Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Man Who Loved China

I have just finished reading Simon Winchester's magnificent The Man Who Loved China, a biography of Joseph Needham and the story of his magnum opus, The Science and Civilisation in China. I came across this book originally through the recommendation of Fareed Zakaria on his Fareed Zakaria GPS, several years ago, and it was only now I managed to read the book from cover to cover.

This is a fascinating tale which presents three entwined narratives: One of a Cambridge Academic, who lived and died in Gonville and Caius College, surrounded by an environ befitting such a person; but parallel to this runs a very unorthodox narrative of a man, his love and his interests, of Dorothy his wife and of Lu his muse, and of Socialism, Internationalism and of innumerable friendships and collaborations that made this project possible; and finally, one of international politics, intrigue and power, of imperial trickery and pretension, of the horrors of the modern war and the glory of the ancient, challenging our easily-held assumption that we have reached the zenith of the civilisation. And, above all, this is a story of China, if slightly melancholy, which appears contained in itself, reaching the heights of civilisation within itself, and then turning its back to the rest of the world. 'We don't need your wares.. we have everything',  the Chinese empress told the British envoy, quoted in the book.

The search of Joseph Needham is a fascinating one. An established bio-chemist in his own rights, his life follows the familiar academic trajectory, but then it does not. He crosses over the disciplinary boundaries to produce a book of unparallelled historical scholarship, a work more fit for a historian thought than a professional biochemist. This is one of the book's central story, but one of its failings too: A more journalistic narrative, the central question of Needham's transformation from one to the other is merely accounted for as one of affection to his Chinese mistress. One would, however, anticipate deep challenges in this transformation, or at least try to gain a profound understanding of the Renaissance mind that seems so alien to us, as we mire ourselves in the narrow disciplinary specialities. This is a question the book almost evades, and gets into many details of Needham's character, life and his travels, but not this.

There is another limitation of the narrative - the book's rather conventional answers to why, despite all these progresses, China 'failed' as Europe 'won': I tend to see historical narratives as cyclical affairs, not in a deterministic way, but also not having an 'end', so that winners and losers can be effectively decided. I would tend to China's decline, and Europe's rise, as rather insignificant role-reversals in the broad sweep of human history, which could be due to many factors difficult to pin down. I always find the traditional attempts to explain past events with hindsight happening due to one or the other factor slightly jarring, overtly deterministic, a pretension best avoided.

But, regardless of these, the book is an inspiring read: It comes at a good time for me just as I am thinking about global citizenship (whether or not this is a meaningless concept) and global scholarship. Needham personified both, he stood for what it means a serious attempt to cut through stereotypes and reach out to our common human heritage. Needham was one of those going beyond the usual bounds of realpolitik, both in his scholarship and in his naivete, doing what the scholars do best - reaching out, understanding and explaining, challenging the conventional wisdom and creating new knowledge. This is an uplifting story of hope, of soul-reaffirming human endeavour at its best.

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"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

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And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

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