Chinese Character

The man who saved millions

China mourns Yuan Longping, the rice scientist extraordinaire

Yuan Longping w

Yuan: one of China’s “heroes”

Funerals in China rarely cause a city’s stock of chrysanthemums to run out. But the death of Yuan Longping on May 22 did just that.

Known as the “father of hybrid rice”, Yuan was hugely respected for his contribution to developing the world’s first high-yielding hybrid strain of rice in 1973, a breakthrough that is said to have saved millions of people from starvation (see WiC126 for our first mention of him a decade ago). A quarter of the world’s rice is now grown from strains that he pioneered. Yuan’s achievement made him a national hero

His death – aged 91 according to Xinhua – from organ failure on Saturday, after a fall in March, sparked an outpouring of grief and respect.

“I’ve never met you but I’m indebted to you. From now on, we’ll think about you whenever the wind blows through the paddyfields,” promised one netizen.

“He who serves the people for real will always be loved,” commented another.

Another more poetic eulogy that has been doing the rounds on the internet, compared Yuan to Shennong, the mythical ruler who taught ancient Chinese the practice of agriculture (Shennong translates as “Divine Farmer”): “Shennong descends from the sky to nourish the world. When the work is done and the man is gone, his glorious history will always be remembered.”

Mentions of Yuan dominated Sina Weibo over the weekend as the top trending search topic, while thousands of people left flowers at a statue to honour him at Southwest University in Chongqing, where he studied agronomy as a young man.

Tens of thousands more travelled to the Mingyangshan Funeral Home in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, where his body was cremated on Monday. Many brought their children, as they paid their respects. “This is to teach him to be grateful,” one mother with a young child from Wuhan told the Changjiang Daily. “You don’t forget Grandpa Yuan when you eat rice, just as people don’t forget the well-digger when they drink water.”

“I brought the whole family here today. I wanted the little one to be part of such a collective memory,” another man explained to Shangyou News, identifying himself as from the generation born after the terrible suffering of the Great Famine between 1959 and 1961.

That tragedy – often blamed on the chaotic years of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward – led to the deaths of an estimated 36 million people. But it also triggered Yuan’s search for a new kind of rice that grows faster and with greater yields of grain, even amid tough, dry conditions.

Born in 1930 in Beijing, Yuan grew up as the second of five boys in a well-to-do family. Due to his father’s job at the Beiping-Hankou Railway, he moved from city to city along the Yangtze River during his formative years. In 1953 he graduated with a major in agronomy and then became a teacher at an agricultural school in Hunan’s Anjiang.

In interviews Yuan recalled how he was deeply moved by the sight of famished people and emaciated corpses in the famine-struck 1960s. Fascinated by new efforts from scientists to cross-breed plants to create a more fertile offspring, Yuan then embarked on research that led to his theory that crossing male-sterile grains with other plants could help to boost crop yields.

The idea, published in Science Bulletin, a journal under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in 1966, subverted the prevailing view that rice couldn’t be improved by cross-breeding with other genetic sources, due to its self-pollinating feature. His article was picked up by a senior cadre in the Communist Party, who helped Yuan and a colleague to continue their pursuit of of a higher-yielding hybrid species during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution.

“We began by using existing, mutated male sterile rice individuals to create hybrid rice lines but could not secure 100% sterility of the propagating material, which is crucial for high output of hybrid rice. To overcome this obstacle, we began to search for a distant hybridisation pathway using wild rice to cross-breed with cultivated rice,” Yuan told Science Bulletin in 2015. “We eventually found a wild rice species called ‘Wild Abortive’ in 1970 in Hainan. This species served as the foundation of the successful three-line [male sterile line, maintainer line and restorer line] hybrid rice breeding system in 1973. The hybrid rice species yielded 20% more per unit compared with common ones.”

Widespread cultivation of the hybrid crop began in 1976, dramatically increasing China’s rice yields to 300 kilograms per mu (a mu is a little less a tenth of a hectare). Yuan’s subsequent success in developing a breeding system for another two-line hybrid strain in 1995 boosted productivity further, lifting yields per mu to 700kg in 2000, 900kg in 2011, 1,000kg in 2014.

Hybrid rice developed from Yuan’s approach is now planted across more than half of the country’s rice acreage. Abroad, the planting area is at least eight million hectares across India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brazil and Madagascar. “After his discoveries in the early 1970s, Yuan became a strong advocate for sharing his breakthroughs internationally, instead of using them to achieve Chinese dominance in rice production,” noted the New York Times.

Yuan stayed active in the research field until late in life. In the seven years before his death he had been working on genetically modified rice, a controversial but potentially rewarding technology, as well as creating a strain of low-cadmium indica rice that survives in soils suffering from heavy metal pollution.

He also led the development of a high-yielding saltwater strain of rice, with the goal of turning more of China’s waste areas into crop land (agronomists believe that another 200 million mu of saline-alkali land in China could be reconditioned for rice cultivation using the new strain.)

Following a huge harvest of the salt-tolerant breed in a pilot planting scheme last year Yuan and his team announced plans to begin commercial production of the new species in January. They planned to have the saltwater rice planted in 100 million mu of saline land within a decade.

“He had a firm belief, unswerving determination, the courage to innovate, as well as the noble quality to appreciate simplicity,” Chinese leader Xi Jinping said of Yuan after news of his death, lauding his contribution to the country’s food security.

Xi sent a wreath to Yuan’s memorial service on Monday, as did former leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

Xinhua then published an article recommending that the national flag be flown at half-mast in a show of respect. Indeed the response to Yuan’s death was reminiscent of the mourning for a handful of prominent political leaders such as Zhou Enlai and Hu Yaobang – although Yuan had never joined the Chinese Communist Party himself. “Sometimes you say the wrong things because you don’t understand politics,” he once told a local magazine.

In fact, Yuan skirted disaster early in his career by criticising a crop strategy said to have been designed by Mao Zedong. “Chairman Mao didn’t study crop science,” he is said to have pointed out. That was a risky observation, CNN reported this week, although Yuan was fortunate that it coincided with the publication of his crucial research paper, in Science Bulletin, which gave him some leeway with Party officials.

“It saved my life,” Yuan is said to have recalled.

At Mingyangshan last weekend his body was surrounded with flowers and covered with the national flag. His wife, in a wheelchair, bid him a tearful farewell, while cab drivers picked up people from nearby train stations and transferred them to the funeral home all day for free.

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