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Book Review: Simon Winchester – The Man Who Loved China

By , March 25, 2013


Those who check China Law & Policy on a regular basis will have noticed two things: (1) our blogging has subsided because our day job has kept us too busy the past few weeks  (see here and here) and (2) we have been reading The Man Who Loved China for the past few months.  This post seeks to rectify these two issues by resuming our regular or at least semi-regular blogging and finally finishing The Man Who Loved China.

Simon Winchester’s The Man Who Loved China is much less a book about China than it is a book about the man of the title – Joseph Needham – an eccentric yet brilliant Cambridge scientist and professor who, in the 1930s, became infatuated with China.  And that’s where this book runs into problems especially if you are looking for something more about China.  Make no mistake, China is the subtitle.  Winchester’s book is a biography of Needham with a focus on his time in China and how Needham changed the world’s understanding of the country.

By the mid-1930s, Needham was already a well-known and respected biologist at Cambridge.  But in 1937, into his lab walked Lu Gwei-Djen

Joseph Needham

(pinyin: Lu Guizhen), an exceptionally intelligent, beautiful 33 year old graduate student from China.  The married Needham, a known lady’s man, quickly fell in love with Lu and eventually with her homeland.  According to Winchester, it was a post-coital smoke with Lu that sparked Needham’s interest in studying Chinese.  Without such an interaction, the man may never have gotten to China and may never have written his opus: Science and Civilisation in China, a 24 volume tome about China’s early scientific discoveries and advancements.

From his relationship with Lu (which his open-minded wife approved of, or at least acquiesced to), Needham began to recognize that China had once been an advanced scientific society and that during most of its history, surpassed the rest of the world in terms of scientific achievement.  Needham becomes a man obsessed not just with all things China, but with the need to prove to the Western world that China was far from a “backward,” “barbarian” culture.

For those who study China today, such knowledge is commonplace – that up until the late 1700s, China was far ahead of the West in terms of scientific discoveries.  But that commonplace knowledge is solely a result of Needham’s Science and Civilisation, demonstrating Needham’s success and his lasting impact.

Much of Needham’s knowledge of China’s discoveries are first-hand.  Between 1942 and 1946, Needham served as the Royal Society’s emissary to war-torn China, in an effort to guarantee that China’s universities had the scientific tools necessary to continue their research.  During many trips throughout China, Needham comes across various early accounts of China’s scientific discoveries, getting the bug to document all of these innovations in an English-language book.  Many of China’s great professors help Needham in this effort, giving him various documents and ancient textbooks.

Lu Gwei-djen

Needham’s trips and in-depth understanding of the advancement of Chinese society sparks the major question in his life: what caused China to eventually fall behind the West.

It is this question that propels Needham, upon his return, to begin what will be the project that occupies the remaining 50 years of his life and will cause him to write one of the greatest series about China ever written.

Winchester’s book is easy to put down which is surprising from a journalist.  But this is likely due to the fact that Needham is not a particularly compelling figure – he’s arrogant, not interesting, and not at all fun.  Even the fact that he is a nudist comes off as tedious.  In fact, his dullness becomes clear when, during the road trip to Dunhuang, he picks up Rewi Alley, an unconventional New Zeland schoolteacher and Communist who is now stuck in the middle of nowhere China.  Not only does Alley provide necessary comic relief, but he also imparts much more worldly and insightful comments about China, a country torn by a world war and an impending civil one.  His quick departure from the pages of The Man Who Loved China is unfortunate.  A biography of Alley might have been a bit more of a page-turner.

The only thing that keeps the reader going is the promise that Needham’s question – what caused China to fall behind – will be answered; that Winchester’s book is the shortcut through Needham’s 24 volume series.  But it is not.  At no point does he even come close to answering the question.  Even the Epilogue remains silent.

Needham is certainly an important figure in the West’s current understanding of China, but for some reason, Winchester’s biography does

At least the cover looks fun

neither the man nor his contribution justice.  Is this the result of the fact that Needham is not a likeable figure or a result the book itself?  It is unclear.  Some will disagree – this was a New York Times bestseller and came highly recommended from a good friend – but ultimately, The Man Who Loved China, to the extent that it is read, should not be read for a deeper understanding of China.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom, by Simon Winchester (Harper Perennial 2008), 316 pages.

Beijing Air Pollution – A Silver Lining on the Smog Cloud?

By , January 12, 2013

The air pollution reached off-the-chart dangerous levels today in Beijing and will likely remain that way until Tuesday.  Saturday afternoon, the United States Embassy, which has been publicly reporting Beijing air pollution from its monitoring site in the Chaoyang area of Beijing since 2008, recorded Air Quality Index (AQI) numbers of over 800.  AQI of 301-500 is considered hazardous where all outdoor physical should be avoided.  Beijing authorities were advising all residents to stay indoors.  What does 700-800 AQI look like?  Here are some pics:

These pictures of Beijing are gross.  But they aren’t that much different from pictures of New York City in the 1950s and 1960s, or London during the same time.  New York alone had three notorious smog disasters – 1952, 1962 and 1966.  The causes were similar  – a cold winter resulting increased use of coal; factories surrounding the city; and the exhaust from dirty trucks and cars. For New York and the United States, these smog incidents were a turning point.  Five to ten years later, the Clean Air Act was passed with a vigorous enforcement mechanism.  Since the early 1990s, less than a generation later, pollution in New York City remains relatively low (vis a vis the 1966).

So will these pictures serve to bring change to China, specifically in enforcement of its environmental standards?  Perhaps.  What might also bring change is the fact that the Chinese government – a one-party authoritarian regime – can no longer hide extremely hazardous pollution.  This might sound strange to those who don’t follow China regularly, but it was shockingly reassuring to hear that it was the Beijing government that was advising people to stay indoors.  Xinhua even honestly reported that AQI exceeded 900.  It’s rare to see such transparency from the Chinese government.

I believe a lot of this transparency is the effect of one thing: the U.S. Embassy’s hourly publication of Beijing’s AQI.  In 2008, the U.S. Embassy began to measure Beijing air quality, publishing it through a twitter feed.  Although the twitter feed is blocked in China, many popular Chinese websites pick up the feed and publish it inside the Great Firewall.  To call this an thorn in the Chinese government’s side is an understatement.  In 2009, according to Wikileaks, at a meeting with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (“MFA”), Embassy personnel were informed that the hourly publication of the Embassy’s AQI was “confusing” to Chinese people and could result in unexpected “social consequences.”  MFA requested that access to the feed be limited to only foreigners.  The Embassy did not give in.

Thus, likely in order to restore its credibility, in early 2012, the Beijing municipal government began to publish its own AQI numbers from a site on the other side of Beijing.  While at times these numbers may differ (with the U.S. numbers usually showing a more hazardous level), so far for this smog disaster the numbers have remained relatively the same: both off-the-charts pollution levels.

So while this pollution is horrible, it demonstrates perhaps the impact of seemingly small, stubborn policies – here the U.S. Embassy reporting in real time Beijing’s true pollution – in bringing greater transparency to a Chinese government that otherwise would not have to.  Perhaps now that Beijing is honest with its own people, it will be set on a course to reform its laws and relegate pollution like today’s to  episodes of Mad Men.

 

The China Beat Closes Its Doors

"Yi Lu Ping An" - Chinese phrase for Bon Voyage

Some blogs come and some blogs go, so what are you going to do about it, that’s what I’d like to know

That tune I found myself humming tonight when I opened my Twitter account to slews of tweets lamenting the end of an era, lamenting the end of the China Beat.

For the past four years, the China Beat, a blog out of UC Irvine, posted some of the most eclectic, insightful and best written posts on China.  Subtitled, “How the East is Read” and run by a group of Chinese historians, the blog covered a wide array of issues in a fun and engaging way, making China accessible to everyone.  But more than just the quality of its posts, the China Beat also afforded a platform for different voices in the field:  young students of Chinese studies, non-scholar observers of China, and women.

For much of the China Beat’s history, two women have been important members of the four person team  that ran the site: Kate Merkel-Hess and Maura Cunningham.  Does gender matter?  I think it does.  Each of us has a perspective through which we view this world and our experiences in life is what determines that perspective; gender plays a part in creating that perspective.  I’m making no normative assessments of these perspectives, just acknowledge that gender can at times offer a different viewpoint.

In the Western-based China world, women’s voices are often not at the forefront.  A review of my book shelf has just two China books written by women (Susan Shirk and Elizabeth Economy); my Google Reader lists blogs written by men (aside from Flora Sapio’s Forgotten Archipeligos); and most of the major journalists who regularly cover China are men (exceptions being Lousia Lim of NPR, Sharon LaFraniere of NY Times and Melissa Chan formerly of Al Jazeera).

So it was refreshing to have a blog that was 50% female-run, with high-quality women who offered amazing scholarship.

Regardless of the gender make up of the China Beat blog team, the fact that such an amazing blog is shutting down is a travesty in and of itself.

Bye-bye China Beat

As with many blogs, the China Beat editors were finding it increasingly difficult to balance blogging with their paid jobs and ultimately it was the blog that had to go.  As much as we all try, you cannot make a living on China blogging  and some other job must pay the bills.  But with all the efforts to improve Americans’ understanding of China such as the State Department’s 100,000 Strong Initiative, blogs like the China Beat, which helped to illuminate the mysteries of China to the average American, has to close its doors.  It’s a pity that there are no grants out there to support the work of the China Beat which lessened the distance between the American people, especially the vast majority who will likely never visit China, and the Chinese.

With the China Beat closing its doors, its left to other blogs to try to pick up the mantel of honest, interesting and smart blog posts.  While China Law & Policy will try, most likely no one will be able to replace the China Beat.

Good-bye the China Beat; we hardly knew ye’.

Chen Guangcheng to Study in United States – China to Agree

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE

Office of the Spokesperson

For Immediate Release                                                                                       May 4, 2012

2012/707

STATEMENT BY VICTORIA NULAND, SPOKESPRSON

Chen Guangcheng

The Chinese Government stated today that Mr. Chen Guangcheng has the same right to travel abroad as any other citizen of China. Mr. Chen has been offered a fellowship from an American university, where he can be accompanied by his wife and two children.

The Chinese Government has indicated that it will accept Mr. Chen’s applications for appropriate travel documents.  The United States Government expects that the Chinese Government will expeditiously process his applications for these documents and make accommodations for his current medical condition.  The United States Government would then give visa requests for him and his immediate family priority attention.

This matter has been handled in the spirit of a cooperative U.S.-China partnership.

# # #

CL&P – What to Read for the Week Ending 2011-01-09

By , January 9, 2011

CL&P Weekly Twitter Digest – What to Read for the Week Ending 2011-01-02

By , January 2, 2011

CL&P Weekly Twitter Digest – What to Read for the Week Ending 2010-12-26

By , December 26, 2010

NY Event – China Town Hall – October 18

By , October 13, 2010

Ambassador Jon Huntsman

Don’t miss this year’s “China Town Hall” sponsored by the National Committee on US-China Relations on Monday, October 18 starting at 7 pm.  The China Town Hall is a night of China events, with the keynote address live from Ambassador Jon Huntsman (via webcast).  In its fourth year, this year’s event will likely prove to be the most interesting.  China has become a major campaign issue in the U.S.’ mid-term elections, the trade imbalance does not seem to be improving, currency is still pegged, and China doesn’t seem keen on allowing for greater freedom in the wake of the Nobel Peace Prize award to Liu Xiaobo.  To be sure Ambassador Huntsman will likely address some, if not all, of these issues.

While you can watch the event on your own over the web (here: http://www.ncuscr.org/programs/cth), life is always more fun when you do things with others!  The National Committee is sponsoring various educational institutions across the country to host events and this year, Prof. Maggie Lewis of Seton Hall University School of Law will be hosting a China Town Hall, with Prof. Carl Minzner of Washington University in St. Louis School of Law providing comments and context to what will sure to be an exciting night.  RSVP is required for this event: http://law.shu.edu/About/News_Events/china-town-hall-rsvp.cfm

China Town Hall
Monday, October 18, 2010
7 p.m. – Discussion with Prof. Carl Minzner
8 p.m. – Live webcast featuring Amb. Jon Huntsman
Seton Hall University School of Law
One Newark Center
Newark, NJ
(Directions: http://law.shu.edu/About/Directions.cfm – literally a hop skip & jump from midtown – 15 minutes on NJ Transit)

RSVP here: http://law.shu.edu/About/News_Events/china-town-hall-rsvp.cfm

For those not in the NYC-area, check out the listings of Town Hall events in your location: http://www.ncuscr.org/programs/cth

Summer Reprieve

By , August 15, 2010

With the remaining three weeks of summer, China Law & Policy will be hitting the beach, so blogging might be less than regular.  Do not be alarmed.  We anticipate returning to regular blogging post-Labor Day.  There might be a few articles here and there before that – who knows what China-related things might be happening at the beach and China thoughts we might have will sipping mai tais in the sun.  But we will be actively back starting Sept. 7.

Thank you for your continued readership!

Will China Float its Currency?

By , April 16, 2010
Will China allow its currency to float?

Will China allow its currency to float?

As Marcy Nicks Moody pointed out in her article, “A Dusty Springfield Approach to the Chinese Exchange Rate,” the Treasury Department was to release its report on international economic and exchange rate policies on April 15.  But last week, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner announced that he would delay the release of the report  noting that key meetings with world leaders in the upcoming months necessitated the delay.  Many saw this as a sign that the U.S. was in dialogue with the Chinese about the exchange rate with the real possibility that China would give its currency some freedom.

But in today’s New York Times, Michael Wines reports that perhaps we shouldn’t be so sure.  Domestic fiscal and monetary policy issues are pushing Chinese leaders not to float the yuan, Chinese currency (a.k.a. the renminbi or RMB).  Interestingly, the online version of this article has the title “China’s Recovery Keeps Focus on Interest Rates and Currency” while the title in today’s paper version is the more explosive “China Move on Currency Not at Hand.”

So will China succumb to foreign pressure or will it remain focused on its own recovery and not look to change its currency policy just yet?  You decide.  Take our poll on this issue listed on the left hand side of the website.  Results will be posted next Friday, April 23.

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