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Li Jing Xiong (C.H. Li)--Functioning in Adversity.

Li Jing Xiong (syn. Li Ching-Hsiung), member of the Chinese Academy of Science (1980), president of the Crop Science Society of China (1984), Chief Scientist, basic agronomy, National Basic Research Program (1992), known best among his American associates as C.H. Li., died on 28 June 1997 at Beijing after a prolonged illness. There are few among us who have functioned so well in adversity and made such substantial contributions as this modest, well-beloved man.

Born 20 Oct. 1913 at Fuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China, C.H. Li received his B.A. in 1936 from Zhejiang University where he remained an additional year as a teaching assistant before moving on in April 1937 to join Prof. H.W. Li's team of cytogeneticists at Wuhan University in central China (H.W. Li had been a graduate student of Dr. R.A. Emerson at Cornell in 1929 and was a close friend of Dr. G.W. Beadle). At Wuhan, C.H. Li demonstrated his interest and competence in research by undertaking, as his first cytological study, an investigation of gene-controlled development of abnormal pollen mother cells in maize.

Wuhan University personnel removed themselves westward in advance of invading Japanese troops after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War on 7 July 1937. Prof. H.W. Li decided to accept a position in Sichuan Province as chief agronomist in charge of cereal improvement in the war zones and asked his assistants, of whom our C.H. Li was one, to go there as a group. When the group left Wuhan on 1 Dec. 1937, C.H. Li carried with him a key part of his research material, a first generation wheat-rye hybrid seedling dug from the nursery. This progenitor triticale seedling in its small pot was carried by C.H. Li on foot across the upper Yangtze River and the hilly mountain region beyond for over a month before it could be replanted at the Sichuan Agricultural Improvement Institute.

During the Sino-Japanese War and subsequent World War II, the small group of plant cytogeneticists in West China consisting of H.W. Li, C.H. Li, and W.K. Pao played an important role in strengthening agricultural technology. As early as 1938, C.H. Li initiated work on induction of polyploidy in crop plants by use of colchicine.

Li came to the USA in November 1944, holding a research assistantship granted by Dr. L.J. Stadler of the University of Missouri. From Missouri, Li moved first to the University of Minnesota to work with Dr. C.R. Burnham and then to the California Institute of Technology to work with Dr. E.G. Anderson. He then enrolled at Cornell University in August 1945, where he held a research assistantship and pursued his research under the direction of Dr. L.F. Randolph. (There, returning from military service, it was my good fortune to share an office with Li.)

Upon completion of his doctoral research in 1948, he was asked by Dr. Randolph to participate in the USDA research project on the cytogenetic effects of the Bikini atomic bomb radiation on exposed maize.

Before returning to China in September 1948, Dr. Li spent two additional months at the California Institute of Technology as a post-doctoral scientist to enable him to study a pericentric inversion of maize chromosome 9 that he had found in his doctoral research material.

Upon his return to China, Dr. Li joined the Agricultural College of Tsing Hua University at Beijing in November 1948, just 6 wk before the Chinese Communist takeover of that city. After "liberation," the several agricultural colleges of the region were reorganized as the Beijing Agricultural University.

Li's expectation upon return to China had been that he would be able to pursue a career in teaching and research as a professor of cytogenetics. However, the period from 1949 to 1956 proved to be a most difficult time for western-trained biologists who wished to pursue studies of genes and chromosomes and to teach genetics. This was the period during which the Russian authoritarian genetic dogma, Lysenkoism, was imposed and prevailed in China, adversely affecting biological sciences in general, and, most severely, those engaged in agriculturally related genetic research.

During the ideological remolding campaign for intellectuals in 1952, biologists, especially western-trained geneticists, were criticized. Li's response was, for the time, to "forget about genes and chromosomes," to avoid formal teaching of genetics, to give up publication, and, without stressing his goal of maize improvement through inbreeding and hybridization of inbred lines, to concentrate on his second choice--practical maize (corn) breeding. (The Lysenkoist dogma held inbreeding to be "bad." Li told me later, with a twinkle in his eyes, "I gave myself permission to inbreed.") Many of his academic colleagues during this period simply discontinued all professional activity. Another Li, the well-known population geneticist, C.C. Li, a conspicuous target, found it prudent to flee China.

In 1956, a break came. From 1949 through 1956 the prevailing policy in China had been to "learn from the Soviet Union." In 1956, Chairman Mao Zedong declared a new policy: "Let one hundred flowers bloom, let one hundred schools of thought contend." A key reason for declaring this new policy was the "genetics question." Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai appointed a number of party members, not themselves geneticists, to investigate the Russian genetic literature. This committee reported that there were indeed serious problems. The committee suggested that a conference be held, the Qingdao Symposium of 1956, during which the "genetics question" would be fully examined in "free debate."

As a participant in that symposium, Dr. Li, at considerable professional and personal risk, took a key role in the ensuing debate. There had been much argument for effecting a compromise between "the contending schools." According to the report of the Qingdao Symposium, a few of the participants spoke out strongly, and effectively, against any sort of merger. One was Li, the others were Sheng Zujia, the microbiologist, and Wu Zhongxian, the animal geneticist. Dr. C.H. Li said, "there could be no compromise." Freely translated, he asked, in effect, "What precisely do you mean by compromise? That we accept half of Lysenko and let them accept half a gene? In all natural sciences, there is only one language. And there is only one truth. I don't want to fight, but I don't understand what you mean by compromise."

The symposium marked the end, not of Lysenkoism but of the Lysenkoist monopoly in China, and the end of the ban on genetics. Though the "two schools" coexisted for many years after 1956, Lysenkoists individually continued, and continue today, though not as doctrinaires, to hold powerful positions in agriculture and general biology. Soon after the meeting, a withering of direct support for a Lysenkoist "science" occurred.

Dr. Li's highly effective work on improvement of maize for China was both simple in approach and efficient in execution. From the start, he understood the breeding methods and advantages of the inbred-hybrid system of maize improvement undertaken so effectively in the USA; he knew that much of the northeastern agricultural soils and climate of China were very similar to the American "Corn Belt;" he had brought back with him, in 1948, a collection of the then important U.S. inbred lines and in subsequent years was able through friends in the USA to obtain additional elite inbreds and other useful breeding materials. From this base and with the complementary addition of indigenous Chinese corn cultivars from which inbred lines were subsequently developed, Dr. Li was able to breed a series of highly productive maize hybrids for China. Initially, these were double cross hybrids. Then, as in the USA, single cross hybrids came to the fore. Li exploited the Reid-Lancaster heterotic pattern, using first the Connecticut inbred C103 developed by Donald Jones as a key parent and then, when it became available, the Missouri inbred Mol7 developed by Marcus Zuber, crossing these with Chinese Reid-type inbreds of his own breeding.

To a remarkable degree, the initial improvement of maize yields through heterosis breeding in China was due solely to the efforts of Dr. Li and the small group of younger scientists he trained. During these early years, he was often invited to make on-the-spot inspections and to give training courses on breeding and seed production. Meanwhile, Dr. Li generously distributed elite inbred lines and basic breeding materials upon the request of plant breeders in other research institutes. In consequence, superior maize hybrids and efficient breeding and seed production techniques were popularized successfully throughout China.

The first group of Dr. Li's hybrids, double crosses bearing Nuna numbers (Agricultural University numbers) came into use in the early 1960s. Genetic studies on cytoplasmic male sterility were carried on in parallel, leading to gains in hybrid seed production efficiency. By 1965, 333 000 ha of these hybrids were planted in Shanxi Province alone.

In 1966, an epidemic of northern leaf blight blasted the corn crop, affecting both the old open-pollinated cultivars and many of the new hybrids. This led to the second phase of Dr. Li's breeding efforts, with a stronger focus on breeding for disease resistance. It took Dr. Li and his associates another 8 or 9 yr to develop the elite single cross hybrid, Zhongdan No. 2, which was characterized by its good general performance, wide adaptability, and high resistance to both northern and southern leaf blights as well as head smut, a disease that can be very damaging to maize in cold, dry regions of China. Since its release to farmers during the period 1977 to 1988, Zhongdan No. 2 was widely planted--2 million hectares in 1986 alone. The total increment of maize grain gain over local check varieties for this period amounted to 11.73 million megagrams. A First Class Invention Prize was awarded to Dr. Li and his associates in 1984 for development of this hybrid.

Other phases of Dr. Li's activities, briefly stated, include the following.

1. The development of a high lysine maize hybrid, Zhongdan No. 206, which was planted to about 28 600 ha in 1989, with the grain used primarily as swine feed, and the development of several semi-hard opaque-2 and quality protein hybrids.

2. Organization in 1983 of a highly successful nationwide coordinating program for maize breeding, for study and exchange of information on the use of exotic germplasm, population improvement for special characteristics in conjunction with inbred development, breeding for resistance to newly prevalent maize diseases, and for high oil hybrids.

3. Improvements in seed production technology, including use of cytoplasmic male sterility, and a practical method for use of chromosomal gene male sterility.

4. Initiation, at an early date, of winter-season breeding programs in South China, enabling an increase in the annual rate of breeding progress.

It is not to be thought that all this productive work went forward without being affected by the historical movements of the times. From 1966 through 1976, the impact of the "Cultural Revolution" on science was profoundly destructive. In the early days of the "ten-year turmoil," Dr. Li had been "sent down" to Dazhai Commune in Xiyang County, Shanxi Province, from his university, to receive "re-education" from the peasants, a common experience shared by many other professors during the same period. This was not as trying an experience for Dr. Li as it was for many of his academic colleagues because Dr. Li was used to working with his own hands and with peasants. Though inescapably an intellectual, Dr. Li was totally without arrogance. It is a compliment to both Dr. Li and the peasants of Shanxi that they worked together with mutual respect and admiration, forwarding the genetic improvement and field performance of maize. Dr. Li was lucky in being "sent down" to the Dazhai Commune because it was during that period a leader in utilizing advanced production technology. There is some suggestion in the record that Zhou Enlai played a direct role during the "re-education" period in placing Dr. Li at Dazhai, where his talents would be both utilized and appreciated. For Li "working with the peasants" was nothing new or difficult.

I lost contact with Li during this period of years. For me, corresponding with scientists in China was chilled by McCarthyism. The Chinese likewise were at risk in corresponding with us. However, in 1971, my youngest daughter, Alice, had the remarkable opportunity to participate in a Putney School work-study trip of several months to China. (She was in Beijing when President Nixon came visiting.) I asked her to enquire concerning Dr. Li--she found him at Dazhai Commune. In 1974, consequent to the improvement of intergovernmental relations, a high level U.S. agricultural delegation visited China. Shortly after, a group of Chinese scientists, of whom Dr. Li was a leader, visited here. In 1975, my wife and I went to China to visit Dr. Li, as guests of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural and Forestry Sciences.

Dr. Li's direct and personal favorable impact on the food supply of the Chinese people came through two major actions and in a number of contributory ways: first, his sturdy opposition to Lysenkoism and to a compromise with the Chinese Lysenkoists, and second, and only possible with the first contribution, the development of maize hybrids of superior yield; third in importance, a series of minor contributions from his early work on wheat-rye hybrids (triticale), Setaria millet, sorghum hybridization, hybrid maize technology, and specialty maize such as quality protein hybrids. In addition, in his early years, he made contributions to understanding the cytogenetics of maize. And he was always, in spite of formal difficulties, an honored teacher to his colleagues and associates. It is perhaps as pioneer and teacher of corn breeding that Dr. Li will best be remembered.

Assuming a per capita dietary requirement of about 300 kg of grain per person per year and the key role Dr. C.H. Li played during his professional career in provision of elite maize hybrids to Chinese agriculture, one can estimate that Dr. Li substantially contributed to the feeding of approximately 100 million persons per year in excess of those who could otherwise have been well fed during the period 1952 to 1965. Of himself, Dr. Li said, "I need corn and corn needs me too." Thus, new turmoil or old, strong in his belief that in China improvement of corn production was of key importance, he continued each season until his health failed, to work in his corn nurseries.

S. S. Chase(*)

P.O. Box 193, Chase Road, Shokan, NY 12481. Received 18 May 1998. (*) Corresponding author (
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Title Annotation:Chinese agricultural reserch scientist
Author:Chase, S. S.
Publication:Crop Science
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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