Linked by focus, separated by quality

BOMB, BOOK & COMPASS: Joseph Needham and the great secrets of China
Simon Winchester
Viking, pbk, $40

1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance
Gavin Menzies
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 cracker.

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 British intellectuals.

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 life's work.

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 Chevrolet truck.

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 old goat.

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 junk history.

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 cover).

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 the book.

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 DNA-tested.

To be fair, Menzies writes colourfully, and correctly argues that Western scholars have vastly underrated Chinese navigation.

But does Chinese history really need this latter-day Erich von Daniken (Chariots of the Gods)?

Gavin McLean is a Wellington historian.


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