Joseph Needham, sinological sage – and novelist

By Michael Rank

I’ve just read George Steiner on the great sinologist Joseph Needham in his collection of essays, My Unwritten Books. Needless to say it’s phenomenally erudite, not to say highly original and provocative, and I’m far too ignorant to comment on it in any detail, but I would like to ask a couple of questions.

First, I was extremely surprised to read that “Under a pseudonym, and unnoticed by most of his scientific colleagues, Needham published historical novels dramatising the fate and doctrines of radical sects during the Cromwellian period” (pp. 4-5). Well I never! What was the pseudonym, how many novels, what are their titles? And are they any good? Simon Winchester, in his racy and highly readable biography of Needham, Bomb, Book and Compass (published in the U.S. as The Man Who Loved China for some strange reason) makes no mention of Needham the novelist… I’m interested in this incidentally because I interviewed Needham for Reuters a couple of years before he died, and recently reviewed Winchester’s book for Asian Affairs, journal of the Royal Society of Asian Affairs. Anyone remotely interested in Needham, one of the towering intellects of the 20th century yet remarkably little known, should definitely read Winchester’s book, even if it’s an unscholarly biography of a great scholar.

My other main point is that – and I say this with great trepidation – Steiner seems to have made a mistake. About bores. No, not that kind of bore, tidal bores. Steiner says (p. 21):

“Nor must we forget that China possesses one of the only two great tidal bores or eagres [!] in the world, on the Chien-Tang, or Fuchun, River near Hangchow (the other operates at the northern mouth of the Amazon).”

This seems a rather surprising claim. Surely the Severn bore is a world class tidal bore, and the Bay of Fundy is too, so I wonder why Steiner claims there are only two great bores, and neither of these extremely famous ones makes it?

One other point: My Unwritten Books is so-called because it’s a book about seven books which Steiner has thought of writing but never did. In the late 1970s he was asked by Professor Frank Kermode to contribute to his popular and influential series of “Modern Masters”. Steiner proposed writing about Needham, but admits:

“Being neither a biologist or a sinologist schooled neither in chemistry nor in oriental studies, my lack of qualification, the impertinence of my suggestion, were patent. But I had long been spellbound by Needham’s titanic enterprise and by his kaleidoscopic persona. Had there been a more learned, a more inclusive mind and purpose since that of Leibnitz? What I had in mind was a possibly irresponsible approach to both the man and his works.” (p. 1)

The project didn’t come off, of course, but the reason Steiner gives is interesting. It was because Needham had claimed that the Americans had used bacteriological weapons during the Korean war, and refused to discuss, still less withdraw, the claim when he went to discuss the putative biography with Needham some 25 years later.

“Jospeh [sic] Needham’s irritation, his anger were manifest. Even more so, the mendacity within that anger. He gave no direct reply, It is said that those with a trained ear can detect the minute flaw in a glass goblet when they pass their fingers arond the rim. I heard this flaw, unmistakably, in Needham’s voice. I sensed it in his posture. There could, from that moment on, be no realistic prospect of reciprocal trust. We did not meet again.

“I never wrote the little book. But the wish to do so has stayed with me” (p. 3).

I sympathise with Steiner to some extent. The germ warfare claim was refuted not long after Needham made it, and it didn’t do his political reputation any good. When I was reading Chinese at Cambridge in the late 1960s, I remember Needham defending the use of the daily readings from the Little Red Book as analogous to Christians reading the Bible (this was at the height of the Cultural Revolution), and thinking that was extremely naive of the great man.

But maybe another reason Steiner didn’t write his study of Needham is that sage as he is, he isn’t that well read in classical Chinese astronomical, chemical, biological or engineering texts, as his ability to read Chinese isn’t that great, and without reading such texts one can hardly evaluate Needham’s magnum opus…