Changsha, Hunan was shrouded in grief on the afternoon of 22 May. As the hearse carrying the body of Yuan Longping, “the father of hybrid rice” made its way out of Xiangya Hospital of Central South University, people chanted in the drizzle: “Grandpa Yuan, may you rest in peace!”
Not only that, many of them ran after the hearse while passing cars stopped along the road, sounding their horns as a mark of respect. Scenes here matched the outpourings of grief when people in Beijing mourned the death of Zhou Enlai, the first premier of China, in January 1976.
Sending off ‘the father of hybrid rice’
At 1:07 pm on 22 May, Yuan died of organ failure in Changsha at the age of 91. In the morning, various media including CGTN released news of his death but Yuan’s secretary and some others denied the reports. Even as netizens condemned the rumour-mongers, Xinhua News Agency confirmed his death in the afternoon.
Yuan’s death quickly reached the top of search lists on Weibo, garnering over a billion views within a couple of hours. Countless netizens flocked online to mourn this noble scientist who had “saved millions of people from hunger”.
Xinhua Daily Telegraph, a subsidiary of Xinhua News Agency, published a commentary suggesting that the nation fly the flag at half-mast to mourn Yuan. It added that Mr Yuan had made great contributions to all humankind and his death was a great loss for the world. It proposed that the country should remember and thank this old gentleman with a grand gesture so that more people would be encouraged to give their all and strive for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
To fly or not to fly the flag at half-mast?
According to Article 15 of China’s National Flag Law, the flag can be flown at half-mast to mourn the president, the chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, the premier of the State Council, the chairman of the Central Military Commission, the chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, and people who have made outstanding contributions to the People’s Republic of China or to world peace and human progress.
Although Yuan had made outstanding contributions to China and the world and flying the flag at half-mast would not be against the flag law, officials seem unwilling to set such a precedent for a scientist.
However, the flag at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square was not flown at half-mast yesterday, and the commentary making that suggestion can no longer be found on the official website of Xinhua News Agency as well.
Until today, the flag at Tiananmen Square has never been flown at half-mast for individuals other than political leaders. Although Yuan has made outstanding contributions to China and the world and flying the flag at half-mast would not be against the flag law, officials seem unwilling to set such a precedent for a scientist.
Yuan’s memorial service is taking place today at Mingyangshan Funeral House in Changsha. The world is watching to see if the officials will go against past practice and fly the flag at half-mast.
No need for pomp and pageantry
However, whether or not this happens would mean little to Yuan, who never courted fame. The people’s heartfelt appreciation would be the best memorial to the extraordinary life of this venerable gentleman.
Until the 1950s and 1960s, China produced only about 250 kilograms of rice per mu, which was not enough to sustain China’s rapid population growth. Now, China produces up to 1,500 kilograms of rice per mu, and the people are well out of the days of famine. The “super hybrid rice technique” that Yuan led contributed enormously to this.
Yuan believed in knowledge through practice — even at 90, he was working in the fields. In 2017, he was diagnosed with lung problems and was advised to rest, but even until March this year, he was going out to the fields. After suffering a fall on 10 March, Yuan was sent to the hospital and had to finally bid farewell to the rice fields that he loved.
Apart from getting people out of famine, Yuan was generally well-loved because he was always a “big boy” who was humble, simple, forthright, and loveable. He was meticulous in research, and described himself as disliking etiquette and old-fashioned ways, and did not want to be serious and restrained.
Years of working in the fields had Yuan looking like a farmer; he actually came from a family of intellectuals, and was well educated.
His father Yuan Xinglie was previously a primary school principal, and also worked for the Kuomintang army and government, moving from place to place during the days of war. Yuan Longping followed his parents around and went to school in Wuhan, Chongqing, and Nanjing. In 1949, he made it into Southwest Agricultural College (now part of Southwest University).
Yuan was a healthy youth, a good swimmer who also played the violin. According to him, when he graduated from Southwest Agricultural College in 1953, he almost joined the military as a pilot, but was declared ineligible the day before he left — clearly, he lost his chance because of his family background. Fortunately, this gave China a world-renowned scientist instead.
In 2010, the 80-year-old Yuan wrote a piece titled “Mum, the Rice is Ready for Harvesting”, a heartfelt tribute to his mother who had passed on 21 years earlier.
After graduating from university, Yuan was deployed to teach at an agriculture school in remote Anjiang, Hunan province. This unremarkable location was where a new world of hybrid rice had its genesis.
Yuan’s mother Hua Jing was born in a prominent family in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, and graduated from a Christian school in the UK. She had Yuan learning English from his youth, and told him the story of the philosopher Friedrich Nietsche; she was the one that Yuan was most grateful to and whom he missed the most. In 2010, the 80-year-old Yuan wrote a piece titled “Mum, the Rice is Ready for Harvesting”, a heartfelt tribute to his mother who had passed on 21 years earlier. Even now, it is a moving read.
He wrote: “They say I changed the world with a single seed. I know you planted that seed in me when I was a child… I also want to tell you, Mother — you who never sowed crops in your life — I want to tell you about the feel of rice awns caressing the palm, the stacks of straw in the field, the crackling sound of grains basking in the sun, and the orange glow of the paddy fields in the sunset. These are the endless topics I want to chat with you about!”
Now, the well-loved Grandpa Yuan has also gone to rest; he will reunite with his mother in heaven.
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