Toward a Transnational, Trans-1978 History of Food Politics in China


Tuesday, November 17, 2015, 4:00pm to 6:00pm



In the 1960s and 1970s, the PRC state promoted the technological transformation of agriculture through a radical approach known as the "mass movement for scientific experiment." Grassroots "scientific experiment groups" were organized throughout the countryside on a "three-in-one" basis: "old peasants" with practical experience, "educated youth" with revolutionary zeal, and local cadres with correct political understanding were expected to work together to identify needs and develop solutions, to promote self-reliance, and to overturn "technocratic" approaches promoted by scientific elites and "capitalist roaders," instead placing "politics in command." In China today, agricultural reformers and food activists are connected to transnational networks and rarely evoke their Mao-era predecessors; however, their work resonates strongly with the ideas and values of that earlier era.

Through an examination of the food sovereignty, participatory action research, and indigenous knowledge movements, this paper traces the roots of contemporary Chinese food politics in the radical Maoist past.

The challenge is to accomplish a simultaneously transnational and diachronic account so as to recognize: first, that China in the Mao era was part of a larger world; second, that the politics of the Mao era continue to exert an important influence today, though in ways that are highly mediated and often transformed almost beyond recognition; and third, that, of the many transnational currents influential on contemporary China, some grew out of an earlier global political culture in which Maoism played a crucial role.

Speaker: Sigrid Schmalzer is Associate Professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Professor Schmalzer's research focuses on social, cultural, and political aspects of the history of science in modern China. Her first book, The People's Peking Man: Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth-Century China, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2008 and won the Sharlin Memorial Award from the Social Science History Association. Her work has been published in numerous edited volumes and scholarly journals, including Isis, Journal of American-East Asian RelationsHistorical Studies in the Natural SciencesEast Asian History, and Geographical Review. She is currently completing a book manuscript titled "Red Revolution, Green Revolution: Encounters with 'Scientific Farming' in Socialist China," which has begun to spin off articles and book chapters on U.S.-Chinese agricultural-scientific exchange, youth involvement in the Mao-era "great revolutionary movement of scientific experiment," and the political significance of Mao-era science in China and abroad. She is also the lead organizer for a conference to be held at UMass 11-13 April 2014, "Science for the People: The 1970s and Today," which will bring together students, scholars in Science and Technology Studies, and former members of the 1970s-1980s group Science for the People. Her research has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, Fulbright, the Social Science Research Council, the American Philosophical Society, and the D. Kim Foundation.