Biophysics in Twentieth-Century China

A review of Biophysics, Rockets, and the State: The Making of a Scientific Discipline in Twentieth-Century China, by Yi Lai Christine Luk.

Biophysics, the topic of Christine Luk’s dissertation, is a fluid discipline, “defined by doing,” i.e., understood by each practitioner as what she is working on. Luk compares the formation and social position of biophysics in the People’s Republic of China with the case in the United States (see Nicolas Rasmussen, Picture Control, The Electron Microscope, and the Transformation of Biology in America, 1940-1960. California: Stanford University Press, 1997) and notes the varying content and context of the discipline with the same name.

In China, biophysics was founded as part of the space program. Luk illustrates this with the paradoxical scene of the 2009 funeral of Bei Shizhang 贝时璋, the founder of Chinese biophysics, which featured China’s first man in space, Yang Liwei, and the director of China’s manned space programme, Chen Shenguang, as prominent guests. Luk thus intends to show both the importance of the socio-historical context for the contents of science (building on the work of Robert Kohler, and Jane Maienschein) and the fact that “Chinese history looks different when the issue of building a scientific discipline is placed at the center of the analysis.” (p. 2)

In the first chapter, Luk ponders the peculiarities of Chinese historical context. She suggests that China’s distinguished indigenous scientific tradition, including the invention of gunpowder and fireworks, was a factor favoring the protection of cultural specificity (in contrast to the situation in Japan). The Chinese space program was surely a tool of state legitimacy and national pride, but Luk echoes recent scholarship (such as Darryl Brock and Chunjuan Nancy Wei, eds. Mr. Science, and Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolutions: Science, and Technology in Modern China. Lanham: Lexington, 2013) in arguing that it had other functions as well: serving the people through various satellite services and serving science by advancing scientific disciplines. Moreover, these disciplines were not only driven by projects, as stated in the familiar slogan renwu dai xueke, but also could be actively shaping the projects, as the slogan also has a complement, xueke cu renwu (“disciplines facilitate projects”, pp. 15‑16).

In Chapter 2, Luk maps the understanding of biophysics in the conference keynote speeches or newspaper articles of three publicly visible early Chinese practitioners – Bei Shizhang, Shen Shumin 沈淑敏, and Xu Jinghua 徐京华. Bei spoke at a 1964 conference on the cross-fertilization of disciplines and the approach to “unravel the nature of life with mutual effort from physics, and biology.” (p. 23) Shen Shumin, Bei’s early assistant, wrote an article for the People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao) in 1963 emphasizing the utility of biophysics for agriculture and constructing a dialectical relationship between biology and physics. Major impulses from the latter in the initial development of biophysics were to be supplemented by insights from the former when the discipline became more mature. Xu Jinghua, at the same conference at which Bei spoke, highlighted the contradictions inherent in biophysics as a manifestation of the dialectics of nature, saying that mechanistic philosophy, vitalism, teleology, and organismic theory all come together in biophysical thought.

Luk shows that the three authors all viewed biophysics as a “biology-oriented specialty” and equates their understanding with that of Karl Pearson, who coined the word biophysics around 1900, rather than that of such modern biophysicists as William Bialek, who saw physics as the guiding science, and explanatory framework of the discipline. Bei Shizhang was influenced by the Naturphilosophie of his German teacher, Wilhelm Harms, a neo-Lamarckian. In the 1940s, Bei investigated the transition between non-cellular matter and cells and was also influenced by Olga Lepeshinskaya’s now discredited studies of “the origins of life” in the Soviet Union. He, however, never worked out the detailed mechanism through which his theory was supposed to operate, and it was not taken very seriously in China or abroad.

In the third chapter, “Precursors of Biophysics,” Luk traces Bei’s establishment of the Institute of Biophysics in 1958. Bei initially headed the Institute of Experimental Biology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), but this was broken up into separate divisions in 1953. Bei knew that to ensure the institutionalization of the new field, a higher degree of disciplinary cohesion was needed. His eventual success in creating this was facilitated by his academic prestige, political clout, and mild mannered disposition. Luk compares Bei to the often domineering Francis Schmitt, who alienated key actors and failed to create a cohesive discipline of biophysics in the United States. By contrast, Bei convinced state leadership to include biophysics in the Twelve Year Plan for Science and Technology Development (1956‑1967) and thus turned the remainder of the Institute of Experimental Biology into a project-driven Institute of Biophysics in the CAS.

The fourth chapter deals with the role of biophysics in the Chinese space program. China initially focused on sounding rockets and stratospheric balloons as a stepping stone to a full-blown satellite program. Biophysical sounding rockets, carrying animals, biological material, and sensors to monitor their physiology would eventually lead to manned space missions. In China, the space program (Mission 581) was coordinated by military authorities in specially created military-civilian academies. Here Luk draws another contrasting parallel between China and the United States., where life scientists were seen as secondary to rocket engineers, and space medicine was considered a branch of aviation medicine, the domain of the U.S. Air Force. Luk speculates that a “decentralized political system is not always conducive to optimize federal coordination” (p. 108) and links this to the three-centuries-old controversy between Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle regarding “definitions of reality” (described by Yaron Ezrahi in The Descent of Icarus: Science, and the Transformation of Contemporary Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990). Although political campaigns such as the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957 disrupted Chinese science, scientists working on special missions were to a large extent protected. Moreover, Mao personally intervened in 1960 to support the space program during the post Great Leap Forward economic crisis.

Biophysics was integrated into the space program during the Great Leap Forward via the “big corps” style of management with several participating institutions and the involvement of the masses. Luk emphasizes that Bei Shizhang actively linked up with the rocket designers at the Fifth Academy and persuaded the leadership that his Institute of Biophysics was ideally suited for overseeing the biomedical component of the program. This arrangement provided a great boost to recruitment to the institute, which did not actually have the necessary expertise at the time and also provided political protection, demonstrated by the fact that half of the 36 surviving members of the academic division of biological sciences of the CAS in 1979 were biophysicists (p. 125).

In Chapter 5, Luk moves to biophysics at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC). Founded in 1958 by CAS to provide a pool of talent for its institutes and key national defense technology projects, the university concentrated all its life-sciences related courses in the Department of Biophysics, considered the first such department in the world. The department offered a single program in biophysics, and its staff was largely shared with the Institute of Biophysics of the CAS, as was customary throughout USTC. The content of courses in biophysics leaned heavily toward physics and the study of instrumentation. Luk stresses that this was not a sign of epistemic hierarchy and that other arrangements reflected the respect accorded to biophysics by university management. This included the rejection in 1960 of motions to add programs in biomechanics and biochemistry, interpreted by Luk as attempts of other institutes in CAS to invade the exclusive territory of the Institute of Biophysics. On the other hand, a program in life-science intelligence was added to the department (from the dissolved University of Science Intelligence) with courses focusing more on biology. A program in biochemistry was created for a single year, and its course structure reveals it to be largely an adjunct to biophysics. Luk notes that Chinese biochemistry did not have a strong enough status to challenge biophysics in the same way that Linus Pauling challenged Francis Schmitt in the United States.

Chapter 6 investigates the development of Chinese biophysics on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. It was hit by the wave of downsizing at USTC after the Great Leap Forward, when several proposals for the reduction of its courses and the merger of biophysics with the physics department were submitted. Bei and other biophysicists countered this by suggesting to rename the department “Radiobiology” as this had just become a politically significant topic in the wake of the U.S. “Starfish Prime” nuclear test in 1962. Bei published an article in the People’s Daily denouncing U.S. actions from the point of view of radiobiology. He travelled the country, lectured on the importance of the new discipline, and organized a conference on it in Beijing in 1963 with almost 700 papers. Luk calls this effort a “damage control measure” (p. 175) to newly anchor biophysics as it was about to lose its department at USTC. It was eventually amalgamated with the department of physics in 1963, but still treated with respect by the university administration. Shen Shumin, who replaced Bei as head of the biophysics program, was made deputy head of the new combined department and also a member of the USTC governing board, despite having no track record in physics and little personal authority compared with other board members. At the same time, Bei arranged for sustained development of biophysics beyond Mission 581 by creating a cosmobiology unit in the Institute of Biophysics and introducing a “sounding technology specialty” into the biophysics program at USTC with a heavy emphasis on fieldwork related to the space program. With only two years before the planned launch of biological sounding rockets in 1965, the cosmobiology program had to be very tightly scheduled and hands-on. Most of the graduates were directly assigned to the space program, where they worked in secrecy for years, and never published their results. These biophysicists were behind the success of the first biological sounding rockets launched from Guangde, Anhui, in 1964-1966.

Chapter 7 reconstructs the development of China’s biophysics during the Cultural Revolution. Relevant primary sources for this period are rare, but Luk uses the published documentation on the Peace I (Heping yi hao) mission conducted in 1966-1967 chiefly by junior researchers at the Institute of Biophysics. The project was to send a monkey into space and monitor its physiological and nerve functions. As public order, and production progressively broke down, young biophysicists such as Ma Fenglin 马凤林 used informal connections with factory workers to proceed with production of the necessary devices. The project was however finally terminated in October 1967 without success. In order to document the disruption of science projects during the Cultural Revolution, Luk uses the published diary of Yang Guoyu 杨国宇, Zhou Enlai’s liaison at the Seventh Ministry of Machine Building, responsible for the space program. Yang initially managed to keep violent factionalism under control, but had to cede command to younger, more radical military officers in April 1968 and was unable to prevent the beating to death of Yao Tongbin, a UK-trained metallurgist and director of one of the research institutes under the Seventh Ministry. Luk confronts Yang’s account of the story with that told in the memoirs of Yao’s widow, carefully assessing the validity of their recollections. Yao’s death moved Premier Zhou Enlai to extend protection to Chinese scientists working for the military. Biophysics was also a beneficiary as about a hundred CAS biophysicists were moved to a newly formed Space Medical Engineering Research Institute reporting to the National Defense Science and Technology Research Council under Nie Rongzhen 聂荣臻.

Luk notes that although the Cultural Revolution was doubtless very bad for CAS, it was not necessarily terrible for Chinese science as a whole, as individual researchers could often operate under the new institutional heading and even have new opportunities. Nevertheless, the Institute of Biophysics remained in CAS and its director, Bei Shizhang, remained in good standing. He headed the first delegation of Chinese scientists to the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Sweden in 1972 and continued to work on his long-time topic of the origin of cells. When the head of department of biophysics at Michigan State University, Hsin-Ti Tien (田心棣), visited China in 1973, he mentioned Bei’s research as a feature of the specifically Chinese approach to biophysics. Against Sigrid Schmalzer’s recent deconstruction of the narrative of a “different China” by delegations visiting China in the early 1970s as a result of the US demand for otherness and the Chinese willingness to supply it, Luk concludes that Tien’s portrayal of his China visit was basically factual, and that “neither the Chinese biophysicists nor Chinese-American biophysicists like Tien were complicit in romanticizing the science of biophysics in the first U.S.-Chinese biophysics meetings.” (p. 228)

Another development analyzed in this chapter is Shen Shumin’s new journal, Progress in Biochemistry, and Biophysics (Shengwu huaxue yu shengwu wuli jinzhan), launched in 1974. Luk takes issue with Cong Cao’s bleak assessment of Chinese journals published during the Cultural Revolution (“Science Imperiled: Intellectuals, and the Cultural Revolution,” in Mr. Science, and Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolutions: Science, and Technology in Modern China), and shows that the articles in the Progress in Biochemistry, and Biophysics were for the most part neither ideological nor trivial.

Finally, Luk chronicles the fate of USTC during the Cultural Revolution, from first being controlled by the National Defense Science and Technology Council to its eventual emergency evacuation to Anhui province in 1969 and the dispersal of its faculty to nearby May 7 schools, farms, and mines. Overall, Luk acknowledges that “the Cultural Revolution did hamper the research, and education of biophysics” but claims that “scientists were quick to invent ways to carve a niche for themselves, and their discipline.” (p. 245)

The dissertation concludes with an Epilogue which notes some important post-Cultural Revolution changes. As scientists were accorded higher social status under Deng Xiaoping, the learned societies resumed operation, and new ones were created, including the Biophysical Society of China in 1980. This shows the change of focus from projects to disciplines and their institutionalization. Hsin-Ti Tien started more frequent visits, and scientific transnationalism was encouraged. Finally, Bei Shizhang’s views on cell formation caused a controversy in 2005 when Bei’s articles were denounced by the famous promoter of scientism, Fang Zhouzi 方舟子, and later defended by an online writer, “Tomoe.” Luk notes that the controversy did not focus on the question of creation versus evolution, as it would in the United States, rather on the historical continuity of cells, which was much more important to the Chinese. The insistence on the cells being derived from ancestral cells and not from non-cellular material reflects, in Luk’s view, that “Chinese value connections with the remote past” (p. 257).

In her concluding remarks, Luk frames her findings as an answer of sorts to the “Needham question.” She calls for abandoning the perspective of missed opportunity and failure in studying twentieth century Chinese history and instead see that China sometimes can be ahead of the West, in this case the United States and its less smooth formation of biophysics as a discipline.

Besides being a detailed account of an intriguing field of specifically Chinese twentieth century science, Luk’s dissertation is an extremely rich commentary on many questions in the history of biophysics, Chinese science, and twentieth century China. The dissertation deals at considerable length with the results of recent scholarship and structures its findings as responses to them. My review could only list a handful of such interactions. I hope the dissertation will soon be published in full, and enable a wider discussion of these issues.

Jiri Hudecek
Chiang Ching-Kuo International Sinological Centre
Charles University, Prague

Primary Sources

IBP-CAS, ed. Xiao gou fei tianji: Zhongguo shengqu huojian shiyan jishi 小狗飞天记: 中国生物火箭试验纪实. Beijing: Science Press 2008.
Shengwu huaxue yu shengwu wuli jinzhan 生物化学与生物物理进展
Office of University Archive of USTC
Bei Shizhang wenxuan 贝时璋文选. Hangzhou: Zhejiang kexue jishu chubanshe 1992.
Yang Guoyu 杨国宇, 民间语文资料:日记 024号––将军军官日记(上) (1967-1969), in Frontiers 天涯 (2000), vol. 5, pp. 1-8

Dissertation Information

Arizona State University. 2014. 283pp. Chair of Graduate Supervisory Committee: Ann Hibner Koblitz.

Image: Biophysics document from the Office of University Archive at the University of Science and Technology of China. Photograph by author.

Leave a Reply