite dark when he was working as well; to say, largely pre-war.

There's an article in a S&TS reader reviewing the history of the "Needham Question," which might be a good read post-Winchester (if you don't already know of it), and more academic. I'll have to look up the citation. The question itself--basically, Why on earth didn't China have a scientific/industrial revolution, given that it was so advanced for so long--is horribly normative. But Needham did predate Kuhn (by a fair clip), and the image of the "inevitable" progress of science still pops up in very recent works for Europe as well. So I tend to accept is as a quirk, along with Needham's absolutely RIDICULOUS system for transcribing Chinese. (I mean honestly. The "Thang" Dynasty?!?)

(My research is sort of working against the question that was formulated for Japan post-Needham, which is "Given that we know Japan was so good at adaption and adoption of modern things from how they have advanced now, why didn't they even have as much science as China until the early modern?" Up to this point, the blame's been on Buddhism and the fact that the rulers were a 'cowardly and superstitious lot.' But aside for an article on what looks like water pumps and some recent work on medicine, nothing's been done in English on the early Japanese experience of "Chinese science" since 1970. So perhaps that's understandable.)
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )