The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester Harper HK$224 By any standard of measurement, the life and work of Joseph Needham (1900-1995) was extraordinary. He spent most of his life at Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge, first as one of the world's foremost biochemists and then, just as most middle-aged men begin wondering what they have achieved in life, he switched to Chinese and became one of the most renowned China scholars of the 20th century. He threw himself into this as only he could, with an almost naive boyish enthusiasm. During the second world war he was sent to China to help mainland scientists and universities as the Japanese were bombing educational institutions in a cynical attempt to break the country's spirit. In four years he travelled all over the mainland, notably visiting the magnificent site of Dunhuang, where thousands of ancient manuscripts - and the world's oldest printed book - had been found 40 years previously by Aurel Stein. On his return to England he helped the fledgling Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) and was responsible for the 'S' in the acronym. In 1948 he began work on what has become his greatest achievement, Science and Civilisation in China, known as SCC. This tremendous undertaking is even now not finished, 13 years after his death. During his life 18 volumes were produced and the total today is 24. He created the Needham Institute, which specialises in the history of science in Asia and is finishing the series. It all began when a group of PhD candidates arrived from China in 1938. One, glamorous biochemistry researcher Lu Gwei-djen, ignited his interested in all things Chinese and became his lifelong mistress, with no objection from his English wife, Dorothy ('Dophi'), who was to become an influential biochemist herself. In The Man Who Loved China (also published as Bomb, Book and Compass), the story is told by Simon Winchester in a manner that reads a little like the kind of exaggerated marketing one has come to expect today. It is full of deeply felt 'moments' that changed Needham's life forever. Here is Winchester on the beginnings of SCC: 'Now it was time to begin his mission - to create the volumes that he felt sure would put China's reputation in its properly deserved place in the pantheon of the world's leading nations.' All this, according to Winchester, was done out of love 'for his muse'. In 1972 I applied to Caius College because Needham was the master. I had been introduced to his work a few years earlier and I wanted to meet him. I discovered to my great shock I was the only person to have applied to the college because of his work: I had thought they would be queueing up in the hundreds. Even today he is not well known in Britain, whereas hundreds of millions of mainlanders are familiar with his Chinese name, Li Yuesi. I came to know him for the next 23 years and I knew Dophi and Gwei-djen too. It was not difficult to understand the feelings he had for these exceptional women. Needham was a master translator of ancient Chinese texts and had an uncanny ability to synthesise history. He once told me about a Chinese alchemist who had discovered a way to make a metal that looked just like gold but was, of course, cheaper. The emperor was delighted because this would save him a great deal of money. Needham coined the words 'aurifaction' to refer to the process of trying to make gold from base metals and 'aurifiction' to refer to the process of making something that looked like gold but wasn't. One wishes Winchester had a better grasp of fact and fiction. Although there are moments when Needham seems to come to life in this book, Winchester goes for the dramatically absurd far too often. In 1978, Needham gave a lecture in Chicago on gunpowder. In the audience was Ted Kaczynski, who became the Unabomber. In the most convolutedly ridiculous manner, Winchester tries to make it look as if Kaczynski was inspired - however unwittingly - by Needham to go on a two-decade killing spree. Hollywood can try to pull that off but surely not a biographer. The specialist is certainly going to groan reading this book, but for those who never knew Needham it is a reasonable introduction. However, I suspect there is a great deal more to be gained by reading his works rather than this biography.