Knowledge Production in Mao-Era China:
Learning from the Masses

By Rui Kunze and Marc Andre Matten

Reviewed by Fa-ti Fan

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January, 2022)

Rui Kunze and Marc Andre Matten, Knowledge Production in Mao-Era China: Learning from the Masses Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2021. xxviii + 165 pp. ISBN: 978-1-4985-8461-6 (cloth); 978-1-4985-8462-3 (electronic).

The scholarship on science in Mao-era China has grown rapidly in the past ten years or so. This development has benefited from several factors, notably the increased access to source materials and the new research interest in both socialist China and science in modern China. Thanks to the effort of innovative scholars such as Sigrid Schmalzer, Miriam Gross, Zuoyue Wang, Thomas Mullaney, Arunabh Ghosh, and Xiaoping Fang, we now have a much better understanding of science in socialist China. These and other scholars have proven the conventional image of Mao-era science—that it was a poor imitation of the Soviet import, that it went bonkers during the Great Leap Forward, that scientific research simply stopped during the Cultural Revolution—to be seriously inadequate. The actual history is much more diverse and complex.

Knowledge Production in Mao-era China is a welcome addition to this new scholarship. It is a short book of 160 pages, divided into six heavily end-noted chapters. The chapters are densely packed with ideas, arguments, and historical evidence, each examining a particular aspect of science and its relationship to the general public as represented in published source materials. Following an introduction in which the authors outline their premises and approach, the first two chapters manifest the overall interpretive framework employed throughout. Chapter 1 tries to answer the question: how does one define and explain the diverse activities in the Mao era that were promoted and pursued as science, but often appear idiosyncratic to outside observers? Drawing on the insights of science studies, the book treats science as a heterogeneous field of knowledge production and cultural practice, which allows what was then categorized as science to be historicized and considered on its own terms. From this standpoint, the book goes on to explore the changing configurations of science and its dissemination in twentieth century China. Chapter 2 charts the evolution of science popularization from the Republican era through the Mao period. In broad terms, the transformation is characterized as an evolution from “’popular science’” (大众科学) during the Republican period, to “the People’s Science” (人民科学) in the early Communist era, and, eventually, to “‘mass science’” (群众科学) during the height of Maoism, each undergirded by a corresponding political ideology (29).

The next three chapters are each comprised of case studies that expound the authors’ fundamental premise of science as knowledge production during the Mao era. The chapters cover, respectively, agricultural tools and mechanization, shopfloor innovations in industrialization, and veterinary medicine. Chapter 3 starts with the introduction of Soviet tractors in Mao’s campaign to mechanize and increase agricultural production in the 1950s. It goes on to explain the limits and problems of Soviet-style machinery when transposed into a very different agricultural setting, resulting in Chinese innovations and modifications to the Soviet designs. The chapter ends with a look at the campaign to promote ball-bearings for various vehicles, including traditional wheelbarrows, in pursuit of greater productivity during the Great Leap Forward. As a case study of technology transfer and innovation, the chapter is rich in details and insights.

Chapter 4 examines technological innovations on the shopfloor in the industrialization campaigns of the Mao era. It focuses on two potent examples. The goal to increase the production of cast iron and later steel led to experiments that incorporated “indigenous methods” (土办法) into large-scale industrialization (88). The chapter shows that the notorious “backyard furnace” during the Great Leap Forward was only one of a series of innovations in iron and steel production at the time. The second example discusses the revolutionary “AnSteel Charter” (鞍钢宪法), formalized in 1960, that mandated worker participation in management (83). This arrangement would be promoted by Mao as a model for factories and enterprises across the nation throughout the Cultural Revolution. The main contribution of the chapter is to convincingly characterize these examples as instances of knowledge production on the shopfloor, which enables them to be meaningfully placed within the history of technology.

Chapter 5 on veterinary medicine is rather short. It builds its central argument on accepted studies that parse the creative tensions between Western and Chinese medicine in a modernizing China (e.g., works by Sean Lei, Kim Taylor, and Xiaoping Fang). I would have wished for more contextualization of livestock science and more conceptualization drawing from the field of animal studies in this chapter. Still, it is one of the few studies on veterinary medicine in communist China. (I would refer interested readers to Liz P. Y. Chee’s Mao’s Bestiary as well.)

A brief final chapter comments on how science and the ideology of science were reconfigured in the transition to the Reform era. The authors note that there were changes, but there were also relevant—if often neglected—continuities.

The book makes excellent use of a wide range of printed sources, especially materials for science dissemination. Although scholars have mined similar publications, it is still impressive to see the range and amount of sources brought under examination. In addition to books and magazines, the authors have combed through pamphlets, manuals, posters, documentary films, and lantern slides. This concise study doesn’t aim to tell a rich narrative history of science in Mao-era China; rather, the chapters function mainly as interlinked essays on a limited selection of phenomena that demonstrate science as a heterogeneous field of knowledge production and cultural practice in the Mao era. Taken together, they provide a valuable perspective on how to think about the complex picture of science during the often tumultuous early decades of the PRC. As such, Knowledge Production in Mao-Era China: Learning from the Masses is of great interest and deserves the attention of readers, including those engaged in cultural studies.

Fa-ti Fan
Binghamton University (S.U.N.Y.)