New: Book Report: The Man Who Loved China

Back in 2002, I went to the British Museum where an old illustration maybe showed a punch-card controlled loom from ancient China--long before such were invented in the West. Bookish fellow that I am, I looked for books on the history of Chinese looms. I hit a few dead ends along the way. One particularly massive dead-end was a huge, sprawling multi-volume work on the history of science and technology in China. "Multi-volume" doesn't do this thing justice. There were a lot of books, each of them heavy. It had a volume about silk cultivation in China, with promises of another volume, about silk weaving, to come in the future. But that future volume hadn't materialized, at least not that I could find. And yet this work had plenty of volumes.

I didn't have that set of books in mind when I picked up The Man Who Loved China, a biography of Joseph Needham. But I should have--Needham was the scholar woh organized and kick-started that massive multi-volume work. (Dieter Kuhn wrote the volume about silk-growing, but doesn't show up in this biography.) Chinese people, it turns out, invented a bunch of stuff. Nowadays, we know this. Back in Needham's day, we didn't know this. And by "we", I don't just mean European honkies. Plenty of people in China didn't know this about these discoveries--the local history of science was in scattered notes. Needham listened to a few Chinese scholars claiming that China had invented this or that--and decided to do some research. And encouraged other folks to gather their research. And put together a rather impressive piece of scholarship. Along the way, he ran into political trouble--China was a tricky political entity back then, and Needham was tricked into siding with China in a faked biowarfare attack--yes, really. There are interesting stories about his travels through China, done during the Japanese invasion. Interesting book, check it out.

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Posted 2008-11-23