Friday, June 06, 2008

China! Science! Biography!

First, an announcement. Things Mean a Lot is hosting the next Bookworm's Carnival. The theme is fairy tales, so you know I'm all over that. Submission deadline is June 13. Info is here.

This weekend is the 48 Hour Challenge, so I'll be blogging up an over-caffeinated storm. I'm going for the gold.

Also, I get to turn my air-conditioning on this weekend. We try to go as long as possible, but given we're currently in a "heat advisory" and tomorrow's heat index is supposed to be 110? Well, that's why we HAVE a/c, right? Right.

Now, a story. Then a review.

One of the cool things about going to a small liberal arts college with no grad students is the academic stuff they let you get away with. Seriously. End of junior year, my friend Ellie and I decided we wanted to take a class together in the fall. But, she was a physics major and I was history and Chinese... so we designed an independent study that combined all 3 of these things. Yes, our 2 credit class was on Ancient Chinese Astronomy. We even conned a professor into advising us on this!

In the end, it kinda sucked. I had way too much on my plate that semester, and we had an issue with sources. When we put together our bibliography as part of the class proposal, it was long and extensive. But, when class started, we realized we really only had 1 source: Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China. Everything else was just a rehash of Needham's works. Some had better photographs, but usually it was just a simplification or further proof that Needham was right. It all came down to Needham. And given that our library had a complete set of Needham? That's what we read. (Also the Needham? Takes up multiple shelves. It's pretty intense.)

You can understand why I jumped all over

The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom Simon Winchester

Joseph Needham was a brilliant bio-chemist, a socialist, a Morris Dancer, and he definitely liked the ladies. After falling hopelessly in love with Lu Gwei-djen (who was not a wife, but as theirs was an open marriage, it didn't cause nearly the drama you would expect) he also became a devote Sinophile.

During WWII, he went to Chongqing (where the capital had retreated) as British diplomat--his job was to get Chinese universities the equipment they needed to continue to function. While there, he started his research into how China was the first to discover such things as printing, gun powder, the compass, and paper. That China was the first is common knowledge NOW, but only because of Needham.

A fascinating story, plus it's by Winchester. I've always meant to read his books, but this is the first I actually did. It's completely accessible and engaging. Winchester can certainly tell a story. What I most admire is his ability to make the finer points of history and culture easy to understand without losing any of the accuracy. I often see in mainstream history or children's nonfiction a simplification to the point of no longer being entirely accurate. This is not the case with Winchester's works.

I highly recommend it, and will be giving a copy to Ellie when she visits next weekend.

1 comment:

Liz said...

Well, I liked your idea of inventing your own course! And in the long run, perhaps you learned more about how sometimes it's easier to take what comes, rather than circumvent the system...

As you are a Chinese major who just finished the Needham book, I'd like to recommend Return to Middle Kingdom by Yuan-tsung Chen. It's as engrossing as reading a historical novel, and is really great for anyone who wants to understand the origin of modern China.