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       The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist, p.1

           Simon Winchester
The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist

  The Man Who Loved China

  The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom

  Simon Winchester



  Maps and Illustrations

  Author’s Note


  1. The Barbarian and the Celestial

  2. Bringing Fuel in Snowy Weather

  3. The Discovering of China

  4. The Rewards of Restlessness

  5. The Making of His Masterpiece

  6. Persona Non Grata: The Certain Fall from Grace

  7. The Passage to the Gate


  Appendix I: Chinese Inventions and Discoveries with Dates of First Mention

  Appendix II: States, Kingdoms, and Dynasties of China


  Suggested Further Reading

  Searchable Terms

  About the Author

  Other Books by Simon Winchester



  About the Publisher

  For Setsuko


  Maps and Illustrations

  Needham in childhood.

  Joseph and Dorothy Needham.

  Lu Gwei-djen in youth.

  The Chinese characters for cigarette.

  The Chinese characters for Li Yue-se.

  Needham in laboratory.

  Large map of China.

  Needham in Chinese scholar’s robe.

  Map of Needham’s Northern Expedition, Chongqing–Dunhuang.

  Trucks on the expedition.

  Rewi Alley.

  Dunhuang caves.

  Aurel Stein.

  Map of Needham’s Eastern Expedition, Chonqing–Fuzhou.

  Needham’s first plan for SCC.

  Needham at work on book.

  Needham et al. announcing ISC report.

  First completed volume of SCC.

  Needham and Zhou Enlai in Beijing, 1972.

  Painting of Needham in Caius Hall.

  Marriage of Needham and Lu Gwei-djen.

  Chinese couplet, Ren qu, Lui ying, on the wall of K1.

  Author’s Note

  Throughout Science and Civilisation in China Joseph Needham employed the symbols + and – to denote, respectively, dates after and before the birth of Christ, or during or before the Christian era. In this book, including all relevant direct quotations from Needham’s writings, AD and BC are used instead, for convenience.

  The Wade-Giles system of transliteration was in widespread use in China during the time of Joseph Needham’s travels, and he applied it (together with his own somewhat eccentric modifications) in the writing of all of his books. However, this system, which gave us words and names like Peking, Mao Tse-tung, and Chungking, has now been officially and comprehensively replaced in modern China by the pinyin system, which offers transliterated forms of words that the linguistic authorities insist are closer to the actual native pronunciation of standard Chinese—Beijing, Mao Zedong, Chongqing. To avoid confusion I have opted to use pinyin throughout the book, except in a very small number of cases when it seemed proper to be pedantically precise in offering up a contemporaneous quotation.


  On Flying and Aerodynamics

  Someone asked the Master [Ge Hong] about the principles of mounting to dangerous heights and travelling into the vast inane. The Master said: Some have made flying cars with wood from the inner part of a jujube tree, using ox or leather straps fastened to returning blades so as to set the machine in motion.


  From Science and Civilisation in China, Volume IV, Part 2

  The battered old Douglas C-47 Skytrain of the China National Aviation Corporation, its chocolate brown fuselage battle-scarred with bullet holes and dents, shuddered its way down through the rain clouds, the pilot following the slow bends of the Yangzi River until he had the sand-spit landing field in sight in front of him and the cliffs of China’s capital city to his left.

  The pilot lost altitude fast in case any Japanese fighters were lurking behind the thunderheads, fixed his position by the batteries of antiaircraft guns guarding the runway approach, and lined up between the rows of red-and-white-painted oil drums that had been set down as markers. He trimmed his flaps, throttled back his two engines, grimaced as the plane lurched briefly in a sudden crosswind that was typical for this time of year, and then finally bumped heavily down onto the old riverbed that served as the nation’s principal aerodrome. He braked; turned back and headed in past squadrons of parked American and Chinese fighter planes, toward the glitter of Quonset huts that served as terminal buildings; then slowed and taxied to a stop.

  A lone British army sergeant was waiting beside the baggage trailer. As soon as the propellers stopped turning, and once the rear door of the aircraft was flung open and a pair of mechanics rolled the makeshift steps into place, he stepped forward to greet the aircraft’s two passengers.

  The first to emerge was a uniformed soldier much like himself, though an officer and very much older. The other, the more obviously important of the pair and immediately recognizable as the VIP for whom he had been dispatched, was an unusually tall, bespectacled man, scholarly-looking and rather owlish, with a head of straight, very thick dark brown hair. He emerged blinking into the harsh sun, evidently startled by the sudden heat that for the past two weeks had enfolded the city like a steaming blanket.

  Once this visitor, who was wearing a khaki shirt and baggy army fatigue shorts and was carrying what looked like a well-worn leather briefcase, had stepped down onto the soil, the driver stood to attention and saluted smartly.

  “A very good afternoon to you, Dr. Needham,” he called out over the clatter as the plane’s cargo was being unloaded. “Welcome to Chungking. Welcome to the center of China.”

  It was late in the afternoon of March 21, 1943, a Sunday, and Noël Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham, a daring young scientist who was known both in his homeland—England—and in America as combining a donnish brilliance and great accomplishments as a biologist with a studied eccentricity, had arrived in this most perilous of outposts on a vital wartime mission.

  He had been a long time coming. About three months earlier, he had set out on his journey, leaving first by steam train from Cambridge, 8,000 miles away. He had then sailed east in a freighter from Tilbury, dodging Axis raiders all the while, heading out to the Orient by way of Lisbon, Malta, the Suez Canal, and Bombay, and eventually around India to the port of Calcutta. Here, late in February, he boarded an American Army Air Corps plane that ferried him high across the glaciers and peaks of the Himalayas and into the heartland of China.

  Now he had arrived in its capital—or at least, the capital of the part of the country that was still free of the Japanese invaders—and he was eager to begin his work. Joseph Needham’s mission was of sufficient importance to the British government to warrant his having an armed escort: the passenger with him on the aircraft was a man named Pratt, a King’s Messenger who had been charged by London with making absolutely certain that Needham reached his final destination—His Britannic Majesty’s embassy to the Republic of China—safe and sound.

  The pair began their climb up into the city. They first walked across a rickety pontoon bridge that floated on boats anchored in the fast-flowing Yangzi. They were followed by the embassy driver and a small squad of ban-ban men, the well-muscled porters who had slung Needham’s innumerable pieces of baggage onto the thick bamboo poles they held yok
ed across their shoulders. The small group then began to clamber up the steps—nearly 500 of them, the lower few rows of massive foot-high granite setts muddy and slimy with the daily rise and fall of the river; the upper ones hot and dusty, and alive with hawkers and beggars and confidence men eager to trick any newcomers panting up from the riverside.

  By the time they reached the top, and the lowermost of Chongqing’s ziggurat of streets, Needham was perspiring heavily. It was well over ninety-five degrees that afternoon, and the humidity was as high as in Mississippi in July: people had warned him that Chongqing was one of the country’s three “great furnaces.” But he knew more or less what to expect: “The man who is selected to come to China,” his letter of appointment had stated, “must be ready for anything.”

  The driver unlocked his jeep, and began loading Needham’s gear. King’s Messenger Pratt, his duty now complete, shook Needham by the hand, remarking gruffly that he hoped Needham would be happy in China, and that it had been a privilege to have escorted so remarkable a man. He saluted, and scurried off down a side street where a car was waiting for him.

  Needham took a cigarette from a case in his shirt pocket, lit it, inhaled deeply, and gazed down to the river below. The scene was mesmerizing: sailing junks, salt barges, and sampans made their way languidly across the immense stream, while armed patrol vessels and navy tenders pushed more urgently against the current, bent on more pressing business. The aircraft on which he had arrived took off with a roar, rose quickly, and turned away, diminishing into a speck above the mountains that ringed the city. Everything that he could see and hear as he leaned over the terrace—the boom of a siren from a passing cargo ship, the constant jangle of rickshaw bells in the streets beside him, the ceaseless barrage of cries and shouted arguments from within the tenements that rose about him; and then the smells, of incense smoke, car exhaust, hot cooking oil, a particularly acrid kind of pepper, human waste, oleander, and jasmine—all served to remind him of one awesome, overwhelming reality: that he was at last here, in the middle of the China he had dreamed of for so long.

  It was all terrifyingly different from the world he already knew. Just a few months before, he had been comfortably harbored in the quiet of his life at Cambridge University, his days spent either working at his bench in his laboratory or studying in his small suite of rooms in the heart of a fourteenth-century college. The world he knew there was a place of English flower gardens, new-mown lawns, ivy-covered courtyards, an ancient chapel, a library that smelled of leather and beeswax, and—rising from the city beyond its walls—the gentle sounds of the amiably disagreeing clocks chiming the hours and the quarters. It was a haven of civilized peace and academic seclusion, of privilege and exclusivity.

  And now he had been transported to this ruined city, wrecked by years of war, a place still jittery and confused. He sat in the front seat of the jeep as his driver set off for the half-hour drive to the embassy. It was by now late in the afternoon; the sun was setting through the brown, smoky skies behind the hills; and lanterns were being lit in the darker streets as they passed.

  On all sides were ruined or destroyed buildings—the Japanese bombers had hit Chongqing more than 200 times in the past three years. Very few buildings were whole and unscathed, and tens of thousands of people still lived in caves that were used as bomb shelters—Needham could see the entrance holes in the cliffs beside the road and, outside, their inhabitants clustered like wasps.

  The narrow streets were fizzing with lanterns, jammed with stalls, and crowded with tides of humanity, a jostling, seething mass who seemed to be occupied mostly with eating, spitting, squatting, arguing, or waiting. At first it looked as though the crowds were made up of either the poor or soldiers from various armies. There were rivers of ragged peasant refugees newly in from the countryside. There were tired young soldiers wearing the uniforms of the Nationalist army, who looked as though they had just come from the front. There were platoons of cadets from the People’s Liberation Army, all much more disciplined than the Nationalists and taking good care, Needham noticed, to keep themselves on the other side of the street.

  Threading their way among them were legions of women, squalling infants clutched at their waists, struggling through the crowds with bags of vegetables brought up from the Yangzi-side markets. A few had enough pieces of copper cash to pay for the help of a ban-ban man; but most did the carrying themselves, and huddles of workless men with their bamboo poles and ropes stood useless beside them, thronged at street corners, shouting for jobs.

  Once in a while there would be the ill-tempered blare of a car horn, and a large American limousine would push its way unsentimentally through the jostling mobs. The driver would be Chinese, stony-faced, and wearing dark glasses; and the passenger would invariably be a young woman, pretty, elegant, and cool in her tight silk qipao, with a cigarette in a silver holder, being hurried to some assignation, perhaps, with one of the rich Chinese who lived high on the city’s hills. The street mobs would be blithely unconcerned about the passage of the car, the crowds re-forming behind it like water flowing around a stone.

  Needham’s driver edged the jeep across a bridge jammed with military traffic, as other drivers waved genially to their colleague. Once across the river, he turned off through a grove of trees. He paused briefly at a gate where Chinese sentries carrying bayonets checked his identity and that of his passenger, then allowed the vehicle into the embassy compound. For a while the jeep wound confusingly through what looked like a park, with dozens of buildings dotted amid the woods, finally stopping at one of them. It had been reserved for Needham’s use that night, said the chauffeur, and Needham was welcome to stay until he was properly settled. The servants would have prepared a light dinner for him, and would be there for anything he needed.

  Before the driver left he handed Needham a substantial envelope of thick cream paper, with a British diplomatic seal embossed on its flap. It was the anticipated welcome letter from the ambassador, and it suggested a meeting in the office the following morning, perhaps a late-afternoon cocktail to enable him to meet some interesting local people, and then, if he was agreeable, a private dinner afterward.

  It was a perfect arrangement. Needham was all of a sudden very tired. The flight out had been rather ghastly—three hours of continual turbulence in a noisy plane with no oxygen and no heat, the pilot zigzagging in a series of twists, turns, and feints to put off any patrolling Japanese Zero whose pilot might be minded to attack. So the news that on this first night he would be left to his own devices came as a mighty relief. Not that he had any trepidation about the next day’s program: he was a very sociable man; he liked parties and making small talk. He imagined that the ambassador could be an interesting fellow with some amusing friends; besides, there might well be some pretty young women on the embassy staff, and he would enjoy meeting them. Oh, yes, pretty women he loved.

  But that could all wait for the next day. Right now he wanted simply to bathe, unpack, eat dinner alone, and sleep. Most important, he wanted to write a letter to the woman, now living in New York City, who was the main reason he had come here.

  She was named Lu Gwei-djen, and she was Chinese, born thirty-nine years before in the city of Nanjing, and a scientist like himself. They had met in Cambridge six years earlier, when she was thirty-three and he was thirty-seven and a married man. They had fallen in love, and Dorothy Needham, to whom Joseph had at the time been married for more than ten years, decided to accept the affair in a spirit of intellectually tolerant and fashionably left-wing complaisance.

  In falling headlong for Gwei-djen, Joseph Needham found that he also became enraptured by her country. She had taught him her language, and he now spoke, wrote, and read it with a fair degree of fluency. She had suggested long before that he travel to China and see for himself what a truly astonishing country it was—so different, she kept insisting, from the barbaric and enigmatic empire most westerners believed it to be.

  And he had taken her wor
ds to heart, so that now, on this hot spring evening in 1943, he was at the start of a diplomatic mission to China—a mission that, unknown to him, to Gwei-djen, and to all his many friends and colleagues at the time, would lead him in the most extraordinary and unexpected directions.

  In years to come Joseph Needham would emerge from these travels as unarguably the foremost student of China in the entire western world, a man who undertook a series of difficult and dangerous adventures and who discovered, recorded, and then later made sense of the deepest secrets of the Middle Kingdom, many of which had been buried for centuries.

  At the time of his arrival the western world still knew very little about the place. To be sure, matters had evolved somewhat since Marco Polo’s expedition in the thirteenth century, since the seventeenth-century travels of the Jesuit fathers, and even since the nineteenth century, when Americans, Britons, and an assortment of other Europeans first fanned out across China as warriors, explorers, missionaries, or traders: they all sent or brought back lurid tales of China as a land of pagodas, rice terraces, elaborate palaces, emperors enfolded in yellow silk, swirling calligraphy, disciplined order, keening music, ivory chopsticks, incense, bamboo-battened junks, the ceremonies of the kowtow and the “death of a thousand cuts,” and the finest porcelain ever made. It was a place like no other on earth: vast, complex, and quietly superior; a cocoon of an empire that seemed to command among its neighbors—Japan, Korea, the various monarchies of Indochina—respect, fear, and amazement in equal measure.

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