photo by shenxy
AS I READ TODAY about a disturbing bit of news relating to the Sichuan quake, my eyes drifted over to an advert for a new book titled The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom. This quickly changed my mood from one of baffled disgust (which I can save for another post) to calm curiosity.
I became even more excited when I noticed that the book was penned by travel writer and journalist Simon Winchester, who wrote a book a while back with a similarly unwieldy title that had resonated with me nonetheless. This new release, I found out, is a biography of famed China scholar Joseph Needham, who invested himself so deeply in the cultural history of the country that he produced 24 volumes and 15,000 pages trying to answer a single question: Why did the West eclipse China?
Still intrigued, I sought out a review on the book (which was released just this month) and came across a piece on Salon by Andrew Leonard, who appears to be a bit of China-head himself. In describing the feeling of kinship he feels with Needham, Leonard pointedly fleshes out the emotions felt by the lot of travelers and expats who find themselves drawn to places far and foreign:
I feel a kinship across the decades with Dr. Needham. I believe I can imagine exactly what it was like for the esteemed biochemist to disembark from “a battered old Douglas C-47 Skytrain” in Chongqing in March 1943, and feel instantly, passionately overwhelmed by a culture equal parts alien and entrancing. I believe all the outsiders who have become fascinated with China can relate. There’s a brilliance to the first part of the title of Winchester’s biography — “The Man Who Loved China” (let’s ignore for now the ungainly subtitle, “The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom”) — because even as it implies that this one man may have loved the civilization to an extent greater than the vast majority of the rest of us, the words still strike a chord with anyone who has been bitten by the Asia bug. We all savor that taste — Needham just took it to the next level.
Though I’m wary of the wide brush Leonard uses in the phrase, “the Asia bug,” in a way I can identify with what he’s getting at. People fall in love with foreign nations all over the globe, but the relationships that travelers build with countries on the Asian continent are perhaps all the more vexing and intriguing because it is a region that continues to be widely misunderstood. By that token I can describe my own affinity for Korea, as I am drawn to the nation as much for its endearing qualities as for those which leave me bewildered.
Leonard criticizes Winchester a bit for skirting around Needham’s grand question and instead focusing on the doctor’s patchwork personality. (Needham was “‘an accordion player, and a chain-smoking churchgoer’ and a supporter of gay rights who was a participant in an ‘open’ marriage that allowed him to carry on a wife-approved decades-long affair with the love of his life, a Chinese woman named Lu Gwei-djen,” Leonard says). Though I’ve yet to read the book, I feel that criticism may be missing the point.
Those of us who choose to steep ourselves in cultures foreign to our own do so to outwardly answer questions about our adopted country as much as to simply solve why we are so drawn in the first place. In both cases, the thing we seek is often nebulous — which may be one reason why Needham never really “unlocked” China, as Leonard points out. But my hope is that Winchester’s illustration of the doctor will touch a bit more on the heart of this latter question, and on the mysterious qualities in people that lead them to ramble far from home.