Co-sponsored by the China Institute in America
NEW YORK, May 20, 2008 - With his new book, The Man Who Loved China, author Simon Winchester traces the explorations (and romances) of Joseph Needham (1900-1995), a British scientist who eventually became the Western world's preeminent Chinese scholar. At the Asia Society, Winchester talked with China scholar John Major about his book's subject—an eccentric genius, adventurer, nudist, and giant of China studies.
In Winchester's view, Needham's life demonstrates that to truly understand a country, you have to love it. Needham fell in love with China, Chinese culture, Chinese politics, and the heritage of an ancient civilization. He also fell in love with a young student, Lu Gwei-djen, who was to become his lifelong collaborator on his masterpiece, Science and Civilization in China.
Central to much of Needham's work is a puzzle historians identify as "Needham's question": Why was it that the nation that invented so much—the compass, bureaucracy, printing, explosives, even the stirrup—and had enjoyed 5,000 years of continuous civilization, had failed to prosper? Needham came to believe that China, weakened in the recent past by invasions, warlords, and corruption, would eventually rise again to world prominence. Critics would ask whether his research supported this conclusion, but, according to Winchester, no one can deny today the significance of Needham's basic endeavor.
Listen to the entire program (1 hr., 6 min.)