Tea Leaf Nation

An International Victory, Forged in China’s Tumultuous Past

An International Victory, Forged in China’s Tumultuous Past

On Oct. 5, a share of this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine went to 84-year-old Chinese pharmacologist Tu Youyou for her discovery, decades ago, of the anti-malarial drug artemisinin. Tu and her team made the discovery during the Cultural Revolution, a decade-long period of chaos and militant Communist ideology in the 1960s and 1970s. After scouring traditional herbal remedies, a 1,600-year old Chinese medicinal text led Tu to a local plant called sweet wormwood, and she found that an extract from the plant cured malaria patients. The resulting drug, artemisinin, has now been used for years to save millions of lives around the world.

Tu’s prize marks numerous firsts: The first Chinese citizen to receive a Nobel prize for scientific research performed in China; the first Chinese woman Nobel laureate; and the recipient of the highest award ever given to research inspired by Chinese traditional medicine, an ancient holistic health system highly valued within China but often dismissed by outsiders.

But Chinese netizens are more interested in three things that Tu isn’t. On Weibo, China’s huge microblogging platform, Tu has been dubbed the “three withouts” scientist: she won the Nobel without a doctoral degree, without holding a top position at a research institution, and without ever having pursued study overseas. Tu’s nickname reveals the insecurities that many within China still feel about their swiftly developing nation, frustration towards calcified bureaucracies holding it back, and the hopes that many harbor for its future.

Tu’s educational background doesn’t implicate her talents in any way. An October 2011 article from party mouthpiece People’s Daily, written when she received the prestigious Lasker Award, stated that her lack of overseas study and a doctoral degree traces to the Cultural Revolution, a period of government-driven chaos during which universities throughout China closed down and the country isolated itself from much of the world.

Perhaps more curious is that Tu had never been named a fellow at one of China’s major state-run research academies, the backbone of scientific research in the country, instead remaining at the little-known China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine. That’s especially surprising when Tu’s extraordinary achievement and spotless reputation is compared with some other fellows at prestigious institutions such as the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who maintained their positions despite being under suspicion of plagiarizing or faking research. China’s major academic institutions are known for their inflexible hierarchies, with researchers promoted on the basis of seniority and often must pursue state-sanctioned research. In recent years, China has poured billions into scientific research, but with limited results.

According to a colleague, Tu would freely share her opinions during meetings, and didn’t bother at attempting to curry favor with her higher-ups. The 2011 People’s Daily article, widely circulated again in the wake of the Nobel announcement, suggested that the academy system did not reward exceptional researchers who “work silently, do not excel at social relations, and dare to speak directly,” but rather promoted those “with power and money” and who “excel at public relations.” That article ended with a call to “review and improve” selection criteria and processes for academy fellows.

But four years later, many online believe that change hasn’t come. “How many more of such masters as Mo Yan” — winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in literature — “and Tu Youyou are down there, held down by the so-called experts above them?” wrote one user. “This is a structural problem.” Another asked, “Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, will you add Tu as one of your fellows now?”

Tu’s lack of study abroad is also serving as a major point of pride for many online. She represents China’s first completely homegrown science Nobel laureate in a country deeply concerned with its perceived lack of innovation, science, and technological breakthroughs. Ethnically Chinese researchers boast no shortage of Nobel Prizes — to date, eight have been awarded to Chinese born in China. But only three of those went to Chinese who still made China their home and whose work had been performed there. (And the first laureate, dissident Liu Xiaobo, now sits in prison for his efforts.) Indeed, even as China’s economy has grown exponentially and the government has poured billions of dollars into research over the past decade, brain drain has remained a major concern. Tu’s award serves to assuage the fear that China’s best minds, and the resulting research achievements, will never belong to China itself. “This isn’t a Chinese American! It’s a real Chinese!” wrote one Weibo user in a popular post, adding a total of 27 exclamation points. “This is the victory of ‘invented in China’” wrote another — although to be fair, Tu’s work was a product of the 1960s and 1970s, rather than the institutions and educational leaps of post-reform China.

That the prize went to a woman, and for a breakthrough from China’s own ancient medicinal traditions, has also made this year’s prize even more meaningful for many in China. As one Weibo user wrote, “Chinese medicine, a Chinese person, a woman. It simply can’t get any more awesome than that.”

Image: AFP/Getty Images