HKIHSS MMEA Lecture Series (3 March): Sigrid Schmalzer  - Connecting the Dots: A History of Systems Thinking in Chinese Agricultural Science and Politics

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Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences


Making Modernity in East Asia Lecture Series 

Connecting the Dots: A History of Systems Thinking in Chinese Agricultural Science and Politics


Professor Sigrid Schmalzer 

University of Massachusetts Amherst


Date & Time: March 3, 2021 (Wed), 8:00 p.m. HKT/ 7:00 a.m. EST

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Chinese agricultural scientists are prominent actors in global movements to promote agroecological engineering and preserve agricultural heritage systems. This presentation will explore the diverse historical roots of the systems paradigm, along with the scientific and political work it accomplishes. The notion that Chinese farmers have traditionally viewed agriculture as an ecological system (expressed most famously in the mulberry dyke / fish pond system of southeastern China) has inspired proponents of agroecology around the world. However, the mapping of such farming practices as systems of efficiently functioning components—along with the more general, transnational phenomenon of systems science—is a quintessentially modern way of thinking rooted in the application of scientific knowledge for the rationalization and control of nature and society. Similar language and diagrams have been used in China since the Mao era to describe agricultural, industrial, and political processes. The overarching principles of integration, efficiency, totality, and harmony emphasized in such schematics may be read as representing environmentalism or industrialism, holism or authoritarianism—or, more productively, some combination thereof. A deeper understanding of the history and current application of systems thinking in Chinese agriculture will help us more clearly identify where it inspires respect for ecological complexity and balance, and where it serves to justify and buttress state power. 


About the Speaker

Sigrid Schmalzer is professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she teaches Chinese history and the history of science. Her recent books include Red Revolution, Green Revolution: Scientific Farming in Socialist China (2016), Science for the People: Documents from America's Movement of Radical Scientists (2018), and a book for children, Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean: Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong's Work for Sustainable Farming. She is a founding member of the Critical China Scholars and of the new Science for the People, and is a vice-president in her faculty union. 


(This is an event organized by the CRF Project “Making Modernity in East Asia: Technologies of Everyday Life, 19th – 21st Centuries” (RGC CRF HKU C7011-16G).)


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