The Significance of a Nobel Prize for a Chinese Scientist

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
The first winner of a Nobel prize in the sciences from a Chinese institution, Tu Youyou, today in Beijing (Reuters)

The commanding heights of international prestige have outsized importance to societies on the way up. And understandably so.

A Nobel prize, an Olympic medal or role as Olympic host, an Academy award, a scholarship to or honored position at a famous university— recognitions like these are part of the regular news cycle in North America and Europe. But for countries on the long path upward, they can be significant, often too significant, milestones. The modern histories of Japan, South Korea, and China all treat their respective roles as Olympic hosts (Tokyo 1964, Seoul 1988, Beijing 2008) as markers in international regard for the countries and, more important, in self-esteem.

Nobel prizes have been particularly fraught in China. The internationally most famous Chinese Nobel winner is still senselessly and cruelly imprisoned in his home country. This of course is Liu Xiaobo, whose selection for the Peace Prize in 2010 seemed only to intensify the Chinese government’s repression of him and his family, and which led to Chinese diplomatic and economic sanctions against Norway that still senselessly and pettily go on. (Norwegians choose the Peace Prize winner; Swedes choose the rest.)

A predecessor as Peace Prize winner, the Dalai Lama, is such persona non grata for the Chinese government that it issues bitter protests whenever foreign leaders dare to meet with him. Novelist Mo Yan, born in China and still a citizen, won the Literature prize three years ago. But apart from him, the many other Chinese-born or ethnically Chinese Nobelists, especially the scientists, won their prizes for work done after they left the country. China now trains more scientists and engineers than any other country. But no one had ever won a Nobel prize for scientific work done in China or at a Chinese institution. Until today.

The Atlantic’s Krishnadev Calamur has an item on the announcement that Tu Youyou is one of three winners of this year’s Medicine prize, recognizing her innovative anti-malarial work, drawing among other sources on traditional Chinese medicine.

A Western reader who has lived, worked, and taught in China for many years sends this note about the prize’s significance:

Among my students, I often hear  angst about how the Nobel Committee never awards a Nobel to Chinese (except to dissidents living outside the mainland). [JF note: And scientists working in Western universities or other institutions.] Today they awarded one to Tu Youyou for her work on malaria. She’s the first mainland recipient of a Nobel [in the sciences].

Much of her early work was done within the mainland, and moreover, during the darkest of times-the Cultural Revolution and the Korean War.

(Delayed) proof that good things can come from bad situations. Her work and her award are inspiring. Let it not go un-noticed [in the West].

Indeed. This will rightly be a moment of satisfaction in China, and should be, not just for Tu Youyou but also for many of her fellow citizens. Congratulations to her and all affected by her discoveries and her achievement. We’ll hope that conditions in Chinese institutions evolve in such a way as to allow even more people to do their best world-benefitting work there.