Center for Strategic Assessment and forecasts

Autonomous non-profit organization

Home / Politics and Geopolitics / China and its role in the new world order / Articles
China: how science made a superpower
Material posted: Publication date: 14-10-2019
Shellen Wu traces the growth of the dominant forces in science, in the second of a series of essays about how the last 150 years has shaped today's research system.

At the opening ceremony of the Olympic games 2008 in Beijing was presented four great inventions of ancient China: the compass, printing press, paper and gunpowder. Scientists in China published the most research, Chinese innovation in science and technology changed the world.


However, less than a hundred years before this Chinese philosopher Feng Yulan wrote a provocative essay, "Why China has no science" [1] . A scientist, trained at Columbia University in new York, argued that since ancient times the philosophical tradition of the nation and a unique understanding of the relationship of man to nature was not allowed to take root the spirit of scientific research. Feng, like many others at that time and today, insisted that science was the only salvation for the nation in a strong decline of the country.


Surrounded by disasters

The disaster has created conditions for the development of science and technology in China. Last Imperial era, the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), faced a number of humiliating defeats by foreign powers in the nineteenth century, beginning with the first opium war in 1839. This war and the subsequent crisis of opium led to one of the largest ever internal turmoil. The Taiping rebellion (1850-1864) devastated the richest region in the center of the country and led to the deaths of 50 million people.


In 1868, a year before the Foundation of Nature, was published the first textbook of Western science in Chinese — "Introduction to natural philosophy" (Geba rumen). It was intended for students in the College of interpreters, — the institution, open to the reformers, who sought to adapt the Empire to the ever-changing world, teaching aspiring officials in foreign languages and knowledge from the West. An American who translated the book, William Martin, had no experience in the field of science, but understood its importance for the improvement of the countries affected by the disaster. The book contains illustrations of microscopes and trains, as well as basic explanations of the unique concepts in chemistry, electricity and physics.


Martin and other Protestant missionaries who went to China in the nineteenth century saw the development of the country as the next frontier of spiritual salvation. The introduction of science through the tutorial Martin and other translated works opened the way to improve the material welfare of the huge population of poor countries. The Chinese who worked on the translations, less interested in spiritual salvation, but recognized the importance of science as the basis of the growing military and economic power of the West. They saw the lag in the development of science the cause of backwardness of China.

China: how science made a superpower Science, History, China, Development, Donapost
Liu Yang became the first female astronaut of China in 2012.


By 1863 mathematics Xu Shou and Hua Hanfan built China's first ship, using as a guide the illustration of the missionary magazine. Then they helped create the translation, which presented numerous scientific works in China. By the end of the nineteenth century, many other Chinese were convinced that the rich and powerful West has made science and technology. Thousands of students went to study abroad, many to Japan. Considering science as a way to ease the troubles of their country, they returned home, trying to create their own fields.


Since the dynasty collapsed in slow motion, missionaries and other representatives of the foreign powers became increasingly assertive in domestic matters. Hot, dry summers of 1900, the simmering tension broke out. The rebels, targeting foreigners besieged diplomatic circles in Beijing. The first international news sensation of the new century, troops from eight countries, including the UK, United States and Japan, rescued the trapped diplomats.


In the subsequent frenzy of destruction and looting of French and German soldiers took over the Observatory on the outskirts of the old town, in which there were astronomical instruments made for the court of the Jesuit priests in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Germans had sent home a bunch of astrolabes and sextants, elaborately decorated with dragons and other Royal motifs. (They were exhibited at the Palace in Potsdam near Berlin until 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles provided for their return). Worse, eight invading countries have introduced significant compensation payments. They bankrupted the Qing government, and hastened his death.


Americans have created a scholarship Fund — the money that the generation of the best Chinese students used to study in the United States. In January 1914, a group of them founded the Scientific society of China at Cornell University in Ithaca, new York.


The backbone of the nation
Thus, the flagship organization of Chinese science in the first half of the twentieth century turned out to be abroad. The founders and subsequent students mostly come back to China and become leaders in their fields, while political instability and lack of Central funding made the study extremely difficult. Trained in the disciplines that many consider necessary to build a modern country, they started to work in the field of agricultural Sciences, genetics, biology, chemistry, and more [4].


For example, a group consisting primarily of geologists, trained abroad, urged the government to sponsor research of national resources. One of them, Ding Wenjiang, who in 1915 became one of the founders of the Chinese geological survey in Beijing, has become a prominent public intellectual, participating in widely publicized debates, and encouraging to increase state funding of science [5]. His tireless activity helped the Geology to become the most cohesive and respected at the international level science developed in China in the first half of the twentieth century.

China: how science made a superpower Science, History, China, Development, Donapost
Yuan Lundin helped to create hybrid rice, which caused the green revolution in China


Meanwhile, Xu Chongqing, and Whether Fanboy, two Chinese physics, educated in Japan, introduced the theory of relativity [6]. Rockefeller colleague Hands and tan Sajani returned from the United States to lead the leading Department of biology and genetics. Biologists Hu Sansa and Bin JI called for the taxonomic study of the Chinese flora and fauna [7 , 8]. In subsequent decades, these scientists are becoming more and more concerned to base their research on foreign models, instead aiming to build Chinese science.


Around the same time the phrase "saving China through science" ("kexue jiuguo") often appeared in popular works. Poverty and political unrest pursued foreign students. Studying the physiology and genetics of plants at Cornell, the American students have sent Jin Shanbao as a joke, spoiled food, thereby teased him that this meal supposedly for his starving countrymen. Deeply frustrated and seeking to alleviate the suffering of China, Jin returned home before finishing his degree. He continued to develop high-yielding varieties of wheat, writing: "food is the first need of people, agriculture is the Foundation of the country" [9].


The belief that science will save the nation, reached its peak during the Japanese invasion, which began in 1937. Faced with superior forces, the nationalist government retreated far to the West in the mountainous province of Sichuan. Many scientists willingly followed them. For example, geologists continued their work on the farm outside of the capital in wartime Chongqing.


Photos taken by the British biologist Joseph Needham during a visit to the city in 1943 to reflect the scarce capacity and the spirit of patriotism among the scientists with whom he collided. Fascinated, he began to study the history of science in China. (Needham continued to publish a series of monumental books entitled "Science and civilization in China", which helped popularize the ideas of the four great inventions of ancient China both within the country and around the world).


Thus, the desire to solve national problems through science prevailed before 1949, when Marxist ideology gave priority to the application, not the theoretical. Throughout the twentieth century the biggest problem of the country was to feed and improve the living standards of a huge growing population. Regardless of their political affiliation, most of the leading Chinese scholars of every era have devoted themselves to solving these problems.


Science for all

The year is 2019 — a year of anniversaries. The may fourth movement in 1919, in response to the betrayal of China by the allies at Versailles, determined by the desire of a generation of Chinese intellectuals. Student protests in Tiananmen square in 1989 was based on this tradition and become a turning point in the Chinese era of "Reform and opening". This month marks the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the people's Republic.


In hagiographic descriptions of the era, rife with horrors, 1949 was the beginning of a "new" China. The mode is changed. When the Communists defeated the nationalists in the civil war that followed the defeat of Japan in 1945, most of the scientists stayed behind to help rebuild. The new regime continued to encourage the development of science, which originated in the previous period.


Chinese poster, promoting the study of science in 1980

Although the ranks of Chinese researchers remained essentially the same, in the first decade of the Communist regime, the rhetoric has changed dramatically. Science was now explicitly defined as the desire and for the people. Einstein and relativity were absent, conducted the surveys and a campaign of mass health. At the peak of Sino-Soviet cooperation in the 1950s, the years 10 000 Soviet advisers worked throughout China, providing technical and scientific assistance to the industrial development of the country.

The Communist party watched a complete restructuring of universities and research institutions in the country to eliminate the influence of the United States and Europe. Soviet specialists helped to identify the first five-year agenda of Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) to focus on the extraction of resources and other practical applications of science.

In fact, this agenda did not differ radically from research by Chinese scientists during the war [10] . The Chinese scientific community is also not fully surrendered to Soviet influence. For example, pseudogenetic of lysenkoists, so detrimental to agriculture in other countries, and became the official position on this issue in China due to strong resistance from the eminent Chinese biologists, despite strong political pressure.

Financial constraints of doing science in a poor country formed a generation of Chinese researchers. Those who continue to make significant progress, downplayed his Western training and experience, emphasizing instead its sympathy for the masses. Received the degree of doctor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis in 1949, entomologist PU Zhelong returned to mainland China and called for the use of insects instead of expensive chemical pesticides (which have proven more environmentally sustainable way). In the 1970-ies of the scientist in the field of agriculture yuan Lundin, and others created a hybrid rice, which led to green revolution in China. Yuan said that he had learned from his interaction with farmers in the field [11].

The Maoist era also diversified the scientific workforce. Women, peasants and young people encouraged to challenge the social hierarchy in their villages and workplaces and praised for their contribution to science. In particular, for women in the 1950s and 1960s dramatically expanded the horizons and allowed them to participate in science to an unprecedented degree. That Uyu, for example, which received the Nobel prize in medicine, made the most of their study, antimalarial properties of artemisinin. (The transformation was temporary. Over the past four decades, gender bias is back together with market reforms.)

But the scientists who sought stability and support research disappointed: the cultural revolution began in 1966, closed the CAS and all the universities. Education abroad has become a problem, and the same researchers who remained in China because of patriotism in the previous decades, was under attack. Revolutionary aspirations were considered more important than expertise. Design of dams and other large-scale projects on the construction of socialism by overcoming nature sometimes went against the advice of experts [12 , 13].

Projects of importance to national defence, including nuclear, missile and satellite research program designated as "Two bombs and one satellite", continued to receive large government support and were protected from political interference. Headed by Chinese scholars, most of whom were trained in Europe and the United States, China became a nuclear power in 1964 and for the first time successfully launched a satellite in 1970.

Fifty years ago the prospects of science in China as a whole, was grim. Many areas have been stopped, because the very institutional structure that supports the development of science, was closed in the decade of the cultural revolution. The elders of science worked hard for years on remote farms and reformist camps. In their journals, Vice-President of CAS, Zhu Kajana, meteorologist, trained at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says that the days in the 1960s, the years seemed short, but "visible". Many fared much worse, some even died. But the idea that science and technology formed the basis of modern society, never completely disappeared.

When the United States and China restored relations in 1972, American scientists hurried to visit China [14]. Most of them were not aware of the scale of the political repression faced by their colleagues, and was excited at the prospect of the study of socialist science. They noted the stagnant state of theoretical research; areas such as elementary particle physics, in China at that time lagged behind for decades compared to the West.

Visitors impressed several successes given the constrained circumstances. In addition to its green revolution, the nation has made significant progress in public health: a mass campaign helped to destroy the schistosomiasis, an infectious disease, which kills about 400,000 people a year. Many of the scientists involved has spent years in remote field work, not seeing their families.

After the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, the emphasis on science and technology once again became relevant. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping officially announced the policy, known as the "Four modernizations," in which special attention was paid to agriculture, industry, national defense, science and technology. By the time the universities and CAS were reopened.

Over the past decade, the Chinese economy is outwardly began to resemble the economy of the capitalist countries. But the top-down approach, elaborated during the years of Mao, still be traced. He created a centralized educational and institutional infrastructure for science, which allowed fast direct strategic investments. For example, the industry of robotics, one of the key components of the plan of China's transition to a high-tech production by 2025, based on the North-East of the country due to the proximity to the research center of robotics CAS in Shenyang. Other strengths, such as materials science and engineering, also based on the interests of the previous epoch in overcoming resource constraints and environmental concerns.

During this period of reforms and discoveries of scientists who were trained abroad in the 1930-ies and 1940-ies and survived the turmoil of the previous decades, regained its value. A new wave of Chinese students began studying abroad and 5.86 million in the period from 1978 to 2018. Large government investment in the last few years contributed to.

Open to ideas

Over the past half century, the belief that science and technology can improve the nation, deeply rooted in Chinese culture, which is evident from the slogans, painted on walls and posters from the cities to the countryside. They do not recognize the link between science and openness to influences and ideas from abroad.

Walk around the Beijing of today allows everywhere to see traces of the history of science. On the East side, the Second ring road are the Jesuit astronomical instruments. On the other side of town, in a quiet corner of Beijing zoo, a small sign indicates where in the last days of the Qing dynasty in 1906 the Ministry of agriculture, industry and Commerce opened the first station for agricultural experiments on 70 hectares of land.

In the North-Western corner of city College of translators has become an elite Beijing University; In the future another College that has historical ties with the United States, is today, Tsinghua University, the leading school of science and technology in China. Posters and public screenings demonstrate the scientific development of the country. Bookstores science fiction the most popular genre. In well-funded laboratories and field stations of modern China rushes forward with a firm belief in its status as a scientific superpower.

On this route there is another story about the interaction with the external world, which transformed the country. In the peaks and valleys of this story is the message — the future demands of internationalism, which promoted the growth of China over the past 150 years.

Nature 574 , 25-28 (2019). doi: 10.1038 / d41586-019-02937-2


  1. Feng Y.-L. Int. J. Ethics 32 , 237-263 (1922).
  2. Man, Y. East Asian science. Technol. Med. 16, 13-52 (1999).
  3. Haters, So Bringing the world home: Appropriating the West in late Qing and early Republican China (Univ. Hawaii Press, 2005).
  4. Wang, Z. Osiris 17 , 291-322 (2002).
  5. Kwok, DWY Scientism in Chinese thought 1900-1950 (Yale Univ. Press, 1965).
  6. Hu, D. China and albert Einstein: the Reception of the physicist and his theory in China 1917-1979 years (Harvard Univ. Press, 2005).
  7. Schneider, L. in biology and revolution in twentieth century Rank and 72 (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).
  8. Jiang, L. Hist. Stud. NAT Sci. 46 , 154-206 (2016).
  9. Cited in Geng, X. "Service to China through agricultural science: American Chinese scientists" and "Scientific nationalism" in a decentralized China (1911-1945) 220 (Univ. Minnesota Thesis, 2015).
  10. Wu, S. and Fang, F.-T. "Modern China", Cambridge history of science Vol. 8 (eds Slotten, HR, Numbers, RL & Livingstone, DN) (Cambridge Univ. Press, in press).
  11. Schmalzer, S. in Red Revolution, Green Revolution: Scientific Farming in Socialist China 92-93 (Univ. Chicago Press, 2016).
  12. Fan, F.-T. Sci. Context 25 , 127-154 (2012).
  13. Shapiro, J. The War. Mao against nature: politics and environment in revolutionary China (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001).
  14. Wang, Z. Hist. Stud. Phys. Biol. Sci. 30 , 249-277 (1999).

Samusenko L.


Tags: China , science

RELATED MATERIALS: Politics and Geopolitics