Bomb, Book and Compass book review

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Simon Winchester’s new book

This week’s Access Asia newsletter included the following book review of Simon Winchester’s Bomb, Book and Compass.

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The Winchester / Needham Paradox

We just ploughed through Simon Winchester’s new Bomb, Book and Compass – Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China – boy, do we want our money back!

Inevitably, if you know a lot about China and Needham, or nothing at all, you’ll probably end up reading this book. If you have had (like us, sadly) to grapple with the Needham Paradox (put bluntly – Why didn’t China have a Scientific and Industrial Revolution, despite inventing just about everything?) for exam questions, then you probably don’t know much about the man – his odd personality and personal life. If you don’t know what the Needham Paradox is (and, believe us, a shocking number of people who pass themselves off as China Hands, and who pontificate on China’s growth, the existence or not of an entrepreneurial class and write those interminable ‘can China innovate?’ papers don’t know anything about Needham) then this is, to be frank, not that useful an introduction.

The fact is that Needham’s life was moderately interesting (more than you can say about most of our lives admittedly), but it was the work (the multi-volume Science and Civilization in China) that is really important. There were more interesting people around in China at the time, and so the problem is that the background bio is really an extended footnote turned into a book. What Winchester singularly fails to do, beyond a very cursory description of the basics of the Needham Paradox, is discuss the whole point of Needham’s working life.

Winchester basically ducks the whole debate and assumes the ‘China just stopped trying line’, which, in our considered opinion, is wrong – scientific and technical progress did continue throughout the early modern period; the Qing dynasty was a fruitful time too in many areas though after 1800 internal political upheavals dominated and caused havoc adversely affecting innovation and research, while at the same time England had the steam power or ‘industrial’ revolution and appeared to forge ahead. The fascinating debate continues – though not in the pages of this book, which ends with a rather ‘googled’ few pages on modern Chongqing for some reason.

And a complaint: Winchester’s book is a nice background to the period, but a decent edit by someone with a good knowledge of modern Chinese history would have helped. Numerous annoying little mistakes made it through, for instance the USS Panay was not sunk in Shanghai, but upriver evacuating people from Nanjing in 1937 (indeed 28 miles upriver from Nanjing to be precise). Similarly the British Ambassador to China, Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, was not strafed by Japanese fighter planes in Shanghai in 1937, but on the road closer to Nanjing. Though we’re no fans of Internet research – Google could have quickly corrected these historical errors. Pedants? Us? Never!

We have to admit, we usually enjoy Winchester, but this sadly is a half-arsed effort, useful for a little background colour but not much else.

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