The preeminent story of our time will not be the occupation of Iraq or the war on terror, but the shift of economic, technological, and geopolitical power to the East—specifically, China. Newspaper editors have coined a name for this story—“the rise of China”—but that’s not quite right. China isn’t rising the way the United States rose from a scattering of rustic colonies to a global superpower in two centuries, or the way Japan rose from an isolated island to the world’s second-largest economy in little more than half that time. Home to 1.3 billion people, with a history measured in millennia, China isn’t in fact rising so much as returning to its rightful place as the fulcrum of the world.
It’s a story that Joseph Needham foresaw. As the nation was at its weakest in the first half of the last century—riven by civil war, partially occupied by Japan, dismissed by much of the West as backward—this British scientist and self-taught Sinologist saw the greatness of China’s past and the promise of its future. In his magisterial series Science and Civilisation in China (1954–2004), Needham intellectually rescued his beloved country. It was he who argued conclusively that gunpowder, paper, the compass, and printing originated in China. As Simon Winchester writes in his engaging new book, The Man Who Loved China, Needham “would discover, like no other outsider before or since, that the Chinese, far from existing beyond the mainstream of human civilization, had in fact created much of it.”
Needham was a remarkable scholar at the start of his long career, but none who knew him as a young Cambridge don in the ’20s would have guessed that his future lay in the East. He was a biochemist by training, but science was never enough to satisfy his roving mind. A polymath in the best British tradition, Needham was a talented linguist who could mentally translate his manuscripts from English to French and back, as well as a committed socialist whose politics would guide his life. He was also—much to Winchester’s delight, one suspects—a nudist, an enthusiastic practitioner of English folk dances, and a dedicated collector of mistresses.
This last trait was gently tolerated by his wife, Dorothy. It’s a good thing she did, both for Needham’s sake and for the course of his future studies: Before Needham fell in love with China, he fell in love with a woman, Lu Gwei-djen, a young biochemist who came to Cambridge in 1937. It was under Lu’s tutelage that Needham became obsessed with the Eastern nation. He became fluent in Mandarin and found himself embroiled in Sino-British politics. In the late ’30s, China was fighting off a Japanese invasion, but Western nations like Britain remained neutral. That would change with Pearl Harbor, and Needham would soon be on his way to the Chinese capital of Chongqing as a British diplomat.
It is in wartime China that Needham’s story—as well as Winchester’s writing—truly takes off. Chongqing, as Needham saw it, rose “like the prow of a ship, a great pyramid of jumbled rock and humanity.” But Needham wouldn’t stay in the capital long. He spent much of the war years traveling throughout China, defying the Japanese air force, bad roads, and flat tires while clocking more than thirty thousand miles in eleven expeditions. His ostensible purpose was to deliver supplies to China’s decimated scientific community, but Winchester makes it clear that Needham had grander motivations. In 1942, before he left for China, Needham scribbled a note: “Sci. in general in China—why not develop?” He envisioned a book on the history of science and technology in China, and throughout his wartime travels, Needham gathered evidence of the astounding rate at which ancient China had produced significant inventions—fifteen a century during the most productive years. In the far western city of Dunhuang, on what was once the Silk Road, he discovered that Chinese printers had been at work centuries before Gutenberg. “Here was a clear indication that China was no backward nation but for much of its great age a highly sophisticated civilization, the certain fount of at least this one human invention,” Winchester writes, “and quite possibly the fount of just about everything else important that was known to the outside world.”
After the war, Needham focused solely on his China research, and what he had planned as a relatively tidy ten-year project became the sprawling, twenty-four-volume Science and Civilisation in China. Though Needham’s reputation would suffer somewhat during the cold war (like many of his political stripe, he was far too slow to recognize just how catastrophic Mao Zedong’s rule was for China), his endeavor won universal acclaim. “He had worked single-handedly to change the way the people of the West looked on the people of the East,” Winchester writes. “He had succeeded, as few others are ever privileged to do, in making a significant and positive change to mankind’s mutual understanding.”
More straightforward than some of Winchester’s idiosyncratic recent books, such as his 2005 study of the 1906 California earthquake, The Man Who Loved China does justice to Needham’s impressive accomplishments. But what serves Winchester best is his appreciationclearly of a piece with Needham’s own—of China’s true place in the world. Needham’s work was partly motivated by a desire to discover why, after lapping the West for centuries, China had stagnated scientifically from the 1400s on. This became known as “Needham’s question,” and the master himself was never able to answer it fully, positing that, in effect, the Chinese just stopped trying. But for Winchester, the question may be moot: China has left its slumber behind. He ends the book in the semisecret city of Jiuquan, China’s Cape Canaveral, where in 2003 the first Chinese astronaut was launched into space. At the entrance to the town, Winchester notes, is a giant billboard, in Chinese and English: without haste. without fear. we conquer the world.
China is back.
Bryan Walsh is a staff writer for Time magazine.