Sinological Profiles
Derk Bodde
9 Mar 1909 (Brant Rock MA) - 3 Nov 2003 (Germantown PA)

Derk Bodde was an energetic scholar and an experienced person. He had integrity. His grasp of situations, however, was low, and when he attempted to analyze something on his own, he typically fell short. His name endures chiefly in works whose authority comes from other sources: his translations of Tun Li-ch'en (Annual Customs and Festivals in Peking, 1936 rev 1965) and Fung Yulan (History of Chinese Philosophy, 1937 [rev 1952] and 1953), his eyewitness account of the transition from Nationalist to Communist government in China (Peking Diary: A Year of Revolution, 1950, repr 1967 and 1976), and his collaboration with Clarence Morris (Law in Imperial China, 1967, repr 1973). Chance put Bodde in many of the right places at the right times, but little more emerged from those encounters than the record of an interested and, as the years passed, an increasingly concerned, spectator.

Brant Rock Under Storm

He was born in the village of Brant Rock, the point of land projecting furthest seaward from the Massachusetts coast at Marshfield, somewhat south of Boston. Brant Rock is a place of nor'easter storms, where hurricane preparedness is a civic constant. The place was already famous. Reginald A Fessenden, a former chief chemist with Thomas Edison, had picked Brant Rock for one of two 420-foot radio towers. The other was at Machrihanish, Scotland.

Machrihanish (Click for the Machrihanish Online)

Between them, on Christmas Day 1906, Fessenden made the first public trans-Atlantic voice radio transmission, repeating this triumph on New Years Day 1907. The Brant Rock tower was dismantled in 1917 and played no now discernible role in the formation of Bodde's mind. He was then eight years old. His first published work, "A Boy's Trip to an East Indian Volcano," in St Nicholas Magazine for December 1923, did however report from points even further east than Fessenden had reached. Bodde's father Theodore had arranged to teach physics for three years (1919-1922) at what was then Nanyang College "on the edge of Shanghai." This article was the first fruits of that trip. Later there followed "My House-Boat Trip in China" (January 1925), and "My Trip to the Great Wall of China and the Ming Tombs" (April 1926), and with that last contribution, Bodde reached the end of the eligibility window for St Nicholas.

Bodde majored in English at Harvard, with an undergraduate honors thesis on "Shakspere and the Ireland Forgeries" (1930). This was the period of the Depression. Not finding work after graduation, and making use of his previous exposure to the East, Bodde stayed on at Harvard as one of six students of Chinese in the Graduate School. The following year, 1931, he received a Harvard-Yenching fellowship to study in Peking. Describing his next publication, Bodde recalls that it

was by no means the product of a spontaneous burst of energy on my part. My second year in Peking as a Harvard-Yenching Institute Fellow was also the year (1932-1933) when a grim warning reached me from Harvard: get something into print if you want your fellowship renewed.

Of the two articles that followed, one on the paternity of Confucius ("which I thought more interesting") was abandoned, but "A Perplexing Passage in the Confucian Analects" was duly printed in JAOS (1933). In its four pages, Bodde resurrected the suggestion of the Sung Dynasty scholar Shr Shvng-dzu that the connective yw ("and") which makes LY 9:1 seem to say that Confucius rarely spoke of "profit and fate and rvn" (the third item being only too obviously one of Confucius's central values), is actually the verb "permitted," in which case the apparent meaning can be satisfactorily reversed. Bodde renders the result as "The Master rarely spoke of profit. (But) he gave forth (his ideas concerning) the appointments (of Heaven), (and also) gave forth (his ideas concerning) perfect virtue." No subscriber of St Nicholas would miss the fact that Bodde has reimported the banished "and" as the parenthesized "and" in his version. That is, he cannot get along without the "and." The thickness of parentheses elsewhere, even without reading the words they contain, sufficiently flags the translation as labored and unconvincing. The piece drew a half-page refutation from Berthold Laufer in a later issue of JAOS. As Bodde ruefully notes, it was ignored by subsequent Analects translators. The only exception was the Old Harvard fixture James Ware (Harvard professorships were hereditary at this period), whose 1955 translation reads "The Master rarely spoke of profit; his attachment was to fate and to Manhood-at-its-best." Nobody whose sensibility has been honed on Shakespeare will accept that inconsecutive blur as a possible sentence.

Fung (tr Bodde) History of Chinese Philosophy (v1)

Bodde's next Sinological venture was an article in Chinese on the Dzwo Jwan and Gwo Yw texts. This, like the preceding, addresses an important problem, though without achieving a notable advance toward its solution. In 1935, Bodde married Galia Speshneff, a Russian émigré resident in Peking. His years in Peking had as their chief result the successful translations of works by the Manchu Tun Li-ch'en ("Annual Customs," 1936) and most consequentially, the Chinese philosopher Fung Yulan ("History of Chinese Philosophy," v1 1937). He also met Duyvendak, then visiting Peking, and from that meeting followed an invitation to Leiden. Bodde departed for Leiden in late 1937, and there he earned his PhD with his study of Li Sz, China's First Unifier (1938). This was probably Bodde's most promising venture into original research. Unfortunately, he took the wrong side of one of Sinology's most famous directionality problems, the two versions of Li Sz's "bookburning" memorial, thus missing a chance to get Sinology some 80 years ahead of where it then was. He emerged from his perhaps too brief experience of the European tradition to embark on a career at the University of Pennsylvania (1938-1975), for which his chief preparation was extensive Chinese contact and a certain literary sympathy.

Derk Bodde

WW2 had already broken out in the East in 1937; it reached America in 1941. During its course, Bodde worked for the US Office of Strategic Services, producing reports on various aspects of Chinese culture; these reports were meant as background information for policy. In the immediate postwar years, he was one of the first round of Fulbright Fellowship recipients. His 1948-1949 Fellowship year in Peking, which he devoted to translating the second volume of Fung Yulan's History of Chinese Philosophy, also gave him a front row seat at the Communist takeover, a spectacle which George Kennedy had declined in advance. Bodde's stay led to his book Peking Diary (1950).

Also in 1950 appeared Tolstoy and China, a literary cameo by Bodde and his Russian wife Galia. Another Russian, Peter Boodberg of Berkeley, gave the work points here and there, but also noted that the evidence for Tolstoy's concern with the Chinese ethos

. . . has been marshaled by Bodde with the skill and precision of Hesperian scholarship which contrast sharply with the inept treatment of the same material by the Sinologically illiterate Soviet editors whom Bodde rightly takes to task for their unscholarly nonchalance. So much more deplorable is Bodde's own uncritical acceptance of hints and tentative conclusions by the same uninspiring annotators or by other informants on points crucial to his argument and the development of his theme. This grievously affects both his acumen as a Sinologue and his understanding of the genesis of Tolstoy's Sinophilia. . .

Bodde's early contact with Chinese customs and beliefs emerged years later as Myths of Ancient China (1961), regarded by those in a position to know as an often insightful work.

A second strand that recurs throughout his publications was already visible in a 1936 student contribution to T'ien Hsia Monthly, "The Attitude Toward Science and Scientific Method in Ancient China," and was perhaps further stimulated by contact with the Leiden school. This is the question of law and administration. Bodde's contribution to the Oppenheimer-inspired Conference on Feudalism, held at Princeton in 1950, and later issuing as Coulborn (ed), Feudalism in History (1956), was not distinguished by any notable analytical acumen. Comparative historically speaking, it left that treacherous topic perhaps a little worse off than before. A later attempt on more modern administrative material was more successful. It called chiefly for his translation skills, with the interpretation supplied by an expert collaborator, Clarence Morris. It appeared as Law in Imperial China in 1967.

Science and Civilisation in China (typical cover of one of the Needham volumes)

A final venture into law, this time natural law, occurred on Bodde's retirement in 1975, when he went to Cambridge for three years in residence at Joseph Needham's enterprise, with access to the formidable library Needham had there assembled, in order to produce a book that would answer Needham's original main question about China: Why, with all its technological achievements, had China never achieved a scientific revolution? Bodde returned to Philadelphia at the end of his stay thinking that his work needed only editorial polishing to be accepted as the final stone in Needham's edifice. It was not to be. As Bodde put it,

"Only considerably later, when the manuscript began to undergo intensive examination preparatory to publication, did differing opinions become manifest between Dr Needham and me concerning aspects of Chinese civilization. First among them, but by no means the last, was the question of whether or not the Chinese written language had historically functioned effectively as a medium for the exposition of topics relevant to science."

Bodde did not lack for recognition of other kinds; in 1985, the Association of Asian Studies conferred upon him, and in the same year, also on J William Fulbright, its highest honor, the Award for Distinguished Service (later and more accurately renamed the Award for Distinguished Contribution to Asian Studies).

The topic of Chinese as a medium for science had meanwhile been passed by Needham to Janusz Chmielewski, who in 1983 reported that failing health preventing his completing it. It devolved eventually upon Chmielewski's student Christoph Harbsmeier, whose capstone contribution to the Needham series appeared in 1998. The Author's Note to that volume sufficiently indicates Harbsmeier's view of the proposition that had been the cornerstone of Bodde's argument. It was negative:

I find that there are indeed many semantic/logical configurations that are perfectly possible but cannot be represented in Classical Chinese. But it turns out that these do not generally seem to be essential for the articulation of scientific thought.

Or, in Needham's own remark from the Foreword to that volume,

In the pages which follow, the reader will find many common preconceptions challenged. Literary Chinese was no vague and poetic language unsuitable for science, provided it was used by a competent scientific thinker.

Of course, now we have instead the riddle, Why was there no competent Chinese scientific thinker?

Bodde's Last Book: Chinese Thought, Society, and Science

But we anticipate. Back in Pennsylvania, and after protracted and difficult negotiations lasting over a year, Bodde's manuscript had been legally disengaged from the Needham project. It was then revised for a more general readership and published in 1991. The book repeats Bodde's argument about the unsuitability of the Chinese language for scientific purposes, in the course of which much dust is thrown up around a perfectly clear line from Analects 2:16. Bodde also considers the inhibiting effects of Chinese social structure. This is inherently a more promising line of investigation, and one subject to a certain amount of real-world testing. In Bodde's hands, however, the working out leaves something to be desired. In an Appendix, he marshals his core textual evidence: 29 passages exemplifying "the traditional descending scale of the four major categories called shih (scholar-gentry), nung (farmers), kung (artisans), and shang (merchants)." It is on this textual foundation that Chapter 3 of the work rests. A little checking reveals that (1) there are not always as many as four categories in the cited passages, thus challenging the completeness inference; (2) when there are four, they are not always the stated four, thus challenging the accuracy inference; (3) and when they are the stated four, they do not always occur in the same order, thus challenging the hierarchy inference; (4) there are in some cases more than four, the greatest departure being ten, which on examination boil down functionally to three: elite, free, and slave, thus challenging the adequacy inference; and finally (5) early and late passages are combined in Bodde's inventory, and the context of all passages is systematically ignored, thus defying Sinological method at its most elementary.

The evidence is thus dubious at the outset (to mention nothing else, there are deep problems with what century we think the Dzwo Jwan is talking about), and questionable in its subsequent handling. No very firm conclusion is likely to be drawn from such material without more adequate philological scrutiny of the material itself, and without taking account of the wider riches available if one raises one's eyes from the chosen four-word phrase. Among those resources would be the Shang-jywn Shu, Duyvendak's thesis topic, which a reasonably circumspect Duyvendak student might be expected to have read and not merely listed in his bibliography. Such considerations count for nothing in Bodde's experiment design; they do not influence his conceptions or affect his conclusions. Bodde starts out with something in mind, and steadfastly refuses to learn otherwise from the material which he examines. It is the wrong sort of steadfastness.

Derk Bodde

If in the end Bodde the student renders a disappointing account of his fellowship on the planet, it may be added in extenuation that he was generous, knowledgeable, helpful, and at times even rigorous, with his own students. Here is Wallace Johnson, in whose work Bodde's interest in Chinese law found fertile soil:

As a teacher, he was rigorous in the training of students and insisted on the highest standards. I remember being required to spend five years reading classical Chinese texts and commentaries before he allowed me to take my PhD examinations. After receiving my degree, while permitting a more friendly relationship to develop (he gave my wife a beautiful Chinese bowl upon the occasion of our marriage), he kept after me to continue my work on Chinese legal history and did not hesitate to voice his displeasure if I showed an interest in areas that he felt were of little importance.

To help others enter a land which one cannot oneself enter may fairly be accounted (as "Confucius" says of lawfulness in Analects 13:18) as a sort of entering too.

E Bruce Brooks


Charles Le Blanc, Al Cohen, and Fritz Mote contributed to this profile.

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