Book Review: The Man Who Unlocked The Mysteries of China’s Middle Kingdom
Chinese claims that they were responsible for hundreds of mankind’s most familiar inventions — including explosives, printing, the compass, hydraulics, ceramics, suspension bridges and even toilet paper — were long viewed with skepticism by Westerners who were smugly certain that these ancient people were incapable of such advanced innovations.
That was until Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham came along.
The story of how Needham confirmed the provenance of many of these inventions is told to great effect in The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom by bestselling author Simon Winchester. The story of Needham himself is almost as good.
Needham was no cloistered Cambridge don, and in fact was precisely the sort of person who could have pulled off such a stunning feat: A freethinking intellectual, folkdancer, practicing nudist, lower case “c” communist and married womanizer who fell in love with Lu Gwei-djen, a visiting Chinese student and then with China itself.
Although a biochemist by training, Needham is best known for his extraordinary Science and Civilization in China, a 24-volume encyclopedia cataloging the breathtaking range of China’s achievements in science and technology.
Needham left behind the comfy confines of Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge in 1943 when he was tapped, probably on the order of Winston Churchill himself, to establish a Sino-British cultural and scientific exchange behind the lines in Japanese-occupied China.
Balancing the interests of the Nationalist government and emerging Communist Army, he provided struggling scientists with laboratory equipment and textbooks while taking a series of lengthy trips, some of them under daunting and dangerous circumstances.
These included a months-long trek to the Dunhuang caves in Western China where he was first inspired to undertake the encyclopedia project. This is where the Diamond Sutra, a woodblock book printed six centuries before come latelies Johannes Gutenberg and William Caxton cranked out their first books, was discovered in 1907 by Marc Aurel Stein, a trailblazing archaeologist deservedly vilified in China for his extraordinary plundering of the sutra and other great treasures.