Until recent decades, Westerners were blissfully unaware that China, not Europe, was the civilization behind scores of history’s great inventions, from gunpowder to mechanical printing and the magnetic compass. It was in the 1950s that perceptions began changing, largely due to the work of one distinctive figure: Joseph Needham, an English biologist, diplomat, explorer, libertine, and, not least, historian of science.
Indeed, Needham’s remarkable multivolume work, Science and Civilization in China, upended traditional views of historical development. Gone, or at least receding, was the image of China as a scientific backwater throughout the long arc of history. In its place was “The Needham Question,” a scholarly riddle: Given that the Chinese developed so many technologies so many centuries ago, why did their culture of innovation stagnate within the last 500 years, while the West jumped ahead?
That lingering question has helped ensure Needham’s legacy since his death in 1995. Now he is the focus of Simon Winchester’s revealing biography, The Man Who Loved China. This seems a natural fit for Winchester, who has written extensively about Asia, science, and—in The Professor and the Madman, his book about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary—herculean attempts to assemble and order human knowledge. In Needham, he has a subject who was not only a prodigious scholar but a scientist and Sinophile as well.