Project “Science, Modernity and Political Behavior in Contemporary China (1949-1978)” (concluded)

This project is supported by a generous research grant of the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation (, for a duration of two years (2013-15).

It has resulted in a monograph: Rui Kunze and Marc Andre Matten: Knowledge Production in Mao-Era China—Learning from the Masses (Lexington).

This book traces and analyzes the transformation of the public discourse of science and technology in Mao-era China. Based on extensive primary sources such as science dissemination materials and technical handbooks, as well as mass media products of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution periods, this book delineates the emergence of a pragmatic approach to knowledge in society. To achieve the goal of fast modernization with limited financial, human, and material resources, the party-state accommodated Western and local, “modern” and “traditional” knowledges in the fields of agricultural mechanization, steel production and Chinese veterinary medicine. The case studies demonstrate that scientific knowledge production in the Mao-era included various social groups and was entangled with political and cultural issues. This reveals and explains the continuity of scientific thinking across the historical divides of 1949 and 1978, which has hitherto been underestimated.

Research Plan

In 20th century, China has transformed itself from an agrarian state to one that is dominated by worship of science and technology, relentlessly pursuing the establishment of a scientific society. In his 2007 work, Wilson Keeley maintains that China is on the road to becoming the next scientific powerhouse, being more innovative and progressive than the current leading nations, may it be Europe or the United States. This fundamental change can be explained by the constantly rising investments in research and development, by state support for big engineer projects, and of course by efforts of the current ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to gain or maintain legitimacy by proving to be a successful modernizer. In this context, the dissemination of scientific thinking has been highly influential for the modernization process in 20th century China, yet existing research has failed so far to analyze its significance for political behavior. It is still unknown where the omnipresent blind faith in science and the more than obvious optimistic attitude towards an inevitably better future stems from. While it would be easy to dismiss the installment of scientific thinking as an ideological undertaking, it does not explain how the belief in the omnipotence in science gained firm ground among the population. For example, when the Fukushima catastrophe hit Japan, this was no reason for the Chinese government to stop the building of new nuclear power plants (with 25 new ones currently under construction), nor did significant public protest erupt. Likewise, despite the rise in environmental awareness (organic food is more and more popular, also due to the incessant food scandals), there is still no thorough critical assessment of genetically modified crops and plants. On the contrary, those crops and plants are – since the development of hybrid rice in the 1970s – seen as a viable (or scientific) way for providing sufficient food resources for the population. The purpose of this project is twofold. First, we want to find out the origin of and motivations for the belief in the omnipotence of science. This will be done by analyzing the genesis of scientific thinking in 20th century, ranging from intellectual discourse to the convictions among the population.

An important aspect is here the effort of the Chinese government in the latter half of 20th century to disseminate scientific thinking and acting among the population. In the Maoist period (1949-1978), this was conceived as a way to modernize the country by raising productivity and improving living conditions. While the campaign on kepu (科普) has been in place since the 1950s, there has so far been no in-depth research on this issue. Second, the intention is to determine the consequences of the propagation of science in regard to society, politics, and the academic community. These issues range from legitimization of CCP rule, emphasis on science and especially natural sciences in the education system, trends in the development of new technologies to intellectual honesty (plagiarism, patent infringement). All these issues are of global concern considering the growing interdependence between China, its neighboring countries and Europe both in economic and science cooperation. By focusing on these two aspects, this project intends to make a valuable contribution to the research on the social and political transformation of the PRC influenced by the science discourse. It will further be able to shed light on how science is not only propagated successfully, but also what consequence result if science is used as a rationale for political behavior.


Pictures as a media for the popularization of science during the 1950s in the PRC

by Jonas Humpert

In the 50s the political leaders of the Chinese government started various campaigns to economically catch up with Western industrial nations. The Great Leap Forward dayuejin 大跃进 was thus implemented following the first five year plan (1954-1957) in order to supplement the second five year plan.

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Veterinärbarfußärzte (赤脚兽医) in der VR China

by Julia Hauser

In der Aufbauphase des Sozialismus in der VR China wurde der Bekämpfung von Tierkrankheiten bei der Entwicklung des Agrarsektors eine zentrale Bedeutung zugeschrieben. Da Epidemien und Krankheiten eine Gefahr für die Tierzucht darstellen, war es wichtig, Fachpersonal in Tierheilkunde auszubilden, um Krankheiten zu bekämpfen oder vorzubeugen.

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