BOMB, BOOK & COMPASS: Joseph Needham and the great
secrets of China
Viking, pbk, $40
1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy
and Ignited the Renaissance
HarperCollins, pbk, $36.99
Review by Gavin McLean
Two books of very different quality, each with a surprising
New Zealand connection, explore the Eurocentricism that for
centuries has downplayed Chinese civilisation.
Simon Winchester's Bomb, Book & Compass is a
In this biography of Cambridge don Joseph Needham, the author
of The Surgeon of Crowthorne and The Meaning of
Everything returns to what he does best: eccentric
Needham began conventionally enough.
A biologist, he married a chemist and knocked out some noted
scientific monographs before an affair with Lu Gwei-djen
opened his eyes to the achievements of Chinese science.
Documenting the invention of paper, of gunpowder and the
magnetic compass, all centuries ahead of the West, became his
By the time he died in 1995, he had published 17 volumes in
his Science and Civilisation in China series.
Now 24 volumes long, it is the jewel in the crown of
Cambridge University Press.
His research took him to war-torn China in the 1940s, when he
narrowly avoided death from Japanese air attacks.
He ferried Chinese scientists' books and lab equipment in a
On one occasion, after being entertained by the locals, he
whipped off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, picked up a
heavy stick and for 15 breathless minutes performed a series
of particularly wild and whirling old English Morris dances,
singing all the while.
There, too, he befriended New Zealander Rewi Alley.
Winchester's depiction of Alley's homosexuality is far
franker than most Kiwi writers.
As befits a Winchester subject, Needham was no dull egghead.
He was a political maverick (almost a communist) and a randy
His marriage to Dorothy was an open one, his devotion to Lu
Gwei-djen was lifelong (they married very late in life after
Dorothy's death) and wherever he went, the sight of an
attractive woman could bring a smile to his face.
Winchester brings Needham to life again and, while
documenting his faults and his follies (his leftwing politics
were unpopular after the war and he greatly underestimated
the damage Mao did to China), he nevertheless pulls up just
short of hagiography.
A few years ago, Gavin Menzies made a big splash with
1421, The Year China Discovered the World, by claiming
that a huge fleet of junks under Admiral Zheng He
circumnavigated the globe, beating Columbus to the Americas
and Tasman to New Zealand.
The book sold by the sampan-load despite being rubbished as
This time, Menzies focuses on a junk fleet's visit to Italy
in 1434 when it ignited the Renaissance (says the cover) and
provided the spark that set the Renaissance ablaze (inside
It's a meandering mess, as much a defence of, and elaboration
of, 1421 as a book about the 1434 voyage.
Where do we come into this? In one of the many asides that
mar this book, Menzies asserts that over 600 years ago a
comet caused a massive tsunami that has left Chinese junks,
cannon balls etc embedded firmly in our hillsides running
north from the Catlins.
Inevitably, Moeraki gets a mention.
There's an ancient Chinese iron smelter buried under the
Akaroa cricket grounds. Yeah, right!
Menzies's research involves seizing dubious facts and
twisting them into evidence. That misdated 2000-year-old rat
bone, quashed again quite firmly, is evidence.
So, too, are Winston Peters' comments about the Chinese
origins of Polynesians.
Yes, we know that Taiwanese people began their journey 6000
years ago, but what's that got to do with fictional junks off
New Zealand 600-700 years ago? Despite the chimera of
footnotes and bibliography, a lot of this evidence isn't in
I lost track of the number of times the book told me to refer
to his website for the evidence.
There's a touch of conspiracy theory: We now hope the New
Zealand Government will moderate its approach to representing
New Zealand's early history; in particular that sites
currently off limits to the New Zealand people will be
opened; and that human bones that predate the Maori arrival
now in possession of the New Zealand Government will be
To be fair, Menzies writes colourfully, and correctly argues
that Western scholars have vastly underrated Chinese
But does Chinese history really need this latter-day Erich
von Daniken (Chariots of the Gods)?
Gavin McLean is a Wellington historian.