The Man Who Loved China, or, how dumb can a smart guy be?

Got a great book for Christmas, gift from my daughter-in-law, just finished it.  It’s The Man Who Loved China, by Simon Winchester. If you don’t know Winchester, look him up; he’s a British ex-pat who writes for The Guardian, and who every once in awhile writes a non-fiction best-seller, mostly on the subject of ‘awesome British eccentrics who did amazing things.’  See, for example, his The Professor and the Madman, on the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary.  Winchester writes engagingly, with a great eye for fascinating personal details; I really recommend him.

The Man Who Loved China is about Joseph Needham, a prominent biologist, a Cambridge Fellow, and a most interesting guy.  Needham was one of the youngest Fellows in Cambridge history, a man who published, in 1931, Chemical Embryology, a first rate book that established his reputation.  Then, in 1937, he met a young Chinese woman, Lu Gwei-djen, a scientist in her own right, from Nanjing.  They fell in love, and began a torrid affair that completely changed Needham’s life.  He was married when he met Lu, to another scientist, Dorothy, but in an open marriage, in which both agreed to allow each other as many sexual partners as they wanted.  For years, in Cambridge, Lu and Dorothy lived in adjoining flats; he would join them for a morning walk to the campus, where they would work together peaceably enough.

In 1943, Needham was assigned to fly to China (a most harrowing journey, in the middle of a World War), to serve with the British Embassy on a special assignment–to find Chinese scientists and see what Britain could do to help with with their research. The thought was that when the war was over and Japan had been driven from China, a stronger British relationship with China could only be a good thing.  Needham took this assignment very seriously indeed, traveling thousands of miles through war zones, finding lonely enclaves of scientists who lacked even basic research tools, and getting them microscopes and bunsen burners and books and journals and whatever else they needed.

But while he was at it, Needham pursued his own research.  What fascinated him about Chinese science was the question of origins.  His conversations with Lu persuaded him that a whole range of basic discoveries in science had been made in China much earlier than anyone had previously suspected–that in fact, insights and understandings and inventions the West was very proud of had been thought of by Chinese scientists hundreds of years earlier. And while in China, Needham purchased and sent home thousands of books in Chinese proving this very point.

On returning home, Needham organized this mass of materials, and began work on what he imagined would be a single book: Science and Civilization in China.  One volume became four, then seven, then nine, then the number kept expanding.  To date, Cambridge University Press has published 26 books in the series, with more to come, all under the aegis of the Needham Research Institute.  Needham passed away in 1995; the first seven books of the series were written by him, and since that time, other authors have contributed.

Winchester’s book is most engaging, and Needham seems an admirable chap, if rather eccentric.  Aside from his, um, unorthodox marriage arrangements (which remind me, a Mormon, of some of my forebears, honestly), he was a committed nudist, danced Morris dances with more enthusiasm than skill, and was a popular amateur preacher for his local wildly liberal Church of England congregation. But far and away the saddest (and yet for me most amazing) part of his entire story comes well after his China trip, when he made a complete fool of himself.

During the Korean war, North Korean and Chinese officials complained that the US was engaged in biological warfare.  They claimed that villages along the Korean/Chinese border had their water supplies infected with cholera, and that infected rats and voles had been dropped on troops, spreading nasty diseases.  The US hotly denied the charges–internationally, leftists tended to give them credence.

Joseph Needham was a life-long committed socialist.  He was a close personal friend of Zhou Enlai, Mao’s right hand man.  And so Needham volunteered to head up a commission of concerned scientists to investigate the claims of biological warfare, and traveled to China and North Korea, heading up a team. Needham became convinced that the allegations were true, and published a report saying so.

And he was wrong.  He went to China to find out the truth, but he did very little science.  He was given samples of cattle dung, and discovered they had been infected with anthrax, but never questioned the provenance of those samples.  He interviewed people, supposed victims of biological warfare, all of them provided–and, it turns out, coached– by Chinese and North Korean authorities.  He was ruthlessly and pitilessly duped.  And was banned for years from traveling in the US as a result of his report.

I rather admire Joseph Needham, and think he was a remarkable man.  I despise Joe McCarthy, and think he was a cockroach.  It pains more than I can say to admit that, when it came to claims of biological warfare, McCarthy was right and Needham was wrong.  But that is in fact what happened. Winchester admits it, and I got enough interested in the story to do research on it on my own.

It’s an interesting historical phenomenon. One of my favorite playwrights (and one of the most fascinating theatre people in history) was George Bernard Shaw.  He was also a leftist–a Fabian socialist–and I admire Fabian socialism.  I like the Fabian incrementalist approach to social change.  But Shaw admired Stalin, and kept admiring him even when the rest of the world was recoiling from a vicious thug.  As the evidence continued to mount of Stalin’s crimes, well past the point when even the most credulous observer could fail to notice them, Shaw remained obdurate, insisting that the Potemkin villages he had been shown when he visited the Soviet Union proved, proved that communism really worked.  And so, when Needham would visit China, and when, with every visit, more and more of his scientist friends became ‘unavailable’ to him, he still seemed incapable of grasping the unpalatable truth about Mao; that his scientist friends were being ruthlessly done away with.  And so two of the most ferocious mass murderers in history got a free pass from Shaw and from Needham. Two great men, but utterly blinded by ideology.

I loved Winchester’s book about Needham, thought it was a fascinating read.  But it was terribly sobering as well.  We all have belief systems, ways of mentally organizing the world.  We structure our world-views through certain lenses.  But we have to admit new evidence, always, no matter what.  We have to be willing to admit it when facts prove us wrong.

 

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