sigrid schmalzer is professor of history at the university of massachusetts amherst and author of red revolution, green revolution: scientific farming in socialist china, published by university of chicago press and winner of the 2018 aas joseph levenson post-1900 book prize.
to begin with, please tell us what your book is about.
red revolution, green revolution is about what science meant to people in mao-era china, where official policy called for uniting tu and yang—native, earthy, peasant-based knowledge with western, elite, professional science. it’s about scientists who mobilized peasants to rear parasitic wasps for the control of insect pests; girls whose efforts to fertilize fields with pig manure challenged gender norms and thus counted as revolutionary “scientific experiment”; local cadres who promoted modern high-yielding varieties of rice while secretly allowing traditional varieties to be planted in hidden valleys; “old peasants” whose resistance was alternately framed as the wisdom of practical experience and the backwardness of traditional worldviews; and state officials who criticized the technocratic vision of science inherent in the us-sponsored green revolution and instead forwarded the notion that technological transformation cannot be divorced from social and political revolution. i strive to capture some of the rich, diverse texture of local experiences while still offering decisive interpretations on enduring historical questions. above all, i argue that the mao era produced a meaningful alternative vision of science that inspired many people in china and around the world—and continues (much more quietly) to inform agricultural sustainability and food justice movements today.
what inspired you to research this topic?
first, in my previous book, the people’s peking man, i was somewhat disappointed to discover that the ideals of “mass science” (in which scientists would take seriously the potential contributions of “the masses” to scientific knowledge) were sharply limited in the practice of paleoanthropology. it occurred to me that in agricultural science there might have been more scope for the idea that peasants had relevant knowledge and legitimate ways to participate in scientific research.
second, i am increasingly committed to making my work relevant to current struggles for justice and sustainability, without losing the joy of exploring apparently obscure corners of the historical and natural worlds. i loved writing the people’s peking man, but, well… i’m worried about our collective future. i wanted my second book to be more meaningful to the activists and organizers whose work offers the possibility of transformation and survival. given my research interests in the history of the biological sciences and the inspiration i find in our local agricultural sustainability and food justice movement, i thought agricultural science would be a good focus.
finally, as i was completing the people’s peking man, i became pregnant with my first baby, and i needed a project that could keep me busy for a couple years without requiring much travel. i pulled off my shelf a book that had always fascinated me but whose origins i didn’t know much about: china: science walks on two legs, produced in 1974 by the intriguingly named group science for the people. although there was a great deal about science in socialist china that the authors had not understood, i shared their recognition of the political character of scientific work and was inspired by their commitment to fostering science that served social needs rather than military ambitions and capitalist profit. i tracked down a few of the authors of the book and interviewed them about the trip they had taken to the prc in 1973. among the many memories they related, one noted that among all the scientists they met on their visit, the agricultural scientist and entomologist pu zhelong appeared most sincere in his commitment to learning from and collaborating with peasants. pu zhelong’s research on the biological control of insect pests thus became one of the starting points for my research on the book.
what obstacles did you face in this project? what turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?
my first book was based on my ph.d. dissertation. as a graduate student, i had the luxury of spending a full year in china housed at a research institute where i could interview people and comb through libraries and archives in a systematic and thorough manner. i researched and wrote the second book over eight years while juggling a full-time faculty position and a growing family. during those years, i could manage only short trips to china. archival access can often be hit or miss in china, and the limited time i had on the ground each visit exacerbated those challenges. i worried quite a bit about whether this very different research process would result in a book that satisfied my colleagues in prc studies. but as i began writing, i discovered a new kind of excitement in the challenge of stitching together diverse types of sources and thinking seriously about what each piece added to the whole. and as it turns out, people have frequently pointed to the creative and critical use of sources as a particular strength of the book.
what is the strangest/funniest/most outrageous/most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?
i am deeply fortunate to live near the eric carle museum of picture book art. on one of my many trips to the carle with my children, i happened to meet an acquiring editor from tilbury house publishers; i confessed to her that i had always dreamed of becoming a children’s book author. when she heard about the research i was doing red revolution, green revolution, she enthusiastically encouraged me to write a children’s book based on that material. i laughed and told her, “sure—i’ll look you up in ten or fifteen years.” but one morning not long after, i woke up thinking, “i bet i could spin the chapter on pu zhelong into a picture book.” i knocked out a draft and emailed it to her, she brought it to the press, and ... just a few weeks ago tilbury released moth and wasp, soil and ocean: remembering chinese scientist pu zhelong’s work for sustainable farming. the project required a surprising amount of extra research: to guide the illustrator, i suddenly needed to know what everything looked like—from the spiders that inhabit the rice paddies in guangdong to the ship that carried pu zhelong back to china in 1949. it’s been marvelous to discover how much my colleagues appreciate my move into this genre, and still more exciting to find that the mao-era ideal of “bringing together soil and ocean” (i.e., tu and yang—mass science and professional science) can be made meaningful to american children.
what are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?
a number of works on china have been so influential that it sometimes seems i have gotten all my best ideas from them—gail hershatter’s the gender of memory and jacob eyferth’s eating rice from bamboo roots are perhaps the outstanding examples in this category.
other works i have wrestled with over the years, often identifying my own perspectives in contrast with the ideas they express; but the more i wrestled, the more i have realized the importance of their accounts and the limitations of my own lenses. the writings of pioneers in the field zuoyue wang and danian hu, along with their great patience and support, have been especially important to me in this regard.
i would love to see someone write a historiographical essay on the diverse ways in which people are characterizing mao-era approaches to science. especially tempting to juxtapose are fa-ti fan’s provocative use of the concept “citizen science” (2012); my own (2008) and thomas mullaney’s (2012, 2017) different takes on “mass science”; xiong weimin and wang kedi’s portrayal of the mao era’s “great armies doing battle” variety of big science (2005); miriam gross’s depiction of “grassroots science” (2016); lijing jiang’s analysis of “socialist embyrology” (2018); and wendy fu’s (2017) expansion on the “tu science” formulation i put forward in red revolution, green revolution; along with the more transnational focus of arunabh ghosh, danian hu, and zuoyue wang; zhang li’s and christine luk’s insights into professional institutions and bureaucratic practices; and xiaoping fang’s conclusion that the mao era’s signature “barefoot doctor” program resulted in the popularization of western biomedicine over traditional chinese medicine. indeed, the field is growing so rapidly, i know i have left some obvious and worthy examples out!
what are you working on now?
my new research is on the modern history of agricultural terraces in china. the project offers opportunities to reassess mao-era terracing projects (including the oft-mocked “study dazhai” campaign); explore efforts to document, preserve, and mobilize traditional agricultural knowledge in the prc; and trace the transnational and “trans-1978” histories of agro-ecology and the agricultural heritage movement.
inspired by the recent resurgence of the organization science for the people, i am also working to launch an “activist science and technology studies” book series with umass press. while not specific to china, this work is allowing me to engage in new ways with activist scholars and scientists in china and taiwan.