Complex motivations of Chinese wartime scientists revealed in new research

Scientists at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, work during wartime. (Wikimedia Commons)

LAWRENCE — When countries are at war, they often require and expect the support of scientists in their efforts. When those countries are simultaneously engaged in their own nation-building efforts, as was the case in Nationalist China during World War II, they become even more dependent on those scientists to conduct applied research, develop industry and engage in modernization projects that align with the state’s developmental and defensive goals.

How scientists saw themselves fitting into this process is the subject of new research.

J. Megan Greene

“During war — especially when it’s a sort of ‘total war’ situation — there’s an expectation that everybody is going to somehow engage in this. But, of course, not everyone’s political interests align with those of the state,” said J. Megan Greene, professor of history at the University of Kansas.

Her article titled “The National Scientific Imperative in Wartime China and the Complex Motivations of Individual Scientists” deals with the institutional and rhetorical efforts by the Chinese government in the 20th century to develop scientific activity, and the wide-ranging ways in which scientists engaged with that framework. It appears in Asian Review of World Histories.

“There are all these expectations for scientists,” Greene said.

“But it’s also the case that humans are humans, and they do what they want to do. The larger world, and especially the state, is saying, ‘You’ve got to contribute. You’ve got to be part of this. You should use your knowledge for the good of the nation.’ But there are pure scientists who are responding, ‘I think what I’m doing is for the good of the nation even if it doesn’t have an immediate application.’”

Greene notes her study indicates nationalism was often a byproduct of engagement in scientific research and practical scientific activities during the war rather than motivating such engagement. While some research scientists and social scientists looked for projects they felt would contribute to the national good, others devised ways of describing what they were doing so that their work would be understood as being inspired by nationalistic sentiment.

The American stereotype of the Chinese is that they excel at science and math. Was this narrative a calculated endeavor by the Chinese government after World War II?

“There was certainly a strategic effort to improve math and science education before and during the war, but that’s not about everybody being good at math and science; it’s about having everybody getting the basics to be able to do the kind of technical engineering — bridge building, rice growing, whatever — that needs to be done in order to modernize and transform China,” she said.

Greene’s recent book titled “Building a Nation at War: Transnational Knowledge Networks and the Development of China During and After World War II” (Harvard University Asia Center, 2022) focuses on Chinese efforts to cultivate science, industry and agriculture from 1938 to 1949, with an emphasis on transnational technical training and industrial development programs. It was while working on the book that she realized there was “all this extra stuff that didn’t fit into the book.”

She uncovered fascinating stories involving individuals such as Tang Peisong, a physiologist and biochemist who began the war making gas masks and ended up proposing radical blueprints for a utopian world in which scientific principles would govern the global agricultural economy.

“I realized that I can’t lose these people,” she said. “I’ve learned about them. They’re doing such interesting stuff. That was really what motivated this article.”

The scientists she examined all migrated to remote and less modern parts of western China as Japan attacked and occupied the eastern coastal areas. She found that whether they were sociologists, geologists or food scientists, they proved eager to use their skills and continue researching in their new environments, where modern scientific laboratories did not exist prior to the war. Their motivations for this work, however, were sometimes practical, sometimes personal.

“Of course, everybody thought of themselves as contributing to the war effort,” she said. “But some were merely taking advantage of an opportunity, and whatever it is they’re doing, they might be able to frame it as useful for the nation-building effort or the war effort. They’re thinking, ‘I’m interested in plant biology. There are plants here. So I’m going to study them because I can.’”

Fluent in Chinese, Greene has lived in Taiwan multiple times. The Baltimore native is now in her 21st year at KU, where she specializes in the history of modern China and Taiwan.

Greene said the main takeaway of her article lies in the complexity of motivations scientists faced during a very challenging period in China’s history.

“We can’t expect that an entire nation of people is going to rally around a particular cause in the same way,” she said. “We should anticipate some people will push back with selfish motivations, while others push back because they feel they’re being railroaded into something that isn’t who they are and what they should be doing and what they do best.”

Top photo: Scientists at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, work during wartime. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Tue, 04/25/2023


Jon Niccum

Media Contacts

Jon Niccum

KU News Service