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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Darwin’s Champion in China, Part 1: The Turbulent Life of Ye Duzhuang

Ye Duzhuang

Chinese intellectuals and artists suffering abuse at the hands of the state have been much in the news these days. The blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, avant-garde artist Ai Weiwei, and Nobel Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo have received the most prominent press, but the shameful list certainly must include also Hu Jia (AIDS and environmental advocate), Zhu Yufu (“It’s Time” poet), Gao Zhisheng (dissident rights lawyer), Wu Yuren (installation artist), and Chen Wei (advocate of a “jasmine revolution”). And there are many others. The drum roll of imprisonment and intimidation reminded me of an evening I spent in the spring of 1984 with a most remarkable Chinese scientist.

I first read of Ye Duzhuang in a May, 1982 New Yorker article (A Reporter at Large: Homecoming) by the novelist John Hersey. Hersey, the son of missionaries to China, had known Ye growing up in Tianjin, and later shared rooms with him in Beijing in the 1940’s, when both were young journalists honing their craft. Intrigued by the article’s passing mention that Ye had gone on to become the preeminent translator of Charles Darwin’s works into Chinese, I wrote Ye. I was a young biologist traveling to China that summer; might Ye spare a moment to meet me and discuss Darwinism in China? Regrettably, I arrived in Beijing just after Ye had left for his summer holiday on Mt. Lushan in southern China. I tried again on a subsequent China visit in 1984, and to my surprise—for Ye was eminent, and I just beginning my career—Ye agreed not only to see me, but invited me to his home for dinner, and arranged for me to give a lecture on Darwinism to his colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Beyond his translations of Darwin’s works, I knew little of Ye. My ignorance of Ye’s turbulent life and hardships was probably good—had I known, I would surely have been too awed to have done more than stammer before him. Coming upon a 1984 photo of Ye and me while cleaning out my desk 27 years later upon my retirement from university duties, I determined to see what I could belatedly discover about him. Sources for his story include official websites, surviving family, colleagues, and most importantly the fascinating Ancestral Leaves by UC San Diego historian Joseph W. Esherick, Ye's son-in-law.

Ye was born in1914 into a prominent family, which had for centuries served as high officials to the ruling Qing dynasty, I learned. The increasingly bloody nature of politics in the late-Qing dynasty era had persuaded his father to enter the world of modern banking and industry instead, centered in the northern port city of Tianjin, where Ye grew up. He and his brothers learned the Chinese classics from their robed teacher in the family school, but their father hired a young tutor to teach them mathematics and English at the end of every day. In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Ye attended the prestigious Nankai Middle School in Tianjin, where he was introduced to more Western learning and the scientific approach.

When the Japanese invaded and occupied northeast China in 1931, Ye joined student protests against the appeasement policy of Chiang Kaishek’s Nationalists. At this time Ye was influenced by the agriculturalist Xu Guangqi, and decided to dedicate his life to forging a strong science-based agriculture to secure China’s prosperity and independence. He availed himself of Japan’s Western-oriented system of higher education, studying scientific approaches to agriculture at the Imperial University in Tokyo for three years, becoming proficient in Japanese as a result.

Ye returned to China as the Japanese Army began its active invasion of the remainder of China in 1937, marking the beginning of the Japanese campaign to conquer Asia in World War II. Determined to use his linguistic and writing talents in the defense of his homeland, Ye soon affiliated with the Eighth Route communist army as a journalist, observing and recording the desperate battles of communist guerilla armies against the Japanese. During a winter campaign, he suffered frostbite to his left leg, and consequently was sent behind the front lines as a teacher at the communists’ Jin Dong Nan Military Cadre School in southeast Shanxi.

Ye soon tired of the military, and began looking for other ways to help in the struggle against the Japanese. He moved to Chongqing in Szechuan, the Nationalist’s wartime capital, where he worked briefly as a journalist and an organizer of craftsmen into cooperatives to support the war effort. He soon joined a joint intelligence unit set up by the Russian communists and the Nationalist army, where he tracked Japanese troop movements and casualties. Not long thereafter, toward the end of the Second World War, he joined an intelligence team set up by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) that tracked Japanese forces in southwestern China. He also assisted the U.S. Army’s intelligence forces, flying with them to Inner Mongolia to interpret for a team seeking to rescue downed U.S. airmen.

By this time, Ye had joined the Democratic League, an alliance of liberal intellectuals who were increasingly critical of the corruption of the Nationalist regime. He also met Graham Peck, a liberal American journalist who served in the U.S. Office of War Information and introduced him to other American journalists, encounters that would haunt him throughout his life.

At the end of the world war—and the beginning of the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists—Ye shared rooms in Beijing with his American friends, including John Hersey from his Tianjin days, and Graham Peck. Ye continued his work as a journalist, focusing on agriculture, and promoting the cause of science in China. He became the editor of several magazines, including Agricultural Science News, and Chinese Agricultural Science, and began translating Western works in agriculture, economics, and science. During this time he published an impressive study of the economics of contemporary cotton production in North China, using Japanese sources and data, which established him as a leading agricultural economist. With the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Ye was assigned to what would become the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Science in Beijing.

Quickly the ubiquitous “self-study” groups began in the communists’ “new China.” Ye’s dealings with intelligence units of the defeated Nationalists and later the Americans put him under great suspicion, especially with the advent of the Korean War. His friendships with John Hersey and particularly Graham Peck also cast a cloud over his past. Ye stubbornly refused to concede any improprieties, and in official reports his “superior” attitude and lack of humility were criticized.

Increasingly unhappy with the political acrimony at the Academy, Ye began what would become his life work as a personal escape. Realizing that the writings of Charles Darwin constituted the underpinnings for all the modern life sciences, Ye sought and received a commission from the Chinese National Press and Publication Bureau to translate the entire works of Darwin into Chinese, so as to be readily available to scientists throughout China. He commenced this immense task with discipline and enthusiasm in the middle 1950’s, when he was in his early 40’s. By 1956 he had translated (though not published, as best I can tell) The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin.

Meanwhile, the political situation became worse for him. During the 1955 Sufan campaign (Campaign to Suppress Counter-Revolutionaries), Ye’s old association with the OSS and his contacts with Americans were again examined and he was subjected to intense and unrelenting questioning. When he refused to confess to anti-revolutionary activities or tendencies, he was accused of “resisting,” a serious accusation. Still he stubbornly refused to sign a confession, and the matter was labeled “an historical problem” and inserted into his personnel file.

In 1956 an expansive Mao had invited intellectuals to suggest ways the Communist party could improve its construction of the new China. “Let a Hundred Flowers bloom,” he proclaimed. Ye, who had not made great efforts to hide his displeasure with the intrusion of politics into the scientific mission of the Academy, was invited to air his opinions. He refused. High officials of the Democratic League visited him, and pleaded for him to add his voice to the others. Relenting, at a public forum he voiced relatively mild suggestions that the Director and Deputy Director of the Academy should be better informed about the Academy’s scientific mission and afford that mission higher respect. His criticism of some actions of the Deputy Director, also the Communist Party secretary for the Academy, was particularly blunt, but again not unreasonable or harsh.

The overwhelming chorus of criticism resulting from the Hundred Flowers movement prompted the Communist party to lash back in the 1957 Anti-Rightest campaign. All of Ye’s old “problems” were aired again, with even more vitriol. Since he had criticized the scientific understanding of the Academy leaders, his own knowledge was probed in a well-rehearsed public hearing designed to expose Ye as himself deficient in understanding of agricultural matters. Since Ye’s expertise was limited to agricultural economics, and he had mainly edited the Academy publications and worked on his Darwin translations, the interrogators (particularly the deputy director he had earlier criticized) were able to publicly humiliate him with a vengeance.

Persecuted from all sides and psychologically broken, Ye finally “confessed” and was declared a convicted “Rightist” in 1957. He was ostracized by his colleagues and openly ridiculed. His three young daughters were taunted at school. Dismissed from his research and editor positions, Ye was assigned to work in the Academy’s library. One day in September of 1958, as he was doing t’ai chi ch’uan in the stacks on a break, Ye was ordered to immediately pack his bags for an agricultural conference in Nanking. Once aboard a train heading south, he was arrested and sent back to Beijing’s Caolanzi prison. He disappeared into the prison, and it was three months before his family learned what had happened to him and where he was.

In prison, he was fed two small corn dumplings and a weak soup twice a day. Most of the day was spent in relentless self-criticism lessons with the other “enemies of the state” in his group: a physics professor, a protestant minister, a bandit and kidnapper, a young technical school teacher who complained too much, and a university student who inadvisedly revealed that he preferred Spinoza to Marx.

In the few hours not taken up by self-criticism, Ye renewed his translation of Darwin. One of his brothers sent him a Japanese copy of The Descent of Man. Ye translated the work in the spaces between the lines of Japanese text. He considered it his finest work, and eagerly sent it back to his brother to keep. The copy, and his interlinear translation, was reportedly burned by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution several years later.

After four years in prison, Ye was mysteriously and suddenly released for “medical reasons” in May of 1962. He returned home, so gaunt that he frightened his youngest daughter. After a month reacquainting himself with his wife and three young daughters, he was abruptly rearrested, formally tried, and quickly convicted in court of his “Rightist” crime of being an American spy. Ye was sentenced to ten years, and returned directly to prison.

It would be fourteen years before his daughters would see their father again. Soon his wife and daughters were evicted from their apartment in the Agricultural Sciences compound.

Ye was transferred from the Beijing prison to a labor camp in north China, and from there to a labor camp in central China’s Anhui province in 1966. His faltering health relegated him to collecting the huge camp’s “night soil” and applying it to the vegetable gardens.

After a year, he was sent briefly back to Beijing’s dreaded Qincheng prison, where he was told to sign a confession that a former high Communist Party official had worked with him spying for the Americans. When he refused, Ye was shoved to the floor and viciously kicked again and again by a young soldier. Finally Ye signed the confession and was dragged back to his cell. Not long after, he was again brought to the interrogation room and ordered to sign another confession, which went into more detail about specific incidents in which the high official had passed information on to Ye to pass to the Americans. Again Ye refused, again he was beaten. And again he signed. (Many years later, Ye learned that one of his brothers was in Qincheng prison at the same time.)

Ye was returned to the Anhui labor camp, and resumed his duties there. His ten-year sentence (which was considered to have begun at his original 1958 imprisonment) expired in 1968. But since he was a criminal and had lost his job at the Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Ye was not permitted to return to Beijing. He remained at the labor camp for a period, then was transferred to a nearby agricultural extension station. There he was able to resume his agricultural research activities, developing a new insecticide for crops and conducting research on cotton and rapeseed, which was published, ironically, in the very Academy journals of which he had formerly been the editor.

After seven years of internal exile at the Anhui province agricultural station, Ye learned in late 1975 that he had been included, somehow, in a general amnesty granted to former spies for the Kuomintang regime. At age 62, his rights to full citizenship were restored—but still he could not return to Beijing and his family without employment there. He sent word to his wife, asking if she could work on the problem, only to discover that she had died of cancer two years earlier.

Ye was transferred to a nearby fish hatchery, where he was afforded a measure of respect, being addressed as “Mr. Ye” as he continued his scientific research. He contacted his oldest daughter in Beijing, and in spring and summer of 1976 his daughters visited Ye in Anhui—the first time he had seen them in 14 years. Mao died that year, and the Gang of Four was dislodged from power. The Communist party began to slowly address the madness of the Anti-Rightest Campaign and the Cultural Revolution.

Three years later, in 1979, the Beijing Superior Court declared Ye’s previous conviction void and pronounced him innocent of all charges. The Academy of Agricultural Sciences indicated they would restore him to his former position there. Ye boarded a train from Anhui to Beijing and arrived in the capital in the early morning. He took a pedicab to his oldest daughter’s apartment, and woke his three daughters. Beside a box containing his wife’s ashes, Ye embraced his three daughters, tears in his eyes. He was nearly 65 years old, but after 21 years of prison and internal exile, he was restored to what remained of his family.

(A scant five years later, I arrived, young and naive, at Ye’s doorstep, knowing nothing of Ye’s life except that he had translated much of Darwin’s work into Chinese.)

Back in Beijing from 1979 on, much of Ye’s time and energy was devoted to his Darwin project. 1982 saw the publication of his translation of The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex for the centenary of Darwin’s death. This was republished in a 1984 edition which Ye later sent me, inscribed in his own hand with a quotation from Darwin: “As far as I can judge, I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men. I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free.” When I later learned of Ye’s turbulent history, I realized why the quotation meant so much to Ye, and the personal suffering his determination to keep his mind free had incurred.

In 1983 Ye finally published his translation of Francis Darwin’s Life of Charles Darwin, which included Darwin’s letters and his autobiography. He later sent a personally inscribed copy of this to me. In a spring 1985 letter, Ye proudly explained to me that he had included the complete Nora Barlow version of Darwin’s autobiography, rather than the edited, less personal version that Darwin’s son Francis had published. Ye’s cherished original English version of this work (the three-volume John Murray edition) had been “regrettably destroyed during the Cultural Revolution,” he had told me in an earlier (fall 1984) letter. So I procured and sent him another edition of the work, in which he liked the new George Gaylord Simpson “Forward” so much he intended to include it in subsequent editions of his translation, he said.

Ye and I kept up a correspondence for some years before and after my visit. His research and diligence in translating were revealed in his first letter to me, in the fall of 1982, in which he lamented our missing each other on my first China trip. For three single-spaced typewritten pages, Ye closely related and analyzed the history of Chinese translations of Darwin, the text peppered with Chinese characters indicating varying renditions in Chinese of difficult concepts such as “natural selection,” “survival of the fittest,” “evolution,” and “species.” He explained how Darwin’s concept of evolution was first mentioned in print in various works by western missionaries, but that the first rigorous and widely read translation treating Darwinism was On Evolution, by Yan Fu (first published in 1898), consisting of the first two chapters of Thomas Henry Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics, with extensive commentary by Yan.

Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” was the shy, retiring Darwin’s indefatigable defender and champion in the decade following the publication of Origin of Species in 1859. To my mind, Ye Duzhuang performed the same role as champion of Darwin in China in the mid-twentieth century, even in the midst of his incredible hardships of imprisonment and internal exile.

In his later years, though plagued by chronic illness as a result of his two decades in prison and exile, Ye continued translating Darwin. In a spring 1985 letter to me, he mentioned he was in the midst of translating The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species and other botanical studies, expecting to finish it that year. Ye also maintained a busy schedule of field trips to Sichuan and to the loess plateau to advise on reforestation and soil conservation, related to his position in the Academy of Agricultural Sciences and his renewed activity in the Democratic League.

Ye Duzhuang died in 2000 at the age of 86. Just before his death, in the presence of two of his brothers, Ye wrote the characters of the following epitaph with his trembling hand: “Ren Sheng You He Zui”. This final comment, concentrated and evocative as all classical Chinese is, may be translated thusly: “What guilt is there in life, to justify so much suffering?” By report, his brothers were deeply moved.

In 1984, my dinner with Ye Duzhuang and lecture on “Modern Currents in the Study of Darwinian Evolution” to the Chinese Academy of Science were not the primary purpose of my second trip to China. Though a young biology professor at California State University, Chico, I had also long been interested in China, my undergraduate degree at Yale having been in Chinese history. I was mainly visiting China to research my first novel, a murder mystery set in Beijing during the Communist siege of 1948. My upcoming meetings with Ye Duzhuang were icing on my research cake.

I arrived in Beijing with my travel buddy Kyle on April 28 after a brutal 27-hour “standing aisle” train ride from Hangzhou, replete with spittle and chicken bones littering the floor upon which we crouched. President Reagan had arrived two days previous, though in very different style. As I visited Taoist temples and the Forbidden City and interviewed elderly historians from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who had lived through the 1948 siege, I became aware of a palpable tenseness in the city. Beyond hosting the first American President since Nixon’s visit two decades earlier, the Chinese had had an interesting month. In the three weeks previous, the 1979 border war with Vietnam had briefly flared up in a significant skirmish between troops of the two nations, and the Russians—no longer the “special friends” of decades past—had detonated two nuclear test blasts in Eastern Kazakh near the border with China, and launched a major offensive in the Pashirvallei of Afghanistan.

“Independent travelers” such as Kyle and I were required to stay in a hostel on the southeast edge of Beijing. To get to Ye’s home on the northwest outskirts for dinner, I rode a series of three buses across the considerable breadth of the ancient capital. Finally I arrived at the residential compound of scientists associated with the Academy of Agricultural Sciences, located the three-story block and cement Soviet-era building where Ye was housed, and climbed the narrow concrete stairway to the third floor. I knocked on the door.

Next month (Wednesday, December 4): Darwin’s Champion in China, Part 2: My Evening with Ye Duzhuang

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