Winchester: The Man Who Loved China

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Simon Winchester, The Man Who Loved China : The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom. HarperAudio, 2008. Unabridged audio book read by Simon Windhester; 9.25 hours on 8 CD-ROMs.

Before you read my review please take a minute (literally one minute and four seconds) to watch the video of the author posted at It is very fascinating and is an excellent intro for my review.

This biography of Joseph Needham, a man I’d never even heard of before, was truly fascinating. Born in 1900 in England, he was a brilliant scientist, an eccentric, and passionate student of Chinese history. His intense love of China began with his Chinese mistress and developed into the most expansive study of Chinese history ever undertaken. He set out to prove that the Chinese really were the first people to develop many of the scientific processes and inventions claimed by Western inventors over the years, inventions like the stirrup, the compass, toilet paper, and the suspension bridge.

The result of his lifetime of work is a monumental, 26-volume book entitled Science and Civilization in China, parts of which have yet to be published. Compared (by scholars) in scope to the Oxford English Dictionary[1], the various volumes of this book have remained in print since they were released, some as early as the 1950s. Needham died in 1995. Until just a few days before his death he continued to work on his research for the book every weekday.

The first part of the book covers Needham's childhood. The center section is focused on China: his travels there, ancient history, World War II and the surrounding years, the rise of Communism, etc. The final section details the writing of "The Book" (as Needham called it).

I listened to the audio book of The Man Who Loved China and for me, this was the perfect choice. I have difficulty with Chinese names so when I read them, I have a tendency to skip over them rather than sound them out. This can lead to confusion later on when I can't remember which characters are which. Having the book read to me solves that problem neatly. Also, the narrator is the author, Simon Winchester. He has a very resonant speaking voice (and a British accent) that make listening quite pleasant.

All in all, a very satisfying book. I learned a lot and I enjoyed myself.

-- Notes by HJ3

  1. ^ If you have not yet read The Professor and the Madman, Winchester's history of the Oxford English Dictionary, I highly recommend that you do read it. It is a fascinating look at what went into the creation of the dictionary. Even if the history of a dictionary doesn't sound like your "thing" I'd say that if you liked Devil in the White City or Thunderstruck, you'd enjoy The Professor and the Madman as well.
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