The Chinese scientist and the foreign tongue

Science & Health
Li Shuxian and Fang Lizhi

For generations of Chinese scientists, the cultivating of a foreign tongue was not only a tool to help untangle the mysteries of nature, but also an exercise of individual agency in the shifting tides of state power.


Illustration by Peter Behr. Pictured in top image: Li Shuxian and Fang Lizhi.


“Is your English so good that you do not care to hang out with us?”


It was the fall of 2009. I had just arrived in the United States from China to pursue my Ph.D. in physics at the University of Chicago. An alumnus from my undergraduate institution, the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), picked me up from the airport. The following day, the Chinese students from the physical sciences division threw a dinner party, welcoming me to their small but tight-knit cohort. “It’s not easy to be new to a place so far from home,” they told me. “Call us anytime you need help.”

I was deeply touched and grateful. When I ran into a couple of them on campus a few weeks later, I did not expect to be greeted with this accusatory question: “We have not seen you at our gatherings lately. Is your English so good that you do not care to hang out with us?”

I did not know how to respond. I had been busy. The first days of an academic program were always hectic, but they already knew that. By making an explicit mention of my English proficiency, half-jokingly or not, they were not questioning my time management skills or even my friendship, but my identity. For the many Chinese students who crossed oceans, the painstaking scaling of the language barrier was a rite of passage. I, fluent in English before arrival, was not just an anomaly but a betrayal.

At the time, I took their question as little more than petty jealousy. Years later, when I gradually peeled off my own insecurity as a scientist and non-native speaker of English navigating life and work in the U.S., I could hear the vulnerability buried in that statement, its flippant cruelty a double-edged blade.

I was reminded of this decade-old episode upon the recent news from Duke University, where a director of graduate studies in its biostatistics program sent out emails warning Chinese students to refrain from talking to each other in their native language, and to “commit to using English 100% of the time.” The director, a white woman, has since stepped down from her administrative position, a rightful reprimand for the insensitive rhetoric and implicit bias. I too have been given the same advice about language choice for my professional advancement, but it was always from senior colleagues of Chinese origin speaking from personal experience.

A Chinese scientist needs to know English. Underneath this prerequisite, almost taken for granted in the present day, is the tortured history of a nation and its people in search for technological might, cultural identity, and free expression. For generations of Chinese scientists, the cultivating of a foreign tongue was not only a tool to help untangle the mysteries of nature, but also an exercise of individual agency in the shifting tides of state power.



An imported word, however cleverly translated, always carries a tint of foreignness. When the American physicist Murray Gell-mann came up with the theory of quarks and their three color charges, he took the name from James Joyce’s classic Finnegans Wake: “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” How might the universe’s finest units be named had a Chinese scientist first predicted their existence? Like the French syllables attached to polynomials and the German surnames associated with quantum mechanics, even when describing universal laws of nature, language carries the power of identity and association.

For modern science in China, its primary linguistic medium for transmission also reflects the tectonic shifts in geopolitics. The earliest books of Western science in Chinese used not only direct translations from Europe, but also Japanese translations, taking advantage of the semblance between the two written scripts and the significant number of Chinese intellectuals studying in Japan at the time. The emergence of the U.S. as the leading country in science since WWII made English a natural first choice, until the dynamics of the Cold War changed the equation.

“I grew up in Shanghai and learned English at an early age, but at university, only Russian was allowed,” Li Shuxian 李淑娴 told me in an email. After graduating from the physics department at Peking University in 1956, Li was selected to work as an interpreter for Soviet-visiting scientists, and to translate Russian textbooks into Chinese. The anti-rightist campaign that started the following year saw the persecution of more than half a million Chinese intellectuals, Li included. She lost her university job and was relegated to farm and factory labor. After the political campaign ended two years later, Li’s “rightist” label stayed with her. When the books she helped translate were published, her name was nowhere to be found.

In 1962, Li’s newlywed husband and her classmate at Peking University, Fang Lizhi 方励之, was teaching quantum mechanics at USTC. A prominent physicist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Hong Kong-born Huang Wuhan 黄武汉, asked Fang to proofread a Chinese translation of Leonard I. Schiff’s classic textbook on the subject. Dissatisfied with the version they were given, Fang and Li set out to translate the English book themselves. The deteriorating political climate and subsequent decade of turmoil derailed the publishing plan, and the book did not go to press till 1980. Huang committed suicide in 1968 over brutal persecutions during the Cultural Revolution. He was 48 years old.


The contemporary history of the Chinese scientist is a book almost too painful to read. At every turn of the page there is a name whose timeline ended abruptly in the years of unspeakable tragedy.


When the only language of political correctness was the words of Mao, carrying the tongue of another country was enough proof that one was a foreign spy. For the pioneers of modern science in China, their most precious skill was also their biggest political crime. The contemporary history of the Chinese scientist is a book almost too painful to read. At every turn of the page there is a name whose timeline ended abruptly in the years of unspeakable tragedy.

As the country emerged from fanatic political struggle, rebuilding its shattered science and education sectors was of the highest priority. In 1978, the Chinese government selected 10 particle physicists as the first group of scientists to study abroad after the Cultural Revolution. They worked at the German Electron-Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg, on an experiment run by the Chinese-American physicist and Nobel laureate Samuel Ting (丁肇中 Dīng Zhàozhōng). To help the Chinese scientists communicate with their foreign colleagues, Ting asked his assistant and two daughters to tutor them in English after hours. “Gradually our ears adapted, and we could speak at group meetings,” one of them recalled decades later. Among the group was Xu Zizong 许咨宗. When I took the introductory course on particle physics at USTC in 2007, Xu was my professor.

In addition to their focus on science and engineering, the students of USTC pursued English with zeal. “The campus radio broadcasted English textbooks, like Nine Hundred Sentences in English,” a physicist who studied at USTC in the 1980s told me. “We got up very early in the morning to read English on the university’s main public square.”

Politically rehabilitated, Fang Lizhi established China’s first astrophysics department at USTC, and later served as the university’s executive vice president, leading with the motto “science, democracy, creativity, independence.” He hosted Stephen Hawking’s first visit to China in 1985, and organized the country’s first major international conferences in science.

In 1983, Fang visited Germany to give a seminar at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Munich. Li, then a professor of physics at Peking University, accompanied him. They made a short trip to Berlin, and in particular to see The Wall. The heavily guarded east side, and the wreaths laid on the west side for the ones whose attempts at freedom ended with bullets, spelled out the “irrefutable conclusion” for Fang. As he wrote in his memoir, Communism could not save China. “Forget it.”



Human curiosity about nature is not born out of political ideology, but the exploration of nature takes resources, and few entities have more resources than an empire. Over millennia, the rulers of China interpreted the movement of stars for imperial legitimacy, and employed astronomers to work in the office of the Grand Scribe, building observatories and issuing calendars. Only with the Mandate of Heaven could one rule all under heaven.

Astronomy in imperial China, arguably the most advanced of the pre-modern sciences with the most state support, also benefited from foreign exchange early on. With the popularization of Buddhism, Indian astronomers worked in the Tang capital in the 7th century, bringing with them influences from Greek and Egyptian science. During the Mongol conquest of the Yuan Dynasty, Islamic astronomy was transmitted to China with new instruments of observation, and manuscripts were later translated from Persian and Arabic into Chinese. The subsequent Ming Dynasty, ruled by Han Chinese, established Sìyí Guǎn (四夷馆), School of the Nations in Four Directions, in 1407, whose primary function was the education and translation of languages from neighboring nations and ethnic minorities. Imperial China’s first foreign language school also served a scientific purpose, with divisions in astronomy and geography, two disciplines central to state rule.

Starting in the late-16th century, the Jesuit missions to China brought European science and technology, though the scope of their teaching was constrained by church doctrine, and their acceptance conditioned by the imperial court. While many aspects of Chinese culture and craft were of foreign desire and envy, the Chinese literati were quick to recognize areas in math, astronomy, and engineering where the Europeans were getting ahead, shaking centuries-old belief that the Middle Kingdom was the center of human civilization. To blunt the challenge to imperial self-esteem, Chinese scholars came up with the notion of “all Western sciences are of Chinese origin” (西学中源 xī xué zhōng yuán), that Western knowledge had begun in China since the prehistoric days of the mythical sage kings.

This fragile fantasy was shattered by British gunboats in the Opium Wars of 1840 and 1860. More advanced science and technology meant a stronger military, and no amount of polemics could explain away the devastating battleground defeats. The scholar Wei Yuan 魏源 made the famous declaration: “Learn advanced technology from the barbarians to keep foreign invaders at bay.” As part of the late-Qing era “Self-Strengthening movement,” Tóngwén Guǎn 同文馆, School of Combined Learning, was established in 1862, first in the capital of Peking (Beijing), with subsequent branches in Shanghai and Canton (Guangzhou).

Starting from its namesake mission of teaching English, Japanese, and other European languages for diplomatic personnel, Tongwen Guan quickly added science, engineering, and math to its curriculum, and took on the functions of translating and publishing technical books from Western sources. The Beijing location became a predecessor for what is today’s Peking University. The Shanghai Tongwen Guan was part of the formidable Jiangnan Arsenal, the largest weapons factory in East Asia for its time.

Through the country’s long history of foreign exchange until the end of the 19th century, Chinese intellectuals had interpreted scientific imports on their own terms. Overarching the Self-Strengthening movement was the concept of “zhōng tǐ xī yòng” (中体西用), that Chinese heritage laid the foundation and Western knowledge was supplemented for practical use.


The word for “science” in Chinese today corresponds to the Japanese word for science, “kagaku.” The use of this imported term at the start of the 20th century symbolized a profound shift in the Chinese psyche, its genesis and aftermath equally rooted in loss and shame.


The traditional Chinese terminology for science had been bówù (博物), the broad knowledge of things, or more prominently, gézhì (格致), the investigation of things for the extension of knowledge. Shortened from the four-character phrase gé wù zhì zhī (格物致知), the word originated from the Book of Rites in the days of Confucius, and was canonized in the Song Dynasty. For centuries, “gezhi” was used in classical texts and civil service exams, referring to technical knowledge and natural studies. Leaders of the Tongwen Guan in Shanghai, including the British sinologist John Fryer, founded the Shanghai Polytechnic Institute in 1876. Its name in Chinese was Gezhi Shuyuan (Gezhi Academy), and the popular science journal it issued was called Gezhi Huibian (the Collections of Gezhi), or as it’s known in English, Chinese Scientific and Industrial Magazine.

The word for science in Chinese today is no longer “gezhi,” but kēxué (科学), the characters corresponding to the Japanese word for science, “kagaku.” The abandonment of a word in one’s mother tongue for an imported term at the start of the 20th century symbolized a profound shift in the Chinese psyche, its genesis and aftermath equally rooted in loss and shame. The Chinese defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 crushed not only the Qing’s naval and financial resources, but also the deeply held sense of cultural superiority. An increasing number of Chinese intellectuals and reformers came to the conclusion that no amount of “self-strengthening” could save a crumbling dynasty, but if the Chinese people were to seek their own salvation, everything associated with the imperial past must be renounced and burned with the emperor’s throne. The pre-modern and indigenous sciences of China, characterized by gezhi, were seen as outdated or mere superstition. Kexue, as modern science was now called, marked a break from the old world and the attempt to forge a new Chinese identity.

The radical transformations taking place in China were not limited to science. The imperial civil service exams that spanned over two millennia were abolished in 1905, and the Qing empire was overthrown six years later. In the newly founded Republic of China, the New Culture Movement that culminated on May 4 of 1919 called for replacing Mr. Confucius with Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy, as well as reforming the Chinese language with tools of Western linguistics. The search for a national tongue from different ethnic and regional languages, the push for vernacular literature, and the work to romanize Chinese characters were not only efforts toward enhanced literacy and communications, but also seen as facilitating the education and development of modern science. The debate of whether to replace the Chinese script with a phonetic system persisted until the early 1950s, when Mao Zedong decided against it.

“What keeps China back is that she has no science,” the Chinese philosopher Feng Youlan 冯友兰 wrote in a 1922 paper, when he was a Ph.D. student at Columbia University studying with John Dewey. Feng went on to argue the historical and philosophical reasons behind his home country’s deficiency, while the premise appeared self-evident. It was not until decades later that indigenous science from imperial China received its rightful recognition.

The transmission of modern science to China relied on scientists who were multilingual. Western-style academies, some founded by Protestant missionaries, helped train the necessary foreign language skills. A small but devoted group of Chinese scientists, who returned after studying overseas, laid the foundation of modern science and education in their battered homeland. “When I was in high school at Nankai Academy in 1921, all of the math, chemistry, and physics textbooks were in English, because there were no Chinese textbooks,” recalled Wu Ta-You 吴大猷 in his memoir. When Wu enrolled at Nankai University a few years later, the Princeton-educated Rao Yutai 饶毓泰 was one of the only two physics professors there. Wu would go on to receive his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, return to China, and educate a distinguished group of Chinese scientists, earning himself the nickname “Father of Chinese Physics.”

Among Wu’s earlier students was Mei Zhenyue 梅镇岳. In 1945, Mei left China for graduate studies at the University of Birmingham on a Nationalist government scholarship. When he returned seven years later, the government had changed hands. Mei worked at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, and joined my alma mater, USTC, when it was established in 1958. Among his many contributions to science was the first textbook for nuclear and particle physics in China, published in 1961.

Almost half a century later, in my physics classes at USTC, my professors would occasionally point out the elegant terminologies in Chinese, and tell us we owed them to Mei’s mastery of both the English language and Chinese literature. One of Mei’s Ph.D. students in the 1980s would become my mentor and undergraduate thesis supervisor. The names of the most basic building blocks of nature and their interactions, written and uttered in my mother tongue, also carry my scientific lineage.



There is a popular saying that one has to know English to study China. I have more freedom in a foreign land, through a foreign tongue, to access the history of my birth country.


For the first 19 years of my life when I lived in China, including my time at USTC, I knew of Fang Lizhi as an internationally renowned astrophysicist, but little else. I had a vague idea, constructed from scattered phrases and fleeting whispers, that a political storm swept USTC and China in the late 1980s, students took to the streets, and the government opened fire. I did not know any details of specific events, or the many speeches and writings of Fang’s that galvanized a generation but also landed him and his wife, Li Shuxian, on top of the Chinese government’s most wanted list, let alone the 13 months the couple spent in refuge at the U.S. embassy in Beijing after tanks rolled into Tiananmen. Politics was taboo in my family. Many things were forbidden in my native tongue.

I was encouraged to study English, and to pursue science, the latter with hesitancy because I’m a woman. Nevertheless, in the limited circumstances of my upbringing, as with most of China, academic excellence in the physical sciences offered one of the surest paths for individual advancement. Admission to a graduate program abroad, preferably in the U.S., was the one ticket out of China.

When I arrived at USTC as a freshman in the summer of 2005, about a third of its college graduates would cross the Pacific for postgraduate studies, earning the university the nickname “United States Training Center.” Like generations of USTC’ers before us, my classmates and I studied English with as much devotion as we put in the sciences. Having grown up in an academic household, it was also the first time I met peers from drastically different socioeconomic backgrounds than mine. Few areas reflected the disparities in educational resources more acutely than one’s access to a foreign language.

I remember vividly the time a classmate asked at a meeting why it was necessary for Chinese scientists to learn English. “We could have English majors do that,” he proclaimed in youthful defiance. Our teacher explained how English is the global language for science, regardless of one’s nationality, and scientists should be able to communicate their work without reliance on translators. My classmate shook his head: “This is not fair.”

Years later, on the campus of the University of Chicago, I would run into younger alumni from USTC who recognized my name for my perfect score on the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language, one of the standardized tests for graduate admission in the U.S.). “How is your English so good?” they asked me. I always struggled to answer. I never felt like my English was good enough. What proficiency I had I worked hard for, but more importantly, I was born lucky, with early exposure and continued access to the language.

Among the first things I did after arriving in the U.S. was to type into Google “Tiananmen, 1989.” There is a popular saying that one has to know English to study China. I have more freedom in a foreign land, through a foreign tongue, to access the history of my birth country. Even in the tightening political climate of China today, there is more space to express in English, and books banned in Chinese may be found at foreign language stores. Before the draconian measure of denying an exit became more stringently enforced, the Chinese government had seen permanent exile as an effective measure to silence a dissident. Losing the audience in one’s mother tongue was the equivalent of losing one’s voice.

When Fang and Li were hiding at the U.S. embassy in Beijing after the crackdown on Tiananmen, the prolific astrophysicist wrote a memoir on his life and career. Thirteen long months of negotiations between the highest levels of both governments later, the couple were finally allowed to leave China. Fang spent the final two decades of his life teaching at the University of Arizona. He died in 2012.

Both Fang’s and Li’s names remain censored in China. All of their writings, academic or personal, are banned. With efforts from Li and their son, Fang’s memoir, The Most Wanted Man in China, was published in English four years after his death, masterfully translated by the American sinologist Perry Link. “It seems a good time, whether in order to understand the past or to interpret what will come next, to do a review of where I have been so far,” Fang wrote in the introduction, dated October 27, 1989. I was born days later in the city of Hefei, where USTC is located. In 2017, it had amounted to the entirety of my lifetime for Fang’s words to reach me, albeit in a foreign form.

Last fall, I interviewed Li for an article I was writing. Over the phone, I told her that I had read Fang’s memoir. “You cannot only read it in English!” Li said. “Fang Lizhi was a great writer. You have to read him in the Chinese original.” She pointed me to online archives of Fang’s many essays, written in Chinese and never translated.

In the foreword to the memoir, translator Perry Link praised Fang’s prose as “always graceful, and it occasionally soars.” He graciously acknowledged the limitations in translation, what is “inevitably a presumptuous enterprise”: “I apologize to (Fang’s) departed spirit for presuming to be up to it.”

My article, with quotes from Li and others, was a story of my family, the history of USTC, and the struggle between science and the Chinese state. I still have never written professionally or as a hobby in my native language. For all my public essays on science and China, I write in English and am often critical of the Chinese government’s abuses. I do not expect my words to be read much in China, if they could be accessed at all. Recognizing the scope of my audience allows me to convince myself that the Chinese government is unlikely to pay attention to what I say, so my family in China won’t get in harm’s way. Nevertheless, as I write in English for U.S.-based publications, I often feel inadequate, not only in my craft but also in its purpose. Who are my people? Whom do I speak for, and who is listening? Is writing about one’s homeland in a foreign tongue for foreign eyes also inevitably a presumptuous enterprise, if not an act of betrayal in itself?

I sent Li a link to my article when it was published. In Chinese and with striking eloquence, Li wrote back a lengthy note. She generously complimented my English, and shared moving recollections of her late husband. Toward the end were these words: “Your article is in English, so it can reach a wider audience. Please tell the world that not all Chinese people are fools. There were people of China who walked the walk, regardless of personal interest or recognition; who fought the fight, despite their failure. It’s all part of history as China becomes a member of the global community in the irresistible tide of time.”

Yangyang Cheng and the Science and China Column will return on the final Wednesday of every month. Last month:

For science, or the ‘motherland’? The dilemma facing China’s brightest minds