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Cambridge University Science Magazine

How did science in communist states like the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under Mao Zedong (1949 – 1976) differ from non-communist states like the U.S? A narrative we may hear is that communism ‘damaged’ science, because in communist states, scientific knowledge was deeply entangled with the states’ Marxist ideologies. While communism had a profound influence on scientific practice in Maoist China, two criticisms of this simplistic argument are evident: firstly, ‘politically-shaped science’ was not unique to communist nations, and secondly, this communist science was not necessarily ‘bad’ science. When Mao rose to power, he sought to validate his political ideology through emphasising that science must ‘walk on two legs’. As a result, scientific policies in Maoist China became a manifestation of Maoist thought, and reflected the political and geopolitical context of the PRC in the Cold War.


Inspired by the ideologies of Karl Marx and Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, Mao sought to achieve a communist utopia through having peasants seize the means of production from the bourgeoisie (the middle classes). However, Mao’s vision was distinct because he believed that the workers should themselves drive this workers’ revolution, rather than be led by party elites. This produced contrasting visions of scientific practice – Lenin cultivated a group of scientific elites, whereas Mao sought to empower the peasants.

Hence, Mao proposed that science should ‘walk on two legs’ (liǎngtiáo jiǎo zǒulù fāngzhēn, 两条脚走路方针) to bolster economic development. Here, experts formed one leg, while peasants formed the other, so science involved combining the elite knowledge of the scientists with the folk knowledge of the villagers. Scientific policies in the PRC therefore focused on blurring the knowledge gap between scientists and peasants.


For science to ‘walk’ properly, the two legs had to be balanced. For this, peasants needed active engagement with science. This vision was enacted through Mao’s ‘open-door schooling’ movement (kāimén biàn xué, 开门辩学). Under this policy, researchers welcomed peasants into universities and research institutions, promoting increased contact between the scientists and the peasants.

Additionally, scientific journals were also used to present science to the masses in digestible forms. The Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP)’s Fossils magazine is an example. Fossils was designed for the peasants’ consumption, and they were further encouraged to contribute articles to the magazine, making it a platform for knowledge exchange between scientists and peasants.

In Fossils, peasants scrutinised the arguments of IVPP scientists using their own scientific understanding that was shaped by Maoist thought. In one article, IVPP scientist Zhou Guoxing, addressed the question, “Can modern apes become human?” Zhou argued that because human evolution occurred under conditions that no longer existed, modern apes could not evolve into humans. To some peasants, Zhou’s evocation of the external environment undermined a key principle of Maoist thought: that labour was what made humans a distinct species. Therefore, his article triggered debates among peasants and scientists regarding ideas of human evolution. Through these debates, Fossils promoted intellectual equality between peasants and scientists, and encouraged peasants to participate actively in the production of scientific knowledge.


‘Walking on two legs’ also meant that scientific knowledge in the PRC combined Western science with folk knowledge. Seismology provides an insightful example. Peasants had superstitiously believed that earthquakes indicated the end of a political regime. Given the frequent earthquakes in the PRC, Mao valued seismology as a tool to protect his political power. To educate peasants on the science of earthquakes, Chinese seismologists would conduct public exhibitions in villages. Additionally, to enable peasants’ participation, Chinese seismologists also educated them on anomalous animal behaviours that could indicate an imminent earthquake. This collaboration with villagers was valuable as they were most sensitive to abnormal changes in the natural environment.

For instance, just before the 1975 Haicheng earthquake, farmers were puzzled to see snakes burrowing out of their hibernation holes during winter, only to freeze to death. Following government protocol, these findings were reported to the local Office of Earthquakes. Scientists in the Office then drew connections between these observations and an imminent earthquake, and informed authorities to evacuate the village.

Workers were also vital in these ‘collective monitoring’ efforts. For example, one account tells of workers in a tofu factory reporting that they could not make tofu on the eve of an earthquake, because the water from their well was “different”. These observations aligned with the scientists’ beliefs that imminent earthquakes would change the chemistry of underground water. Evidently, seismology in the PRC was a collaborative effort – peasants made macroscopic observations, and scientists legitimised these observations to save the peasants’ lives.


‘Walking on two legs’ generated a unique model of ‘self-reliant science’. By empowering peasants to engage with science, they could improve their own practices without state assistance. This model of ‘self-reliant science’ was exported to developing nations during the Cold War by the PRC government, demonstrating science’s utility as a tool for geopolitical influence. For instance, China sent experts to West Africa to show villagers how they could use animal manure as fertiliser. In another example, the TAZARA Railway which linked Tanzania and Zambia was built with China’s assistance and focused on training the skills of African workers, thereby promoting their self-reliance. Maoist China’s ‘self-reliant science’ appealed to the governments of the global South, as it reduced the citizens’ dependence on the government for resources and stoked anti-imperialist sentiments.

The geopolitical utility of ‘self-reliant science’ became pertinent after the Sino-Soviet split around 1960, which occurred after Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev (1953 - 1964)'s attempt to reverse the policies of Mao’s close ally, Joseph Stalin (Khruschev’s predecessor). With the PRC now aligned with neither the USSR nor the U.S, it sought to establish itself as an alternative superpower. Providing developing nations with a distinctively Chinese model of scientific development to progress towards economic prosperity could bring these nations into the PRC’s sphere of influence. Parading ‘walking on two legs’ as a hallmark of socialist China enabled the PRC’s unique scientific model to become a weapon to win the Cold War power struggle.


What should we make out of this case study of science in Maoist China? Crucially, science is never done in a social or political vacuum. Because science and scientists are socially and politically situated, they embody specific social and political values. Unlike any other country in the Cold War, the citizen-scientist collaborations in the PRC specifically emphasised the citizen as an intellectual equal, and peasants became key stakeholders in producing and practicing science in Maoist China.

While Maoist science at times had disastrous consequences, Mao’s regime also produced a unique model which appreciated the ways in which modern ‘Western’ science could be combined with folk knowledge. Contrary to popular belief, communism could, and did, produce productive forms of scientific knowledge and practice. Recognising this can be a challenge given the vilification of communism in the Western world during the Cold War. Therefore, that “science is political” is a given. It is more insightful to ask instead, “how is science political?”, so that we can discern the tacit political influences in scientific practice.

Eugene Chia recently graduated in History and Philosophy of Science from Fitzwilliam College. Artwork by Josh Langfield.