With the support of the Nyhus Travel Grant, I was able to collect valuable primary sources to support my honors project that explores the identity and legacy of Qian Xuesen, a Chinese aerospace scientist who was instrumental in the development of China’s nuclear weapons, missile, and space programs in the 1950s and 60s. Simultaneously hailed by the Chinese government as a national hero and accused of espionage by the United States government, the complicated historical narrative of Qian Xuesen’s life reveals themes of political struggle, nationalism, modernization, and survival. My project aims to explore Qian’s political identity, as well as the Chinese state’s construction of Qian as a heroic and patriotic scientist.
I visited the Harvard-Yenching Library to access archives of People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party. Using the newspaper archives, I found a variety of primary source articles covering Qian Xuesen’s activities in China, articles written by Qian Xuesen himself, coverage of the nuclear bomb project, and pieces that directly and indirectly address Qian’s views on science, intellectuals and his personal identity as a scientist. These sources provided critical primary source evidence to support my analysis of Qian’s political identity and beliefs.
The Nyhus Grant also allowed me to spend one week in Shanghai at the Qian Xuesen Library & Museum. The museum is funded and operated by the Chinese state, and serves to educate the public on the achievements and life story of Qian Xuesen. With around 70,000 historical artifacts including Qian’s manuscripts, journals, documents, personal belongings, and photographs, the museum has in its possession a wealth of original documents that give insight into Qian’s life and legacy. Through my visits to the museum, I was able to carefully observe how the Chinese state has crafted a historical narrative on Qian, that emphasizes his devoted patriotism and leadership in China’s scientific development.
Since its inception in 1955 and into the present day, the Chinese nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles program has always been a potent symbol of nationalism. In about one decade, Chinese experts were able to build a successful program and conduct the nation’s first atomic bomb test in October of 1964. The historic feat was achieved with the help of many Chinese experts and scientists who were involved in a concerted research and development project, that brought together top leaders from the Chinese Communist Party, the People’s Liberation Army, and the nation’s scientific and research institutes. As one of the leading scientists working on these projects, Qian Xuesen’s story shows how he was able to use his celebrity scientist status to secure self-protection in an environment that was increasingly antagonistic towards intellectuals, and in turn use his status to help secure public legitimacy for the CCP’s reform policies.