When India was new

In The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne (surely the most tedious storyteller who ever lived) gives us a customs officer mulling over the late 18th-century zenith of a certain port on the Massachusetts coast. It was a time, he says,

when India was a new region, and only Salem knew the way thither.

Hawthorne was scribbling in the mid-1800s, roughly a half-century after Salem became America’s chief conduit for trade with the subcontinent. Yet his inability to see anything odd about a native of a still wet-behind-the-ears country describing the home of one of the world’s hoariest civilisations as ‘new’ feels bang-up-to-the-minute contemporary.

Something in Americans – perhaps in most Westerners – resists seeing India as any more than an unlikely combination of money-making opportunity and fount of ‘spirituality’ that they can neither define nor understand. Before Indians began to demonstrate their talent as software geeks, during the West’s programmer shortage in the late 1990s, raw Indian brainpower and intellectual sophistication had virtually no recognition.

Most Westerners don’t even know what they don’t know about the subcontinent’s massive philosophical corpus unrelated to religion or spirituality. This is seen as tragic by keen admirers of that corpus – a group that has, over the ages, included the likes of William Jones (1746-94), the Calcutta judge and son of a mathematician who was the first great British Indologist.

But hand-wringing and lamentation on this score are pointless. Here are some practical reasons for caring about oceanic Western unknowing about India’s contributions to knowledge and scholarship.

Surely we can — must, now — look at the country through something other Salem’s exclusively mercantilist spectacles, celebrated in its motto, Divitis Indiae usqua ad ultimum sinum: ‘to the farthest gulf for the wealth of India.’

In Americans in India, an Indian historian, G.Bhagat, has recorded that when Salem dominated the India trade – which far exceeded that with China in this period – Americans’ interest

was almost wholly in the profits to be made in the trade, and they showed little interest in the historical, social and political life of India itself.

Though George Washington dispatched the first U.S. consul to India as early as 1792, Bhagat says:

Consul after consul occupied himself in private interests and ignored official instructions to report on conditions in India . . . There was no increase of friendship and understanding, appreciation of India and her customs by the visiting Americans . . .

Last month, Stanford University – one of the world’s richest, for its entire history – invited applications for a new professorship, explaining in one notice that it is

committed to developing its South Asian program through additional faculty recruitment across disciplines.

This has certainly been a long time coming. Also, it has only been two years since the university, founded in 1885, established its Center for South Asia

for the study of the region—including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan—across all the disciplines in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

News of the recruitment drive took me back to a conversation a couple of years ago with Paul Kiparsky, a Sanskritist and leading computational linguist. He had agreed that it was remarkable that Stanford, his own university, had practically no South Asian expertise to offer. He predicted, though, that that would come with endowments earmarked for the specialisation from successful Indians, probably from among the many migrants to Silicon Valley – which is on the doorstep of this famous institution from which it sprang.

He was half-right. The South Asia centre was financed by an anonymous donor on the subcontinent – rumoured to be a member of its most powerful industrial clan, the Ambanis, and a matching Stanford grant.

I cannot be the only person wondering why no American ever emerged as a sponsor for this branch of scholarship when the thriving East Asian programmes at the university have found many generous benefactors over the decades.



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The Chinese were supposed to be good at imitating, not originating

Continuing my beady-eyed inspection of reviews of the Joseph Needham biography, Bomb, Book and Compass, known as The Man Who Loved China in the U.S.. . .

Thank goodness for the Times Literary Supplement reviewer, John Keay. Under no obligation to support a misguided critic at a sister paper, The Times, who claimed that Needham’s ability to influence thinking about China did not long outlive him, Keay’s October 1 assessment says in part,

Until fifty years ago, it was widely assumed that China had no tradition of scientific thought and innovation. Meticulous observation and reasoned deduction were taken to be European traits, as was the application of scientific principles to industrial production. The Chinese were supposed to be good at imitating, not originating; and the notion that the West’s scientific and industrial revolutions owed anything to the East’s inventiveness seemed laughable. We now know better. Ancient China’s precocity in almost every field of scientific achievement has since been acknowledged – in medicine, metallurgy, ceramics, mechanics, chemistry, physics, mathematics. Ridicule has turned to awe, tinged with trepidation.

And in case that critic, Zachary Karabell, missed the point,

This dramatic reversal is credited to one man, the redoubtable Dr Joseph Needham, plus a small team of devoted disciples and a monumental work of scholarship.

Then Keay gets into interesting territory – dissenting views about Needham’s conclusions from some of his admirers and collaborators:

Needham’s purpose was to demonstrate not just the scale of early China’s scientific achievement, but its importance in the development of world science. Even his disciples have had difficulty with this. In his handsome contribution on ferrous technology – Part Eleven of the fifth volume, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, in Science and Civilisation in China – Donald B. Wagner dissociates himself from Needham’s faith in both “the essential virtue of Progress” and “modern natural science as a measure of historical value”. Like others, he is also unhappy with Needham’s extraction of Chinese science from its geographical, cultural and social context and his categorization of it into essentially Western disciplines – chemistry, physics, biology, etc – that were unfamiliar to the Chinese. And finally, though he wrestles with the Needham dictum that the West owed its eventual technological superiority to the East, Wagner concludes that in respect of iron, “the results are not by any means conclusive”.

If only the odious comparisons and quarrels about ranking could end. They only poison discussions about transmissions of ideas between East and West, and are as irritating as simple-minded cultural democracy – or the reflexive equalisation of intellectual traditions for equality’s sake. It’s far more rewarding to reflect on the way in which the bumps in one illustrious tradition have often filled gaps in another.

Here is Needham himself, following just such a train of thought:

I should not want to disagree altogether with the idea that the Chinese were a fundamentally practical people, inclined to distrust all theories. […] One might also say that the disinclination of the Chinese to engage in theory, especially geometrical theory, brought advantages with it. For example, Chinese astronomers did not reason about the heavens like Eudoxus or Ptolemy but they did avoid the conception of crystalline celestial spheres which dominated medieval Europe. By a strange paradox, when Matteo Ricci came to China at the end of the sixteenth century A.D. he mentioned in one of his letters a number of foolish ideas entertained by the Chinese, among which prominently figured the fact that ‘they do not believe in crystalline celestial spheres’; it was not long before the Europeans did not either.

from The Grand Titration, George Allen & Unwin, 1969.

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A Joseph Needham biography exposes wilful ignorance about China and Asia

What will it take to get Western readers interested in the intellectual and cultural traditions of the East?

We know practically nothing about the shaping of minds in China and India. Never mind that by their growing economic might – and not just in numbers of warm bodies (an old fait accompli) – these countries are so plainly set to outstrip the West. Nor are we doing anything about our ignorance.

In a Guardian column earlier this summer, the historian Tim Garton-Ash was acutely exasperated:

There’s an aggressive and a defensive western reaction to this threatening world, both of which are mistaken. Call them the crusader and the drawbridge options. The crusader option was Bush in Iraq. Now we’ll see more of the drawbridge. Defensive, fearful, protectionist [. . .] this variant says: pull up the drawbridge in front of the old stone fortress called Western Civ. Keep out as many alien people, goods, ideas as possible.

Hoping for signs of a change in this attitude, I’ve been keeping an eye on reactions to Simon Winchester’s biography of Joseph Needham – which was titled The Man Who Loved China for its American launch in May, but for some mysterious reason, Bomb, Book and Compass in Britain, where its publication date is today, September 24.

Simon Winchester is a superb researcher and peerless, among writers of nonfiction, as a storyteller. If even he can’t bring down drawbridges or coax ostrich-heads out of the sand, no one can. Yet this review of his book by Zachary Karabell in The Times on September 12 demonstrates the strength of the resistance to his and all comparable civilising missions designed to fill in the gaps in what we know:

[Needham] succeeded in demonstrating to a sceptical Western world that China was “for much of its great age a highly sophisticated
civilisation [. . .]”

[. . . but, there] is also a nagging tree-falls-in-the-forest question, namely, if Needham’s fame and work has faded in such a short time since his death in 1994, how true can it be that his work fundamentally altered our collective understanding of China’s central role in human history.

Yes, Needham was always an academic celebrity, but he didn’t have the crossover fame of others such as Toynbee or Hobsbawn, nor were his books – however lauded – widely read.

Does Einstein’s ‘crossover fame’ as the butt of jokes about scientists in pop culture mean that the man in the street has had his ideas about physics changed by the Theory of Relativity? No, because that man, or his female equivalent, never gives theoretical physics a second’s thought.

Winchester’s point, surely, is that Needham’s research transformed the views of the authorities on China – that is, of the most distinguished sinologists of his day. Not that he is any less influential now. A top-ranking contemporary sinologist Jonathan Spence, introduced here, has said:

Over the years, ever since I was a graduate student, I have tried to keep up with the lengthy series of volumes that made up Joseph Needham’s awesome opus, Science and Civilisation in China. Checking my shelves, I find that I now have fifteen volumes, occupying twenty-nine linear inches of shelf space.

Another respected sinologist, Timothy Brook – who not only knew Needham but helped with his work on SCC – speaks for many of us devotees in wishing that Winchester had said vastly more than he did about the great man’s breakthrough insights into Chinese science and thought, and how he arrived at them. In his assessment of Winchester’s book in the Literary Review, Brook says

Joseph took great pleasure in life, but he was also an ambitious thinker, a talented writer and a brilliant mind, and I have not met his equal. This aspect of the man evades his biographer. Perhaps the slow and difficult intellectual achievement of a scholarly project such as SCC is not a subject easily compressed into the kind of narrative Winchester is otherwise so skilled at writing.

I don’t blame Simon Winchester, though. With Tim Garton-Ash’s drawbridge stuck in the raised position, just how many readers can there be for detailed excavations into the intellectual experiments and discoveries of foreigners? How many care to know what Brook has said he wanted to get across in his own most recent book on China, Vermeer’s Hat?

I wanted to show students who may have never given China a second thought that the bits of world history they might know through school or cultural background are intimately woven into a complex fabric of connections that stretch all the way to the other side of the globe. I wanted them to be able to see what they might know about the history of their own culture as pieces of a puzzle that, once assembled, would reveal the history of the entire world.

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Ramanujan, the biopic

A postscript to some notes on David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk, posted here earlier this week. . .

Does anyone out there know the real reasons why two separate plans for a film about Srinivasa Ramanujan’s life have been put on hold?

In 2006, the British actor-director-comedian Stephen Fry, and the Indian director Dev Benegal, announced that they would be joining forces to make a Ramanujan biopic. In the same year, Meghnad Desai, the now retired economist and British politician, was also at work on a script. In 2007, the Indian Express reported that both projects were sitting on ice.

Although these three men fascinated by Ramanujan are all said to be busy meeting other commitments, at present, I wonder if the obstacles to doing justice to the story of this particular great man — in a movie — might not be too daunting. As I’ve explained with the help of Leavitt’s book and Robert Kanigel’s magnificent biography, The Man Who Knew Infinity, the workings of Ramanujan’s mind present tricky problems for strict Western rationalists.

For those of us outside the community of pure mathematicians, the enthralling revelation in both books is of the Indian mind’s capacity for compartmentalising world views that cancel each other out – for everyone incapable of such a separation. This is a topic on which I mean to blog again, in the future – as on related subjects, such as the justification for talk both inside and outside India of an ‘Indian mind’.

For the moment, I’ll only mention an intriguing perspective of a respected Indian philosopher and historian, the late M. K. Haldar, about which he spoke at a seminar around 1961:

If there is a contradiction in the Western mind or society, they try to resolve it. They feel and suffer the stress of the contradiction. Whether they succeed in resolving the contradictions without raising a dozen other contradictions is a different thing. There is no gainsaying the fact that there is always an attempt to resolve the contradiction either by finding a higher unity or by destroying one of the terms related to the contradiction. But the Hindu mind is not worried by contradictions. It keeps the contradictory parts in water-tight compartments [. . .] We have different, mutually exclusive compartments in our mind.

How could a film possibly demonstrate this difference, and the Indian ease with accommodating incompatible ways of thinking? And that, on top of conveying what thrills pure mathematicians about the work they do?

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The biochemistry of Orientalism

The distinguished Yale scholar Jonathan Spence, mentioned in my bit of woolgathering about race, sex and scholarship, has vetted The Man Who Loved China for the issue of the New York Review of Books that goes on sale today. This is, as far as I know, the first review of the book by a scholar of Spence’s stature in a general-interest print publication, and it’s a good one.

He ends his meaty essay, ‘The Passions of Joseph Needham,’ with this conclusion about the emotional, rather than literal, ménage-à-trois of the Needhams and Gwei-Djen:

Sometimes, I feel, all three of the leading protagonists resist Winchester’s attempts at interpretation, but he cannot be blamed for that. After all, across countless ages, people have marveled at love’s strange chemistry and feel at home with the idea. But here Winchester had to face a different kind of challenge: How can we describe the biochemistry of love?

I was amused to note that the romantic biochemist in Needham got a starring role in Spence’s last paragraph –- as in mine. But I was disappointed that he did not comment on the great romance from what would have been a particularly valuable perspective — that of a sinologist married to another China scholar, who just happens to be Chinese.

Even non-subscribers can read what else he said, online, for a modest fee:

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