Saturday Speaker: Resources and Red Tape: Doing Science in Communist China

Saturday, April 14, 2018
11:00 a.m.–12:00 p.m.
Science History Institute
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
United States

How did experts in chemistry and biology navigate the complex landscape of resources and red tape to advance science in a Communist country?

In the 1950s the Chinese Communist Party took over leadership of the nation’s academic community. The party inherited a number of experts in chemistry and the life sciences, many of whom had been trained in the West, predominantly in the United States and Britain. As the regime started to restructure institutions and reform scientists, individualistic modes and purely academic goals of basic research were criticized or discouraged. So how did China’s scientific experts navigate the complex landscape of resources and red tape to advance science? How did some experiment with the system and begin to form programs we may now recognize as variations of big science or people’s science? How did they adapt and modify their investigative approaches in response to the political quicksand in which they were mired? To address these questions our talk will begin with an overview of the political timelines and context, then focus on two celebrated projects in the socialist period: the insulin synthesis project and hormone-aided reproductive technology of fish. The insulin synthesis project is one of the best-known Chinese scientific successes of the mid-20th century, worthy of both a Nobel nomination and general recognition in China.

About the Speakers

Lijing Jiang, Haas Fellow

Lijing Jiang’s research concerns the wide-ranging impact of the material and political uses of certain objects or organisms in the life sciences, centering on how philosophical, cultural, and political meanings became etched into chosen research materials and how they shaped processes of knowledge production and development of disciplines and industries. Her current book project focuses on the evolving role of the goldfish, Carassius auratus, in modern Chinese biology. With the working title Of Goldfish and Scientists the manuscript traces the use of the goldfish as an experimental organism in developing genetics, embryology, and aquaculture in the changing political milieus of 20th-century China. At the Science History Institute she will also start a new project on the development of aquaculture technology and industry in modern Asia and its environmental impacts.

Vivian Ling

Vivian Ling is an independent scholar investigating the chemical synthesis of insulin in Communist China from 1955 to 1965. She became interested in the topic while an undergraduate at Princeton University. Combining library research with extensive in-person interviews of key Chinese scientists and leading biochemists in the United States and Europe, she published her findings in her senior thesis under the guidance of professors Angela Creager and Shirley Tilghman. It is one of the few oral historical accounts of the insulin project published in the English language.

Ling earned an AB in molecular biology with a certificate in East Asian studies from Princeton University and an MBA from Stanford University. Her eclectic path in academia has given her unique skills and perspectives valuable in probing and analyzing complex problems. Ling has a decade of experience as a strategy consultant with a leading management consulting firm and a corporate executive with Fortune 500 companies. She has spoken at the Economist’s Corporate Network and served on several nonprofit and school boards.

About the Series

Dive into fascinating stories of science with our Saturday speaker series!

Every month a speaker will offer a short talk on an intriguing scientific topic, followed by a Q&A or discussion over complimentary tea and coffee. Afterward, feel free to mingle with other guests and the speaker, or spend time visiting our free museum. This year we’ll be discussing everything from the history of chocolate, to how stress affects our DNA, to the ways artwork inspires scientific discovery. 

Admission is free, and no reservations are necessary.