The Saturday Profile
Copyright The New York Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: October 22, 2005
SOMETIMES a single life can tell more about a country’s experience than a shelfful of history books. Many Chinese people of a certain age have such lives – rich in struggle, in suffering, in the consequences of man’s folly, but often enough, too, in a measure of redemption.
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Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
“I knew nothing about the United States, but I knew that if you wanted to learn science, the U.S. was the place.”
– XU TIAN
These are people today in their 40’s whose transition to adulthood was hijacked by the Cultural Revolution.
High school and college studies were aborted. Many city residents were “sent down” to the countryside to work as peasants, or assigned to antiquated factories to churn out rough goods.
For the lucky, life eventually resumed; productive life, that is.
Such is the story of Xu Tian, a 43-year-old scientist from Zhejiang Province whose discoveries involving the transposition of genes were featured last month on the cover of the scientific journal Cell.
People who know about such things say Dr. Xu’s work could affect all our lives, making it possible to switch genes on and off, facilitating therapies for diabetes, depression, you name it.
The scientist divides his time between Yale University and Fudan University in Shanghai, and works as an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. So promising are his findings that he is already being mentioned by his peers as a potential Nobel laureate.
“I never expected to go to college,” Dr. Xu said during a recent visit to Shanghai, speaking of the great suspension of normal life that marked the Cultural Revolution. “Nobody in my high school went to college. We had half-pound rations of meat and of cooking oil. Matches were rationed. Toilet paper was rationed.”
The most striking thing about returning to Shanghai, he said, is the intensity of commerce in today’s China.
“People try to sell you things,” Dr. Xu said with the “pinch me” air of disbelief of someone who grew up in an era of scarcity. It is in many ways the opposite of the distortions of the Cultural Revolution, but as a scientist, Dr. Xu is not altogether pleased.
DURING the Cultural Revolution he was able to attend high school by promising to go later to plant rice. But he was an angry student, instead spending his time playing go, the Asian board game. Later he was fortunate to enter Fudan University, one of the greatest in China.
He remembers traveling to Shanghai to visit the school, wide-eyed and thoroughly uncertain about what route to take in academia. Parents and relatives had been active in the humanities and were persecuted as a result. All cautioned him against following that path.
“I saw that Fudan offered genetics, so I asked my family, ‘What is genetics?’ and they had no clue,” Dr. Xu said without affectation. “I asked my neighbors, and they had no clue, so I thought genetics must not be very popular. Maybe I’ll have a chance.”
There is a dreamily idealized quality to the way Dr. Xu described the schooling of that day.
“People were very eager to teach and to learn,” he said. “Many of the people had been trained in the West, and had never had the opportunity to teach before. The students were incredibly ambitious. We had no clue what the outside world looked like, and suddenly we had an opportunity to study.”
Now China is rushing to build one of the world’s greatest educational establishments. And yet Dr. Xu suspects that in some ways, the country peaked academically back in those days, at least where the spirit of pure inquiry is concerned.
Dr. Xu made his way to the United States in 1983, landing in Harlem with $50 in his pocket. The World Bank had financed a program to support overseas studies for a small number of China’s best students, and at Fudan he had been one of two chosen.
“At the time the vice president of City College was visiting Fudan, and he asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ ” he said. “I told him I’d like to study developmental biology, and he said City College was a wonderful place. He showed me a brochure that said several of the grads there had won Nobel Prizes, and I said: ‘Wow! That’s exactly where I’d like to be!’ ”
DR. XU’s introduction to America was replete with unpleasant surprises. He was mugged near the college less than two weeks after arriving. He felt hopeless in English, and as a nobody without grant money he was denied access to his new school’s laboratories.
“I knew nothing about the United States, but I knew that if you wanted to learn science, the U.S. was the place,” he said. “I’m still deeply grateful, even though early life was very tough.
They gave me a $3,500 T.A.-ship, and I still had to pay tuition, which meant I lived in New York on $1,500. But the hardship was something I could deal with. It’s the opportunity that counts.
“That’s what young people need.”
After six months, Yale offered him a full scholarship, allowing him to pursue his graduate studies, and to work there ever since.
His visits back to China are those of a prodigious son, and his feelings toward China are at once hopeful and deeply critical. What he has found is a nation investing furiously, and with some notable successes, in educating its people. At the same time, he fears the implications of a system heavily invested in control, and the culture of rampant and mindless materialism, careerism and cronyism that it has produced.
“The best people have left and the old people have retired, and commercialization has taken hold,” Dr. Xu said.
Referring to scholarly investigation, he added: “The tradition has been broken, and we who were seeking the truth have moved on. It is very difficult to rebuild this sort of thing.”
Materialism, he said, has fueled an overpowering urge to “get rich quickly,” leaving few with the patience for pure inquiry. Everywhere one looks in education, he said, one sees the controlling hand of government, meaning that those with the best connections prevail, not those with the best ideas. Those who answer the fixed questions of a system based on the planning of nearly everything are rewarded, he said, not those who answer questions that few had dared dream about.
“They are putting more into education than perhaps any country,” Dr. Xu said, “but what we haven’t taught people yet is to value ideas, and to value the life of the scholar.”
Speaking boldly for a person who keeps a foot in China, Dr. Xu says what the country needs is a “new revolution” to get away from what he said was a “system that teaches people to follow the rules, not to be an innovator.” To get there, he warned, China will have to overcome thousands of years of tradition “that has always avoided exploring different ways of thinking and exploring, and has emphasized staying within the system.”
THE chance to help foster that new spirit is what began drawing Dr. Xu back to China in the early 1990’s, after he had become an American citizen. “I went back to Fudan and one of my former professors asked me to meet his students,” he said. “He told me he tried to motivate his students, and I said: ‘What does that mean? When we were here we were all motivated. We didn’t even care about eating or sleeping.’ ”
Dr. Xu said the students he met were among the country’s best, but they told him biology was boring. “I said, ‘Let me spend 10 minutes with you to tell you about some of the latest discoveries, and if you still feel it is boring, I give up.’ The discussion lasted 2 hours.”
The Saturday Profile