Thursday, October 21, 2010

The man who loved china - Simon Winchester

I just finished reading a lively biography of Prof. Joseph Needham of Cambridge (the old one). Titled "The man who loved china", written by Simon Winchester. Winchester describes the life and work of the Prof. Needham in manner that kept me hooked on to it for the whole week, until I finished it. He is plain blunt at times, but always colorful in describing the life and times of Prof. Needham.
I hadn't heard about the 'sinophile' professor before I read this book. But the man is most remarkable. The professor began as a researcher in bio-chemistry at the Caius college, Cambridge. Prof. Needham was eclectically intellectual, charming, outspoken and eccentric. When he had made his mark in the top-line research in his area in his early years, he shifted track. Enticed and egged on by his chinese mistress, he learnt the Chinese language and dabbled with calligraphy. He undertook a dangerous mission into China at the height of japanese invasion in the second world war. He pursued a deep study of China, its history of scientific development and eventually creating systematic and detailed notes. 24 large volumes of the scientific and intellectual history of China were written and published by him. He smoked cigars, researched, ventured, lectured and lived a life of fruitful writing till the very end.

He lived a long life, but I found the sheer volume of his research and intellectual output staggering. His roving eye for pretty women did not waver even at age 95. The author tells that at age 94, when the professors wife died, he married his chinese mistress, after having been in courtship for more than 50 years. When she too died, he made proposals to three other women and all of them politely declined.

I got glimpses of the life of the 'dons' at Cambridge university from the book. It sounds like utopia for the serious researchers - wonder if the IITs are a poor imitation.

The sad part is that Prof. Needham was a socialist (but not a communist according to the author. I tend to disagree). He was right from the "red's nest" that cambridge seems to have become prior to 1950s. I am dismayed by the fact that communism had so much of appeal to the intellectual class, in that period of history. Its not as if the murderous excesses of the Stalins and Maos were unknown to the world at large. But their heads were buried deep in the sand. Prof. Needham was found to be an unequivocal and fanatic supporter of almost everything that Chinese government stood for. He was certainly charmed and in love with chinese history, science and language, but mistook the voice of the chinese communist governments as the voice of the chinese people.

There is also a fact that the professor could not really get to the analysis of why chinese contemporary science lagged behind so much, even as science in its history was so far ahead of europeans. One notable cause was that chinese did not develop a competitive mercantile class who needed to innovate to stay in business. The biggest ambition of medival chinese youth was to join the corrupt and burgeoning bureaucracy and in that manner, earn the security and continuance of the government establishment. Justs struck me that this idea runs parallel to the same trend in maharashtrian youth. And the lag of marathis among other communities is also evident.

Prof. Needham has published the most comprehensive and systematic treatment of chinese scientific history. I don't think I would have the stamina to read up on all of those 24 volumes, but Winchester's byte sized offering suits me great. Its something similar to what I thought on reading "Koba the dread" by Martin Amis. I could not imagine myself reading all the volumes by Solzenitsyn on life in the Gulags. Amis's work covered all of it in a far more colourful and concise manner. Compilations from research are needed but commentaries on those same research subjects, if well-written are much more worth my time. A big thank you to the Amis's and Winchester's.

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