Recent scholarship on the history of science in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has provided new horizons for exploring questions about the nature and epistemology of socialist science, its epistemic virtues, its knowledge-producing practices, its geographical imagination and networks of communication and exchange, and its relations to the Chinese state and state building. In this essay the author uses a focus on practice to extrapolate implications and tendencies that he sees as unifying recent studies, and he clarifies their contributions to the current understanding of the history of science in the PRC. Particularly with respect to Chinese state-science relations and the nature of Maoist mass science, a focus on practice illuminates how recent scholarship has queried and interrogated unitary conceptions of the Chinese state and science, highlighted transnational connections and movements, and deepened our understanding of Maoist mass science.
In his fascinating history of the Chinese typewriter, the historian Thomas Mullaney (2017: 321) ends his book with an impassioned call to “liberate our imaginations from a past that never existed.” It is a sentiment and intellectual demand that is fitting in light of the overly long—and not a little racist—history of alphabetic hegemony that continues to obscure the more complicated and fascinating ways in which Chinese have conceptualized, processed, and operationalized information in the modern period and how the Chinese script, as a pleremic script (i.e., a writing system based on graphemes), despite expectations to the contrary, has transformed the modern information age. To liberate our imaginations has meant, in the case of the Chinese typewriter, suspending doubts about the viability of a character-based script to be modern, shifting our attention away from famous May Fourth intellectuals and their existential approach to Chinese characters, and attuning ourselves to the nuts and bolts as it were of previous and existing infrastructures of language. The past from which we must free ourselves, as Mullaney shows, is one built on false universalisms—universalisms that seduce, because they feel correct in the blur, but flail when we examine the grit. A universalism such as alphabetic order does not disappear or disintegrate, because we can challenge and deconstruct it; indeed, our contemporary moment is no less free of the dictates of alphabetic hegemony. But the act of deconstruction and critical thought nonetheless opens space—intellectual, emotional, and material—within which we can begin to embrace the many dissonances, contradictions, and failures making up human history. We begin to see how our present has been populated by pasts in the plural.
In many ways, this call to liberate ourselves from a past that never existed has been the motivating factor in the broader field of the history of science in China. The past that never existed for the history of modern science in China has been a past pockmarked by inadequacy, absence, and retardation, for which China has had to hold itself accountable. It has been a past in which asymmetries of knowledge and power have been entirely dominated by center-periphery relations of which China was only ever peripheral. Why, indeed, as Joseph Needham (1969: 16) has famously asked, “did modern science, the mathematization of hypotheses about Nature, with all its implications for advanced technology, take its meteoric rise only in the West, at the time of Galileo.” Put more simply, what did China do wrong? Modern science, it was believed, had European origins, and therefore existed primarily as an importation from the West. That Chinese intellectuals and Western scholars had been in agreement on this point for much of the twentieth century has only fortified an intellectual wall separating premodern natural studies and modern science. Even as significant work has been done to challenge Needham’s narrow definition of science by examining uniquely Chinese epistemological categories in both premodern and modern periods and by expanding our critical gaze to move beyond elite scientific institutions and including artisans, engineers, and applied disciplines such as mining and hydraulics, the Needham question continues to haunt, even if only through the force of its implied measure of success and failure.1 For those working on modern science from the late nineteenth century forward, liberation, if not specifically exorcism, has indeed been required if we were ever going to get beyond the spectral figure of the Needham question.
If we narrow our focus to recent scholarship on the history of science in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), there are other ghosts that require attendance—most particularly, the shades of Mao.2 Modern science, as scholars have increasingly demonstrated, is neither unitary nor singular, and for post-1949 China, there remains much to be discovered about what kind of science worked and how.3 Whether or not we call it socialist science, Maoist mass science, or tu science, it was modern science. Recognition of this simple point has opened up new horizons within which to explore questions about the nature and epistemology of socialist science, its epistemic virtues, its knowledge-producing practices, its geographical imagination and networks of communication and exchange, and its relations to the Chinese state and state-building. Attention to these kinds of questions is transforming the history of science in the PRC from a staid, politically colored exercise in forbearance—and one preoccupied with the failures of science be it on account of state intrusion or ideological taint—into a vibrant and thought-provoking field of research that forces us to rethink the definitional lines of science more broadly.
In what follows, I use a focus on practice to extrapolate implications and tendencies that I see as unifying recent studies and clarify their contributions to our current understanding of the history of science in the PRC. Particularly with respect to Chinese state-science relations and the nature of Maoist mass science, a focus on practice illuminates how recent scholarship has queried and interrogated unitary conceptions of the Chinese state and science, highlighted transnational connections and movements, and deepened our understanding of how Maoist mass science worked. My interest in scientific practice reflects currents in the broader discipline of the history of science, but when applied to China is especially intriguing, because the idea that practice can serve both analytic and epistemological objectives is not specifically, or even necessarily, Western. In his 1937 essay, “On Practice,” Mao had articulated the theory that knowledge arises from and feeds back into practice, and while its adoption and application varied across time and scientific discipline, the notion that from practice one reached science was a hallmark of socialist China. Practice, in the Maoist sense, was distinctly tied to class, and when raised to the level of political command, invoking the primacy of practice served as a direct rebuke of a top-down philosophy of knowledge that located the seat of expertise in elite scientific institutions. We are confronted then with an intriguing problematic: how to consciously, critically think about practice in its historical contexts when our analytic tool (practice) would seem to reinvoke specific Maoist political valences.
My coverage of English-language scholarship from the past twenty-five years will not be comprehensive, and there will be omissions, which a more traditional state of the field essay would likely include.
1 State and Scientific Practice4
Several scholars have stressed the importance of the state to science in the PRC. Such researches have emphasized the political relationship between science and the state and furthered our understanding of the policy context in the post-1949 period. The specific nature of the state-science relationship varied according to scientific discipline but could be generally described as one in which the Chinese state played an outsized role in attempting to control science and scientists. Through a careful examination of the evolving relationship between geneticists and the Chinese communist party-state, Lawrence Schneider demonstrates how the Chinese state attempted to assert its authority over science and scientists by banning work and publications on Mendelist-Morganism and promoting Michurinist biology instead. This exercise of political control was abandoned by the end of 1956, when senior-level party figures became increasingly vocal about having failed to rely sufficiently on Chinese intellectuals instead of Soviet technical and scientific staff and aware of major intellectual and political challenges arising from veteran Soviet biologists who criticized Lysenko’s evolutionary theories (Schneider 2003, 2012). Without state support, especially in education and publishing, Michurinist biology saw its position diminish to marginality. As Schneider shows, what failed in the narrow sense, top-down political control of a scientific field, gave way to a tacit understanding in which scientists did not meddle in politics, and the Party would stay out of science. It did not, however, dampen a more general conviction that science was a tool for controlling and changing nature.
Danian Hu identified similar pressures with respect to Einstein’s theories of relativity, which suffered political criticism, especially during the Cultural Revolution (Hu 2005). But in the case of physics, the state’s role was less as overt arbiter than jealous political philosopher guarding its status as the science of sciences. During periods of especially virulent political dogmatism, Einstein’s theories of relativity represented idealism that denied the practical and class-based nature of the world. Boda Chen and Wenyuan Yao’s antiscientific campaigns did not just terrorize physicists for undesirable scientific ideas and practices, they also threatened the institutional and intellectual resources for undertaking theoretical research without immediate practical applications.
Other scholars have qualified more blanket descriptions of overt control and instead highlighted the transnational relationships that persisted or emerged after 1949 (Wang 2010a, 2015). In focusing on transnational movements, scholars have shifted the sense to which we can frame Chinese state-science relations in solely national terms. By examining the experiences of some five thousand Chinese/American scientists,5 Zuoyue Wang reveals how national narratives of scientific development often rest on the transnational movement of people, instruments, and ideas in science and technology (Wang 2010b). In the case of the newly formed PRC, this group of Chinese/American scientists—those who decided to stay in the United States as well as those who returned to China—“Americanized” Chinese science in subtle yet important ways. American-educated scientists who returned to China played key roles in creating and building new scientific research programs as well as influenced state priorities and approaches to scientific research. For example, Jiaxian Deng, who received his PhD in nuclear physics from Purdue in 1950, became a major architect of the Chinese nuclear weapons program. Chinese agricultural science was also highly transnational with deep connections to Western, especially American, scientific knowledge and institutional networks, but it was also transnational in aspiration as Sigrid Schmalzer deftly shows (Schmalzer 2016, 2014). After 1971 and the growing rapprochement between the PRC and the United States, Chinese-American scientists played an important role in initial communications between cancer researchers in both countries. Lijing Jiang has shown that Chinese-American physicians were among the first to visit cancer research sites in the late 1970s as well as proofread and edit the English version of the Chinese Cancer Atlas, a nationwide cancer mortality survey that became the foundation for Sino-American collaborative epidemiological programs in the 1980s (Jiang 2018b).
Between 1949 and 1960, China actively sought Soviet assistance in scientific and technical planning, but the nature of Sino-Soviet working relationships has only recently been explored. Jiuchen Zhang and Feklova Tu (2018) have argued that the Sino-Soviet political alliance did not ensure that academic cooperation between Chinese and Soviet scientists unfolded harmoniously. Indeed, Zhang and Tu have found that working relationships between the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and Soviet scientists invited to China were often fraught with misunderstandings, confusion in expectations, and general inexperience on both sides. In areas where China lacked strong foundations and needed cutting-edge technology, Soviet scientists helped CAS establish and develop new institutes as well as train Chinese talent. In more traditional academic areas, working relationships between Soviet and CAS scientists were more variable.
Given the prominence of the Cold War, Chinese state-science relations have tended to be dominated by center-periphery models that take either the Soviet Union or the United States as the center, but new scholarship especially on the social sciences indicates that we need to broaden our understanding of Cold War scientific networks by looking more closely at the Global South. Arunabh Ghosh (2016) has shown that the Chinese state also pursued scientific exchanges with India. By the mid-1950s, the Chinese experienced growing disaffection with the strategy of overt reliance on the Soviet Union for technical and scientific advice. In re-establishing statistical contacts with India, Zhou Enlai had been especially impressed by Indian statistical methods involving random sampling in the area of agriculture. Sino-Indian exchanges in the 1950s highlights the multidimensional nature of Chinese foreign policy and the ways in which science in the service of national development expressed competing needs and objectives.
In addition to expanding our vision of state-sponsored scientific networks, recent scholarship has attempted to disaggregate the Chinese state. Sigrid Schmalzer (2016) reframed her analysis from the abstract concept of “the state” to “state agents” in order to highlight how local state agents served as intermediaries between local communities and the state apparatus. Being accountable to both, they were often caught in practical conundrums involving how to manage poor agricultural policies from above and resistance from below. And yet, their roles were critical for how new technologies were tested, adopted, or adapted into local communities. From a different angle, Zuoyue Wang’s (2018) recent analysis of the basic/applied research debate underscores the complicated identities of senior scientists tasked with state responsibility of organizing scientific work through the nation. Wang has identified key terminological shifts in how senior physicists defended the value of basic research. The semantic difference between basic and exploratory may seem initially inconsequential, and yet for Sanqiang Qian, who was the general secretary of the CAS and director of its Institute of Physics, the distinction afforded greater flexibility in defending basic research within a political environment that disparaged science for science’s sake. In other words, certain scientists also occupied dual positions as scientist and state agent. How they managed accountability from above and below is an important part of how to understand the history of science in socialist China.
Similarly, these kinds of terminological differences that map shifts in political valence can also be linked to different ontologies associated with different practices. Consider, for example, Christine Yi Lai Luk’s work on biophysics, which shifts our attention to a lesser known group of researchers (biophysicists) and their efforts to expand the role of another subfield, radiobiology. Why were Chinese biophysicists interested in pursuing radiobiology? Although not unprecedented—the Institute of Biophysics in the former USSR, for example, led the physiological investigations of nuclear hazards after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and American biophysicists, especially after World War II, had already absorbed the study of the physiological and hereditary effects of radiation on living things into its disciplinary expertise—the Chinese case, Luk (2018) argues, demonstrates how biophysicists drew on radiobiology and its military-nuclear practical applications to justify and explain the significance of biophysics. In doing so, the research interests of biophysics moved beyond measuring and detecting radiation in the environment to include investigations of the impact of ionizing radiation generated from nuclear weapons tests on living organisms.
If we recast our minds to the potential semantic terrain created by basic versus exploratory, perhaps what was being recoded were the lines of affiliation (scientifically and politically) one used to demonstrate the applicability of one’s field. Luk writes, “The strategic development of nuclear weapons offered a policy justification for advancing nuclear science upon which non-energy applications of nuclear science such as radiobiology and radiochemistry are built. It is within the context of nuclear infrastructure that one can begin to discuss the biochemical use of radiation as an applied field of nuclear science” (Luk 2018: 7). What Luk seems to be suggesting here implies substantive determinations of what radiation consists of and which processes that produce it are more important to understand. The year 1958 witnessed both the establishment of a biophysics institute and a teaching department for biophysics at the University of Science and Technology in Beijing, whose curriculum Luk shows to have actively socialized and trained students for investigating the effects of radiation on living organisms. This interplay of scientific fields articulating and negotiating the epistemological and institutional boundaries through education and curriculum, public commentary on American nuclear weapons testing, and national conferences invites us to consider how such dynamics enabled the creation of a Chinese scientific culture specific to the Cold War period.
Within a social and political world that prioritized practical—with practical meaning both useful and immediate—application, Chinese physicists such as Sanqiang Qian and biophysicist Shizhang Bei drew on the alignment of science and national security to expand the political and scientific meanings of utility and practice, and in the process redefined what constituted basic or theoretical research. As far as epistemic virtues go, science for science’s sake, which in other social and political contexts may have connoted impartiality and objectivity, was neither politically nor intellectually viable.6 Contrasted with other epistemic virtues of empiricism and utilitarianism, science for science’s sake was deemed a particularly gross example of individualism and a betrayal of the masses, because it seemed to justify a purpose for theoretical research other than the benefit of the people. Instead, theory had to be attached to practice, but the question to which policy makers and scientists returned again and again was how and to what degree (Wang 2018). This kind of ongoing contestation suggests the operations of a scientific culture that cannot be reduced to the foibles of state power.
Recent scholarship has deepened our understanding of the policy contexts of arms control and nuclear weapons development (Feigenbaum 2003; Lewis and Xue 1988), but there remains much work to be done on how these policies may have shaped the material nature of scientific practice and contributed to the formation of specific scientific cultures.7 Given more recent restrictions on access to post-1949 archival materials, writing a history of the experimental practice of Chinese nuclear science may not be possible in the foreseeable future. It remains an open question whether and how exactly Maoist mass science might have steered the science and engineering associated with the nuclear weapons program in productive, as opposed to purely negative or intrusive, ways.8 And yet one can imagine that a focus on scientific practice might yield, for example, further insight on the constitution of new cultures arising at the interface of different subfields, how objects and devices might come to embody epistemological values and hypotheses that further shape and reshape particular experimental agendas, and how the social interactions between scientific actors influenced the state’s understanding of the collective nature of science.
Thus, a gossamer thread of practice does weave its way through this scholarship on Chinese state-science relations to illuminate how local cultures of scientific practice formed, shifted, confronted, and changed (Chemla and Keller 2017). We see it in Lijing Jiang’s (2018b) discussion of the institutional resources undergirding the Chinese Cancer Survey, in the avalanche of tables and numbers produced from the complete enumeration and periodical-report systems described by Arunabh Ghosh (2017), in Sarah Mellor’s analysis in this issue of the illustrated instructions for administering cervical caps, condoms, contraceptive ointment, and so on found in the 1958 booklet Birth Control Propaganda Handbook, as well as the $50,000 worth of accelerator parts brought back by the nuclear physicist Zhongyao Zhao to China in 1950 (Wang 2010b).9 In each of these instances, we find not just different cultures of scientific practice, but also slightly different incarnations of the Chinese state that facilitated, managed, and antagonized scientific communities. We also need more research on the socialization and education of scientists during this period. Luk’s observation about the importance of hands-on instruction outside the classroom in teaching radiobiology and the materially reinforced lack of boundaries between research venues, experimental sites, and industrial shops at the South China Institute of Engineering indicates that Maoist ideals were never simply rhetorical. They were built into educational programs and the physical environment (Luk 2018, 2016). This is evident in Chuan Xu’s essay in this issue. The Mao-era sonic regime pivoted on sonic models 模範 (mofan), which helped constitute the magnetic recording infrastructure in specific ways that were in consonance with political ideals. The key was not simply what they heard, but how and through which kinds of devices.
2 Mass Science and Scientific Practice
Another central focus in recent literature on the history of science in the PRC concerns Maoist mass science. As Fa-ti Fan has emphasized, Maoist mass science (qunzhong kexue) or what has sometimes been called the people’s science (remin kexue) operated simultaneously within political and epistemological registers. Qunzhong was a political category as in qunzhong luxian or the mass line, while renmin conveyed a sense of the common people (Fan 2012: 128). Maoist mass science drew on both sets of connotations to fashion different epistemological positions, virtues (i.e., practicality, utility, and empiricism), and ultimately, a different vision of political and scientific modernity.
Maoist mass science extolled epistemic virtues such as practicality, utility, mass participation, and self-reliance. These sorts of virtues may seem strange when juxtaposed with Enlightenment scientific virtues such as impartiality, certainty, or precision, but they were no less critical in fashioning scientific selves. Sigrid Schmalzer (2016: 47–99) has argued against the tendency to define scientific achievement in terms of professional circuits and research institutions, and instead through her excavations of how scientific personas were constituted through a tu/yang binary, Schmalzer has revealed the complex ways in which scientists such as Zhelong Pu and Longping Yuan constructed their scientific selves. As Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison (2007: 52) have argued, “Scientific objectivity resolves into the gestures, techniques, habits, and temperament ingrained by training and daily repetition. It is manifest in images, jottings in lab notebooks, logical notations: objectivity in shirtsleeves, not in a marble chiton. This is a view of objectivity as constituted from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.” Recent scholarship has not addressed objectivity per se, but it has illuminated how mass participation functioned as an epistemic virtue that delineated good from bad science.10
Fa-ti Fan (2012: 135–40; 2017) has argued that mass participation was a way to bridge expert and lay communities and integrate both into a single national endeavor, which in the case of earthquake monitoring and defense entailed getting thousands of lay participants of all ages involved in setting up observation points, making their own instruments, devising new methods for telluric currents and geomagnetism, or working in teams to measure ground tilt. Since many Chinese seismologists accepted that animal behavior was helpful for earthquake prediction, a wide array of pets, livestock, household pests, and wild animals (dogs, cats, cows, horses, pigs, chickens, pigeons, parakeets, ducks, mice, rabbits, fish, and snakes) were targeted for systematic observation. Those who worked regularly with animals—farmers in the countryside, zookeepers in urban areas—could contribute to the Collective Monitoring, Collective Defense program by utilizing their lay expertise of what constituted normal and abnormal animal behavior.
Part of what made such reports, observations, and anecdotes collected from the broader public compelling—compelling enough to warrant assignation as facts—was likely due to the sheer weight of numbers. With so many reports coming, one would be hard pressed to doubt their meaningfulness, even if one could not determine exactly how or why they were meaningful. But as Fan points out, Chinese research “focused much more closely on the predictive, rather than the explanatory, power of a theory,” and if it worked, that was all that mattered (Fan 2012: 142). A string of apparently successful predictions in 1968 and 1969 vindicated seismological interest in animal behavior and testified to the efficacy of a multipronged research approach that treated popular participation as an integral part of scientific work.11
Mass participation embraced and extended empirical practices throughout society by recognizing the inherent value of different subject positions. In her work on agricultural science, Schmalzer (2016: 42) has argued that Maoist mass science operated on the principle of standpoint epistemology, or “a notion that people contribute differently to the production of knowledge based on their social position.” Zoologists and zookeepers had different experiences with animals; farmers and lab scientists had different experiences with rice; yet all such experiences had value in the formation of scientific knowledge.
This form of empiricism was also characterized by qualities Arunabh Ghosh has identified as critical to socialist statistics: extensiveness (guangfanhua), completeness (zhengtihua), and objectivity (keguanxing). Extensiveness in socialist statistics meant that, in contrast to its bourgeois version, it had mass character, that is, “it ran through every sector of the economy and society” (Ghosh 2018: 152). Socialist statistics operated on the basis of data collection of two forms: the complete enumeration periodical report system (industry) and surveys (agriculture). Integrated together, these two forms of data collection constituted the foundation of a unified reporting system (i.e., extensiveness) that sought to standardize all forms and types of data to permit comparison and analysis. As Ghosh points out, to achieve completeness, this system also needed to create “norms for entering data on forms and for their accompanying textual explanations” (Ghosh 2018: 152). In other words, empirical completeness entailed socialization to ensure that the many, many people filling out forms and tables and generating data were doing so in consistent ways. Finally, objectivity in socialist statistics indexed transparency. Ghosh writes, “Unlike bourgeois statistics, which was predicated on profit and meant that statistical data were frequently distorted (waiqu) to serve the interests of the few and protect their business secrets, the New Statistics was unafraid of exposing weakness. Quite on the contrary, it welcomed criticism and even took part in self-criticism in the pursuit of objectivity and truth (zhenshixing) (153).”
In a sense, mass participation generated this claim of empirical transparency by offering humanistic means by which to cross different sectors, reach different people, and uproot social, economic biases that might simmer below the surface. As Fan has emphasized,
The people learned from their experience and labor, from their long struggle with Nature. Such hard-earned knowledge—concrete, reliable, and often ingenuous despite its humble origins—was truly useful and valuable. Thus, science was inherently political. It was objective, but it was neither neutral nor value-free. It was de facto class-based, and good science required mass participation. (2012: 130)
Putative universality became attestable universality because of the involvement of many, many people, whose collective actions were bound not by coercion and exploitation (presumably the standard in capitalist systems) but by love and patriotic duty. Put differently, mass participation, as Fan has shown, was a vehicle of citizenship.
Even within a single scientific enterprise such as the artificial propagation of carp, mass participation, while clearly a top-down political demand, was also constituted through specific scientific acts of engagement. Lijing Jiang has argued that Maoist mass science played a critical role in the development of a hormone-aided method in artificial carp reproduction (Jiang 2017). In 1958, two major breakthroughs in the artificial propagation of carp occurred at the China South Sea Institute for Aquaculture (SSIA), Guangzhou, and at the Institute of Experimental Biology (IEB), Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shanghai. Their approaches to a common problem, that is, how to spawn fish in artificial ponds, reflected the political imperatives of Maoist mass science (self-reliance, practicality, and utility), but also demonstrated the variety of ways in which mass participation was enacted.
The classical case of learning from the masses by bridging expert and lay knowledge is evident in the work of Zhong Lin (1915–96) of the SSIA in Guangzhou, a former graduate of a domestic technical fishery college, which he attended in the 1930s, before undertaking graduate studies in Hong Kong under the supervision of the eminent ichthyologist Lin Shuyan (1903–74) in the 1940s. Politically well-connected, Zhong marshaled his extensive network of fishermen, officials, and researchers to build an experimental pond (measuring about 2000 square meters) in which he could control water flow.12 He raised fingerlings of bighead and silver carp in the pond until they reached sexual maturity, at which point he and his team injected extracts made from the urine of pregnant women and the hypothalamus of common carp in the female fish. Despite their best efforts, they did not achieve the desired results, because the water flow in the pond could not simulate the intense torrents experienced in natural riverine spawning areas. He and his team attempted to increase the water flow speed, and when that did not work, they took “an extended field trip in the carp spawning areas of Guangdong and Guangxi to learn from the masses.” Despite learning much about carp behavior, their attempt to learn from the masses does not appear to have directly contributed to the ensuring breakthrough, which owed more to the relocation of propagation efforts to a pond that was constantly flooded by tidal changes in nearby rivers (Jiang 2017: 9–10).
In the second breakthrough at the IEB, mass participation crossed both institutional and species lines. The lead researcher of the IEB, Zhu Xi (1900–1962), had been trained in the tradition of experimental embryology in France. When he returned to China in the early 1930s, he took up several academic positions at universities and research institutes in Beijing, Shanghai, Zhejiang, and Taipei. Like Zhong Lin, Zhu Xi had also been interested in “developing a water channel system that could guide water flow to mimic the natural waves in rivers, which would then trick female carp into spawning,” but his plan encountered both political and financial obstacles, so he shifted his attention toward experiments primarily using hormones to initiate carp spawning. Zhu’s team at the IEB succeeded by relying on “the material resources and expertise available for studies of embryology and gynecology at IEB.” In particular, the institute’s already available supply of human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) for research was further supplemented with HCG extracted from urine samples from pregnant women working at the seven large cotton-weaving factories in the Yangshupu District. Researchers also contacted local health stations in the city for information on the number and locations of nearby pregnant women. As Jiang so vividly captures, “Four full-time workers were devoted to the task, soliciting urine donations from factory workers and pregnant women registered at health stations. It was said that some of the women being solicited were so enthusiastic about the prospect of contributing to socialist aquaculture that they would save up to three to four liters of urine themselves and wait for the researchers’ next visit.” Through this comprehensive and integrated search effort, Zhu and his team processed sixty liters of urine a day during the most intense period of carp propagation. Mass participation here involved cross-class cooperation (patriotism of factory women!), but it also entailed the mobilization of state and municipal resources to identify, contact, and coordinate the pick-up of liters and liters of urine (Jiang 2017). Under different circumstances, we might categorize this kind of involvement as akin to contemporary efforts around responsive science.13
3 A Desirable Past
In his foreword to Mr. Science and Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the historian Joseph Dauben (2013: xxvi) ventures to say “mass-line science was most productive in cases where manpower alone, that is, large numbers of individuals, could be used to launch massive studies, as in seismology and meteorology, where data collection over vast areas is necessary and requires thousands of individual observers.” That mass participation could be especially helpful when large numbers of individuals were needed does not mean that this function alone defined the epistemic and organizational value of mass participation—or Maoist mass science more broadly construed. Indeed, we may be putting the cart before the horse by presuming that only those scientific endeavors that require large number of individuals benefited from Maoist mass science. A more extensive examination of scientific practices will likely help us flesh out the role Maoist mass science played for different scientific disciplines. But there is a larger concern implied in this observation, and it has to do with what kind of past contemporary Chinese science esteems and construes as it part of its conceptual formation. What are the implications of saying that mass science works only or primarily when large numbers of people are needed? To what extent does such a characterization write out the Mao era and its real, if complicated, legacies for the history of science and technology in the PRC?
Consider, for example, Lijing Jiang’s fascinating account of Sino-American collaborations on cancer research in the immediate post–Cultural Revolution period (Jiang 2018b). By the 1970s, cancer research in the United States had become increasingly—and some argued narrowly—focused on certain viruses and genetic mutations. American scientists critical of this cure-based approach to cancer research were attracted to Chinese cancer epidemiology, because it appeared to offer institutional, intellectual, and organizational alternatives to those dominant in the United States. Lobbying efforts by a parent association whose children suffered from acute lymphoblastic leukemia succeeded in pressuring the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to form the Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer Program in 1974. Research on the viral causes of cancer had failed to produce useful treatment solutions, and an increasing number of researchers began arguing for more funding and focus on epidemiological and nutrition research on cancer. With the rapprochement in Sino-American relations, American scientific visitors to China were especially “impressed not only by certain ingenious, low-cost diagnostic and research designs that they found in rural centers on cancer surveillance but also by what they saw as an effective social organization of health surveys and prevention campaigns, accomplished with mass mobilizations unseen in the United States.” They were especially fascinated by a nationwide cancer mortality survey, which had been organized and coordinated by cell biologist Li Bing (1920–2000) and her colleague Li Junyao (b. 1935) between 1975 and 1978. Originally motivated by the diagnosis of Zhou Enlai’s bladder cancer in 1973, the nationwide survey synthesized local surveys to produce a comprehensive atlas of cancer mortality of different types from a population of 800 million people in 29 provinces (Jiang 2018b).
As Jiang demonstrates, Li and Li’s nationwide cancer survey rested on an institutional and socio-political infrastructure created by Maoist mass science. Prevention was emphasized; local need the imperative. As we saw with seismology, people young and old were encouraged to be inventive and resourceful when tackling problems.14 Cross-sectional mobilization of human resources—scientists sent down to rural locations, mobile health workers, sent-down youths, barefoot doctors, county officials, peasants—as well as an emphasis on rural health enabled scientific coordination across time and space, as well as the implementation of local prevention campaigns that advocated for drinking purified water, avoiding moldy foods and pickled vegetables, and changing unhealthy dietary habits. And yet, when Bing Li and Junyao Li presented the survey results at the first bilateral Sino-American conference on cancer research held at Columbia University in 1980, they did not contextualize the survey project in terms of Maoist mass science and instead “introduced their work to American colleagues in exceptionally clean scientific language” (Jiang 2018b: 88). This omission reflected the changed political and economic objectives initiated by Deng Xiaoping, under whose leadership modernization through expert science had become a priority. But other contextual forces that we might describe as implicit forms of culturalism in the practice of science is also evident. Jiang notes that Chinese cell biologists quickly discerned on the basis of earlier international experiences, for example at Moscow Cancer Congress in 1962, that laboratory-based research, however sophisticated and in keeping with the world development of cell biology, were less esteemed than work in local epidemiology (83–84).15 Seen as derivative, Chinese laboratory research was seen as less valuable than studies involving low-tech screenings and surveys of cervical cancer rates in urban areas. Even as Chinese and American scientists framed their collaboration in the 1980s as science free of politics—another variant of science for science’s sake—the nature of Sino-American collaboration owed much to how each party understood the political value and the epistemological mooring of scientific research.
Jiang’s case study resonates strongly with Sigrid Schmalzer’s essay in this issue on Mao era agricultural terracing and its place within the agricultural heritage paradigm. Both articles ask us to consider the interrelationships connecting science and its meaning-making processes in the Mao and post-Mao periods. Recent scholarship has challenged our assumptions about the unitary nature of the Chinese state in its relations to science writ large and scientific communities. It has deepened our understanding of how different scientific fields, different scientific endeavors constructed positions of authority and expertise. It has expanded our geographic understanding of scientific networks, and it has begun to reveal how Maoist mass science was as much a top-down articulation of specific political goals as a mosaic of bottom-up concrete actions. Add to this already heady mix of revelations, the transnational ways in which Chinese science has been and continues to be interwoven, entangled, and transformed—even relative isolation could not prevent transnational inflections on the culture of Maoist mass science—and we have a veritable feast of scholarship. But now is not the time to rest on our laurels. Indeed, if there is one thing to take away from recent scholarship, it is that Mao-era science matters, and how we reckon with it is a question that will not go away.
I thank Fa-ti Fan, Wen-Hua Kuo, Sigrid Schmalzer, and Shellen Wu for their wisdom and advice.
For a more comprehensive examination of recent scholarship on the history of science in China during the course of the long twentieth century, please see the forthcoming essay by Shellen Wu and Fa-ti Fan. Wu and Fan kindly shared a draft of their essay as I was preparing my own. I am indebted to their generosity. For a fascinating exploration of Chinese economic development and the spectral figurations haunting the contemporary PRC, please see Rojas and Lizinger 2016.
“Shades of Mao” comes from Barmé 1996.
For earlier appraisals of the history of science in China, especially the post-1949 period, that examine the problem of the science and the state, please see Wang 2007, Fan 2007, Fan 2012b, and Elman 2013.
For a thoughtful consideration of how English-language scholarship differs from Chinese-language scholarship on the history of Chinese state-science relations, please see Wang 2007.
The term Chinese-American refers to an American national of Chinese descent. However, many of the scientists Wang examined were Chinese nationals who had returned to China after 1949. To capture both groups of Chinese scientists, Wang used the term Chinese/American.
Daston and Galison argue that we approach objectivity not as a uniform concept but as sets of scientific practices that formed different kinds of scientific persona. My use of “objectivity” is gesturing toward the epistemic virtues described by Daston and Galison, but as we will see in the case of socialist statistics, there was a prevailing notion of what constituted objectivity, and it did not reference truth-to-nature, mechanical objectivity, or trained judgment. See Daston and Galison 2007 and Ghosh 2018.
For a detailed account of scholarship in English and Chinese on the Chinese development of missile and space technologies, please see footnote 1 of Li, Zhang, and Hu 2017.
Indeed, if we can answer that question and if the answer is in the negative, we will also need to think critically about how sameness in scientific practice and knowledge arises through deliberate actions in which actors intentionally seek to overcome differences. How and why certain scientific fields produce and reproduce structures of epistemic durability that would seem to be immune to the macropolitics of society and polity as well as geography is a phenomenon crying out for further attention. See Ito 2017 and Sun and Hu 2017.
Time and circumstance do not allow for a deeper probe into recent scholarship on the history of medicine and public health in the PRC, but here too we see how a focus on scientific practice can add nuance to how we understand the importance and work of barefoot doctors, Mao’s anti-schistosomiasis campaigns, and Cultural Revolution–era malaria research on artemisinin. See Fang 2012, Fu 2017, and Gross 2016.
Along this vein, please see Jiang 2018a for a closer examination of how Chinese embryologists creatively realigned previous research questions, materials, and traditions to Marxist philosophy and agricultural productivity demands; on self-reliance, see Schmalzer 2014.
When efficacy is predicated on successful predication, it only takes a single instance of prediction failure to threaten people’s confidence. That seems to be what happened with the magnitude 7.8 Tangshan earthquake on July 27, 1976, which destroyed an industrial city only 100 miles from Beijing and located in one of the most densely monitored provinces. When researchers from the Institute of Biophysics fanned out in the affected region and began conducting fieldwork, they discovered that human psychology played an important role in how people processed collected observations and data. See Fan 2018.
A project of this sort must have been similar in scale to commune-led infrastructural projects. The right kind of social network would certainly be necessary to see this project to fruition, but the organization of labor and physical reconstruction of local landscape also suggests there is more to this story than just knowing the right people.
See the work of evolutionary biologist Kevin Esvelt, www.responsivescience.org.
Homemade earthquake warning devices; an apparatus to measure geomagnetism made with a magnetic needle, a mirror, and a plastic bucket; a noninvasive, low-cost method that involved inhaling a balloon to screen for esophageal cancer—there is a material history of scientific practice in evidence in many of these accounts and perhaps a siren call for more detailed investigations of the small technologies or the materialization of technocentric modernity. See Mukharji 2016.
Chemla and Keller (2017: 3) have observed that in attempting to account for the diversity of styles, reasoning, and practices of science, theorists have increasingly turned to culture. Culture, which anthropological literature has long emphasized, has its own fair share of definitional problems, but when attached to science in the form of cultures of scientific practice, it also tends to beget two specific risks: “the temptation posed by concepts of culture to slight the dynamic and interactive character of the formation of any kind of cultural identity, and the pitfall of cultural essentialism (what we call culturalism), the view of cultures as essentially homogenous, static, and fixed by prior constraints of race, gender, or nationality.”