Unearthing the Nation

Grace Yen Shen’s Unearthing the Nation: Modern Geology and Nationalism in Republican China is a really good book. Shen says that at first “it took a lot of explaining to convince people that the history of Chinese geology needed to be told.” That scepticism seems well-founded. What did Chinese geologists ever do? How does geology connect to anything else? Is this going to be one of those institutional studies where nothing seems to happen other than setting up institutions and then having the members do nothing but complain about lack of funding?

Thankfully, geology is pretty easy to connect to other parts of China’s transformation. Part of this is just dumb luck. The first work on China’s geology written by a Chinese was “Brief outline of Chinese geology” published by former Jiangnan Military Academy School of Mines student Zhou Shuren, who would later go on to considerable fame under the name Lu Xun. It is not surprising that Zhou/Lu went on to become one of the most famous May 4th intellectuals, since

Chinese geologists rejected the Confucian values of the political and social order and associated them with parochialism and complacency. However, they not only accepted the deeply Confucian values of the intellectual as servitor-cum-guide to state and society, but they also managed to identify this role with progressivism and morality by taking it as a call to self-criticism and renewal. ….geologists’ shared sense of Chineseness grew out of their admission of guilt and the dedication to self-transformation. Geology was a discipline that would reshape its practitioners and resuscitate the nation on the verge of extinction. Unearthing the Nation. p.10

You could use that as a nice summary of the May 4th project, and in fact I did so in class last week.

Geology also matters because it ties in with wealth and power better than lots of other fields of study. Locating valuable rocks was something that both Chinese modernizers and foreign exploiters could get behind. Shen shows how Chinese geologists managed to replace foreigners and gradually they became the ones who surveyed an interpreted China’s rocks for both foreign and domestic audiences. Geology had only fitful support from the Chinese state, but it was popular with young Chinese, in part because the emphasis on fieldwork helped distinguish geologists from traditional educated youth “with pale faces and slender waists, seductive as young ladies, timorous of cold and chary of heat, weak as invalids.”1

Geologists also served the nation. They were the ones who found the Tungsten and other rare materials that wartime China exported. They also defined China as they Chinese would like. As Li Siguang put it.

at the time most people in western Europe invariably thought that Tibet was not fully part of China, and to correct this mistaken concept (whether intentional or unintentional) I purposely gave the Tibetan plateau first place among China’s natural regions. p.136

Of course service to the nation came with a price. The geologists did a better job than you might think in balancing a desire to do pure science and to serve China.

 By training their sights on the overall development of geology in China and remaining flexible about details and timing Chinese geologists achieved many of their own goals while catering to the interests of both native philanthropists and foreign funding agencies. When the remains of Peking Man were first announced in 1926, for instance, the Chinese geological community quickly turned its attention to paleoanthropology. Though it had no experience in this field, the Geological Survey convinced the Rockefeller Foundation to fund a Cenozoic Research Laboratory to study both Peking Man and the “tertiary and quaternary deposits of northern China” more broadly. p.185

This fits it with a lot of other examples I can think of where scholars adjusted their research to funding. It would be nice to have unlimited money to study anything, but practice that is not how China, or anywhere else, actually works.

If you want a nice, short, well-written book that explains the birth of a modern science in China and why it matters, this is a good choice.


  1. quote from Chen Duxiu. Were there any female geologists? 

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