The death last month of renowned Chinese rice geneticist Yuan Longping offered an opportunity for US media to say something positive about China and science: the story of the humble but brilliant Chinese scientist whose invention of hybrid rice saved countless peasants from starvation has been a refreshing break from news of the escalating US-China conflict. Still, the outpouring of grief and gratitude in Chinese social media may be hard for people in the US to fathom: Yuan Longping undoubtedly enjoyed more fame than any living scientist in the US, a mark not only of his accomplishments but also of the status of scientists, and science itself, in recent Chinese history.
And yet, Yuan Longping’s death has also generated some undercurrents of doubt and criticism not entirely masked by state efforts to clamp down on negative portrayals. These rumblings recall something of the public response to the awarding, in 2015, of China’s first Nobel Prize in science to the pharmaceutical chemist Tu Youyou for her malaria research. In both cases, the reasons for the ambivalence lie in the complex politics of science in China today, which in turn owe a great deal to unresolved tensions about the meaning of the Mao era—when both Yuan Longping’s and Tu Youyou’s research came to fruition.
In its obituary of Yuan Longping, the New York Times hewed closely to the narrative established in Yuan’s own memoir: his parents were teachers who valued education; he studied genetics despite political pressures to embrace Lysenkoism; he was inspired to pursue rice breeding after witnessing people dying of famine; he “plowed on with his research even as the Cultural Revolution threw China into deadly political infighting”; and his achievements should be considered alongside those of US scientist Norman Borlaug as two parts of the so-called “Green Revolution.” In the US, this is a relatively familiar term for the set of technologies developed during the mid-twentieth century that dramatically increased crop yields. In China, it is a rarely used term and more likely to call to mind the “green” of environmentalism. In actuality, given the specific history of the term it is a highly ironic designation for research that arose in Mao-era China.
In 1967, USAID director William Gaud introduced the concept of Green Revolution as an alternative to “red revolution.” By sharing agricultural technologies that raised production and improved livelihoods, the US hoped to dissuade Third World countries from pursuing political, especially communist, revolution. This was a quintessentially technocratic approach that Mao and his followers explicitly rejected: rather, they insisted that technological transformation must not be divorced from social and political change. The technology for which Yuan Longping is famous emerged during the Cultural Revolution, the “reddest” period of Chinese history, out of a research program stamped with key characteristics of Maoist science.
Agricultural scientists had long recognized the phenomenon known as hybrid vigor: when two breeds of plants or animals are hybridized, the first generation of offspring is typically more robust than either their parents or subsequent generations. The trick was to create a technology that would produce first-generation hybrids on a large scale every year, which was particularly challenging with a self-pollinating plant like rice. In a backwater college in rural Hunan, Yuan Longping worked to overcome these obstacles with a team of peasants studying to become agricultural technicians. Once the technology had been developed, the elaborate infrastructure of Mao-era agricultural research and extension came into play: young peasants from rice-growing regions throughout China travelled to Hainan Island where they received intensive training, and then returned to their villages to teach others and begin local seed production. Mass participation, cultivation of rural youth talent, local self-reliance—all were hallmarks of Maoist red-revolutionary science.
And yet, if it is ironic to associate Yuan Longping with USAID’s technocratic vision of Green Revolution, it is also (ironically) fitting. Just five years after the hybrid rice field experiments began showing promise, Deng Xiaoping launched a dramatic transformation of China’s political economy. The red-revolutionary values in which hybrid rice had been embedded fell to the side, replaced by the production and marketing (including international marketing) through the China National Seed Corporation. Instead of valorizing Mao’s red revolution and facilitating local self-reliance, the success of hybrid rice came to validate a technocratic vision very similar to that of the Green Revolution, and arguably helped achieve the Green Revolution’s goal of making the developing world safe for capitalism.
Yuan Longping’s story thus straddles contradictory historical periods and raises uncomfortable questions about the meaning of the past and the legitimacy of the present. Since Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power, the Cultural Revolution has been portrayed as a ten-year catastrophe for science. Celebrating Yuan’s research within this narrative requires emphasizing the ways Yuan supposedly bucked Maoist pressures and achieved success in spite of the radical politics of the Cultural Revolution—hence the repetition of slim anecdotes testifying to Yuan’s resistance to Lysenkoism, the quintessential example in post-socialist memory of “leftist error.” Yuan, like all scientists, certainly faced his share of political struggles, but his research was nonetheless a product of red-revolutionary science. Some of those values continue to resonate to this day, and a large part of Yuan’s popular appeal owes a great deal to the way he embodies the Maoist ideal of the scientist who is simultaneously a peasant—who is humble and does not fear getting his hands and feet dirty. Indeed, as his biographies and obituaries frequently highlight, Yuan actively identified as an “intellectual peasant” (有知识的农民) or a “muddy-legs” (泥腿子), and is now remembered fondly by the Mao-era term of respect “old peasant” (老农).
But celebrating an individual scientist on the basis of this earthy ideal produces a paradox, because it runs counter to the values of humility and collectivism. Mao-era articles on hybrid rice avoided mentioning Yuan’s own contributions, instead highlighting those of the peasant-technician Li Bihu or, more often, emphasizing the broader “mass hybrid breeding scientific experiment movement.” It was during Hua Guofeng’s brief administration (1976-78) that Yuan Longping himself began to be recognized: Yuan’s achievements in Hunan shone a welcome light on Chairman Hua himself, who had directed agriculture in Hunan during those years. Even so, Hua-era reports on the research continued to emphasize the priorities of mass participation and local self-reliance. In the very different climate of the reform era, the glorification of individual elite scientists became the new norm, and Yuan increasingly became the unambiguous hero of the story. And yet, Chinese online discussions today continue to probe the question of whether Yuan himself should be credited with the invention of hybrid rice, or whether that honor belongs to his peasant-assistants or even to a larger, collective effort.
The current politics of food in China also produce a somewhat thorny context for the celebration of Yuan Longping. The state celebrates Yuan for his role in establishing China’s food security, which strengthens China’s position geopolitically. But an increasingly powerful consumer class worries more about food safety, and Yuan’s association with biotechnology companies that develop GMOs is a mark against him for some—while those favoring GMOs have objected to Yuan’s expressed doubts about some GMOs. Meanwhile, the food sovereignty movement has called attention to the ways in which hybrid rice and GM technologies prevent farmers from saving seeds for next year’s crops: farmers are required to purchase seeds every year from the seed companies, eroding peasant income while threatening China’s diverse agricultural genetic heritage. Netizens can still read the renowned rural reformer Li Changping’s impassioned 2011 letter to Yuan Longping, which has been recirculated after Yuan’s death by proponents of organic agriculture. In the letter, Li decried what he called “death-without-progeny” seeds, denounced the “geneticists and seed-industry capitalists” who had created them in pursuit of “monopolistic profits,” and begged Yuan to “climb down from the speeding chariot of commerce” and “give back the peasants’ right to freely select their seeds.” Mao-era anti-capitalist politics are thus still very much with us and will continue to haunt the memory of Yuan Longping.
Finally, the meaning attributed to Yuan Longping’s life in 2021 cannot be disentangled from China’s position on the global stage. As Foreign Minstry spokesperson Zhao Lijian proclaimed, “Yuan Longping belongs not just to China, but also to the world.” Throughout the ruptures of recent history, the PRC state has sought to play a prominent role in global science and technology, and also to use science and technology to further its global position: from the Mao-era days of international solidarity when Chinese agronomists promoted anti-colonial self-reliance in Africa, to the early Deng Xiaoping era when the Chinese National Seed Corporation struck a deal with the US company Occidental Petroleum (exchanging hybrid rice for hybrid cotton), to the current Belt and Road Initiative which supports the extension of agricultural technologies to countries around the world. In the end, whether Yuan Longping’s research will promote self-reliance or dependency, cooperation or capitalism, sustainability or ecological degradation, will depend less on the technologies themselves than on the political and economic structures that govern them.
Sigrid Schmalzer is professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst; she has written extensively on Yuan Longping in her 2016 book Red Revolution, Green Revolution: Scientific Farming in Socialist China (U. of Chicago Press, 2016).