The Man Who Loved China – Simon Winchester

Title: The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom
Author: Simon Winchester
ISBN: 0060884592
Pages: 336
Release Date: May 6, 2008
Genre: Non-fiction, Biography
Rating: *** 1/2 (out of 5)

From the dust jacket:

In sumptuous and illuminating detail, Simon Winchester…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 most technologically advanced country.

No cloistered don, this tall, married Englishman was a freethinking intellectual, who practiced nudism and was devoted to a quirky brand of folk dancing. In 1937, while working as a biochemist at Cambridge University, he instantly fell in love with a visiting Chinese student, with whom he began a lifelong affair. He soon became fascinated with China, and his mistress swiftly persuaded the ever-enthusiastic Needham to travel to her home country, where he embarked on a series of extraordinary expeditions to the farthest frontiers of this ancient empire. He searched everywhere for evidence to bolster his conviction that the Chinese were responsible for hundreds of mankind’s most familiar innovations – including printing, the compass, explosives, suspension bridges, even toilet paper – often centuries before the rest of the world…

Both epic and intimate, The Man Who Loved China tells the sweeping story of China through Needham’s remarkable life. Her e is an unforgettable tale of what makes men, nations, and, indeed, mankind itself great – related by one of the world’s most imitable storytellers.

Some of you might have noticed the ellipses in the summary above where I removed some of the description from the dust jacket. It was overly long and a bit dry, not unlike the book itself.

I did find The Man Who Loved China interesting. Joseph Needham led quite the life, and it is worthy of a biography such as this. Unfortunately, the book is very dry and seemed incredibly long, though it was only around 260 pages. I’m not entirely sure why this is; after all, the story is interesting and Needham’s life is incredibly eventful. I think the problem is that I don’t usually read biographies, but I thought this one sounded interesting – a tie-in of Chinese history with Needham’s story.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much Chinese history to be had. I think I would have enjoyed the book much more if there had been more focus on Needham’s travels in China. As it is, the reader barely gets a glimpse of his travels or the history surrounding them; most of the book focuses on his personal difficulties and his reputation.

The bottom line is that if you enjoy non-fiction or biographies, you will probably love this book. However, if you are a fiction reader that only occasionally forays into non-fiction, skip this one; there are others that are more worth your time!


  1. I just finished reading Empress Orchid which is about the last empress of China and suddenly I am really interested in China.

  2. Last time I read one of Winchester’s books (about the SF Earthquake, can’t remember the exact title for the life of me) he would say something, and then “wander off” on about one hundred tangents before returning to his original narrative. So a book about the 1906 earthquake didn’t really start to talk about the earthquake until the last few chapters. Does he do similar things in this book?

  3. Yeah I find fiction a bit difficult to get through as well.

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