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Biography tells secrets of Joseph Needham's China love
Updated: 2008-09-24 13:50

LONDON -- In China, Li Yuese, the Chinese name for an English intellectual Joseph Needham, is at least a household name among the well-educated -- his Science and Civilization in China, a twenty-four-volume masterpiece, is known as the most important books telling the west what Chinese have contributed to the world.

The 17th-century philosopher-statesman Francis Bacon declared that nothing had changed the world more profoundly than three great inventions: gunpowder, printing and the compass. But what the philosopher didn't know was that all the three had already been conceived of and successfully employed by a single people -- the Chinese.

Joseph Needham

And it was not until over 300 years later, that one young man in Cambridge gave these people the credit they rightly deserved. The man was Joseph Needham, or better known in China, Dr. Li Yuese.

"Needham was the first bridge builder between China and the rest of the world," Simon Winchester, writer of the biography on Needham said on Tuesday in London.

In his book titled Bomb, Book & Compass -- Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China, Simon is trying as he said "to bring the human side of the great man to the world, and let the world know better what Needham was as a human being."

As a charismatic young biochemist, working towards a glittering career at Cambridge, he fell in love with a young Chinese student and his passion for his mistress, Lu Gwei-djen, led quickly to a fascination with her country's language and history and soon he developed an astonishing reputation as a self-taught, albeit eccentric, scholar of Chinese culture, Simon said.

When in 1943, the British government sent him on a diplomatic mission to help save China's universities from the occupying Japanese forces, Needham began the research that would occupy him for the rest of his life and which ended up to create the greatest work on China ever created in the Western world, the biography said.

The cover of Bomb, Book & Compass -- Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China.

None have succeeded in finding out what the first ever Chinese characters Needham learnt under Lu Gwei-djen, Simon said on the launching of his biography in central London's British Library, revealing that "cigarette" was first Chinese words the heavy smoker learned under the Chinese lady.

Lu Gwei-djen, a brilliant biochemist from Nanjing, married Needham in 1989, more than half a century after they first met.

Two years after the half-century delayed wedding, Lu died, but Needham's work on Chinese culture continued, and is still going on, Simon said to the audience-packed conference room in British Library.  

Needham's 24-volume Science and Civilization in China, remains an unrivaled account of the nation's astonishing history of invention and technology, and Simon's book on the Cambridge scholar is a story of the man and the "extraordinary rise of the Chinese nation that continues to this day."

The Chinese version of Needham's biography is to be published in Shanghai in January 2009.