Review: China — Science Walks on Two Legs

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email

Review: China — Science Walks on Two Legs

by John Dove, Minna Goldfarb, Frank Mirer, & Purr McEwen

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 6, No. 6, November 1974, p. 18 – 22


Whoever wants to know a thing has no way of doing so except by coming into contact with it, that is, by living (practising) in its environment… If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality. If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself… If you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution. All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience. 

Mao Tse-tung
On Practice
July 1937 

On the morning of February 21, 1973, ten Science for the People folks got 0ff a train from Hong Kong. While loud speakers from the Chinese border station played the “Internationale,”1 we walked across a railroad bridge, handed our precious visas to smiling PLA (People’s Liberation Army) soldiers, and entered the People’s Republic of China. After all the books we’d read, discussions, plans and preparations it was finally happening — we were all in a pitch of excitement and disbelief that we were now in China! China: Science Walks on Two Legs2 is our attempt to convey four weeks of intense experience, to report on questions answered and questions opened, to talk about the Chinese experience building socialism in concrete detailed terms by describing the insitutions and roles we knew best. 

We had wanted to go to China because of the tremendous excitement generated by reports of travelers to China, Cuba, North Vietnam, North Korea — images of socialism. We had read about the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and thought of China as an example of political transformtion, of reaffirming revolution. All of us were veterans of years of political work. Now was the chance to see first hand the successes — and perhaps the failures — of the Chinese in putting socialism into practice. 

The preparation for our trip had begun over a year before. Ethan Signer, who had been to China in May of 1971, made some initial contacts with the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa and the Academy of Sciences in Peking about the possibility of a Science for the People trip. Early in 1972 “China” groups were formed in various Science for the People chapters, and a notice published in the magazine inviting applications from Science for the People members. The China groups took up the tasks of studying about China, and selecting a delegation to go. A couple of conferences were held to combine the efforts of the China groups and interested Science for the People chapters and individuals. By July, 1972 a delegation of fifteen and three alternates was selected. Work went ahead on the idea of a book about our trip. Finally, in February, 1973 we received word from the Chinese: a delegation of ten to come in three weeks! A hectic, frantic three weeks! Meetings, long-distance phone calls, choosing the delegation, finalizing a book contract, getting passports and visas, leaves-of-absence from jobs and schools. After all this, we were finally there. 

The group was five men and five women from New York, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Vermont. Each of us would describe ourselves first in terms of political activities: anti-war work, workplace organizing, prison reform, day-care organizing, environment and occupational health, community survival, health, teaching science for the people. We had three PhD’s and two people with no college degrees, our jobs ranged from college teacher to state bureaucrat to nurse to computer programmer.

Traveling in China, the group acquired five more members — our hosts from the Chinese Scientific and Technological Association. Ch’iang Ch’i, a young woman, and Chu Ch’ing-ning, a young man, had been  through the heat of the Cultural Revolution at the Foreign Languages Institute, and were working their first big job as interpreters. Ch’ien Kao was an older, more experienced interpreter. We got very close to these three English speakers. Su Fung-ling and Chu Yung-hang (“Big Chu”) were administrators. We met many other friendly people, but we saw these five on and off every day, and their seemingly unbounded efforts to make our trip enjoyable, interesting and productive added immeasurably to the value of our trip.

The main source of friction in our group was that we wanted to see everything — each person had a special interest: health-care institutions, prisons, multi-purpose use and recycling, industrial settings, farms, schools, universities, laboratories… The efforts of our hosts in meeting all these requests were quite amazing, but our interest was insatiable and we always felt that we hadn’t learned quite enough. 

Our hectic weeks of preparing for the trip were followed by four hectic weeks of intensive investigation. Every day we were bombarded with new impressions, emotions and experiences. Vast amounts of facts, figures, names and dates were kept carefully in our notebooks. Our daily schedules were very full. We usually broke up into two or more groups in order to visit a greater variety of places. There were visits in the morning and afternoon, and a cultural performance or movie in the evening. At each meal we would sum up for each other the various visits that day, tell anecdotes, give suggestions for improving the effectiveness of our questions, etc. Then, at night we would often meet to discuss the material we were gathering for the book. 

We worked remarkably well together. Interpersonal disputes were effectively handled by the group as a whole, and everyone took responsibility for improving our work and minimizing hassles for our hosts. We all learned a great deal from each other as well as from the Chinese. Finally, on our last day in China, we met all afternoon and evening in our hotel to compare notes and impressions. 

Returning to the U.S. we were abruptly scattered. As we shared our experiences with others through talks, slide-shows, etc. we each relived the trip many times over. But now there was a book to be written. 

Individuals took responsibility for coordinating the material for each chapter, subjects were parceled out, and notes, tapes and slides were pored over to produce enough material. There was a heavy responsiblity to each other, to Science for the People and to the Chinese to try to get the story out. 

The work of putting out the book was much more than we had anticipated, and it strained our individual and collective strengths. Although we’d worked well together as a collective in China, we had many short-comings in our collective work back home. Twenty-eight days in China does not make up for twenty-five years or more in the U.S. 

In late 1973 we sent off four chapters to our publisher as a first draft. Our publisher, who likes to think of himself as a radical who’s realistic, got back to us saying, “Look, democracy is all right in its place, but you can’t write a book as a group. Get the person who wrote the ‘Institutes’ chapter and have him write the whole book and it’ll be great.” The ‘Institutes’ chapter, of course, had been written by five different people and was our most collective effort! 


A Report from Science for the People 

Available for $1.75 from: 

SESPA/Science for the People
9 Walden St. Jamaica Plain, Mass. 02130 

We were still very far from having a finished manuscript, however. We still needed an Introduction; some chapters were very weak, others still unwritten. The immense job of editing all of our writings into a book was yet to be done. A person from the Boston Science for the People China group who hadn’t gone on the trip and a person we’d hired to help with the editing worked together with us to edit all the material. Our book would never have made it even to a full first draft had it not been for the work of these two editors. 

Finally, after missing at least four deadlines, the book was done. The finished product reflects the work of many hands, of many friends. It also reflects the process of political debate and personal development within the group — abstract ideas, political practice, life-style, individualism, competitiveness all came into play. We still need to sum up and analyze our total work style, manner of constituting the delegation, leadership, interaction while together, relationships with each other back home, subsequent political activities, and the value of the book; because taken all together it’s an important collective experience. 

In the book we hope we have shown that science, and in fact all productive work, is not autonomous. Its direction and uses are determined by the social and political structure. If science is to serve the people, the people must control science. China gives us some hints as to how to go about that task, and the optimism that it can be done. 


China: Science Walks on Two Legs, is a book which explores the scientific and technical achievements in China, as well as the theory which makes this practice possible. The book attempts to show that no productive work is distinct from a social context; to this end the authors use the vehicles of science and technical work to look at the political structure in China. 

According to the authors, science in China is not viewed as the exclusive domain of those with highly specialized training, nor is it limited to advancing only profits as opposed to people. Rather, science is represented as “walking on two legs”. Her ancient traditional knowledge together with advances made through regular scientific channels represent one leg; and the broad masses of ordinary people, who in the past have been denied access to scientific developments, represent the other. Essentially, the idea of “walking on two legs” means to exercise the under-developed leg rather than putting all the resources into the stronger one. 

The authors continually stress the movement in China against the elitist forms of expertise and specialization and the return to a clearer reliance on the initiative of the masses of people. Thus, China has shifted emphasis away from urban concentration, toward the development of production and social facilities in the countryside, where the vast majority of the population lives. This is not to say that no research or laboratory work is being done but rather that scientists now engage in more productive work than they formerly did. The process is broken down into essentially two parts. On the one hand, the scientists go out of their laboratories and institutes to meet with people in industry and agriculture, whom their work affects. And on the other hand, workers and non-professionals come into the scientific institutions and participate in the decision-making processes. In short, science is being demystified in China. The idea of science as the private property of scientists, and being “too deep for ordinary people to understand, is being abolished. Instead, a tremendous exercise in sharing knowledge is taking place throughout China and its aim is to make science a part of the mass culture. 

The authors explored many aspects of life in China, depending upon their interests and their time limitations. Thus the book is divided into chapters, each of which deals with a different branch of scientific and technical work. The authors explored such fields as agriculture, industry, research, education, health care, mental health, and city planning. In each chapter the overall theory of walking on two legs appears as it relates to the continuing struggle for better practice. One good example. of this is the way in which industry has developed: 

Farmyard, street, and schoolyard industries have become more sophisticated since the 1950’s. Our hosts told us that they now carry a significant share of China’s productivity, freeing larger factories for more complex operations and giving millions of Chinese an intimate acquaintance with industrial planning and production. For example, young women of the Taku Fishery Commune, near Tientsin, began a multipurpose use factory in a mat shed they set up on a barren beach. After many experiments, they devised methods of extracting medicinal sodium chloride from the waste residue of a nearby chemical plant. Production has expanded and the one shed has grown to twenty rooms. Walking on two legs, even if unevenly, instead of waiting for the magic wand of heavy industrialization, has been the method adopted by the Chinese to fully utilize their country’s resources and “turn wastes into treasures”. 

The authors stress the concept of “turning wastes into treasures” as an important part of Chinese ideology, for it exemplifies the Marxist analysis of looking at the whole as well as the parts. 

In our country, what benefits the people, the country, and the whole, is given first consideration in everything that is done. Therefore some areas and enterprises allocate a certain portion of their funds for treatment of sewage and other wastes. This may yield them little or no profit, but from the point of view of the whole, of preventing pollution of the air, rivers and water sources, protecting aquatic life and supporting agriculture, this means great profit indeed. 

The manner in which science is becoming a part of a mass culture is probably most evident in the way scientific research is carried out. According to the authors, China is attempting to create a system in which the research worker and the production worker are united in serving the people, and where eventually the distinction between the professional and the worker will be eliminated. 

Scientists spend time at the farms and factories where the work will be applied, living with the peasants and workers and participating in the normal routine of work and study, as well as carrying out their technical role. During these visits they teach the local people about the theoretical basis of the various practical problems they face. The local people, in turn, take part in the research work and help the scientists. Mass mobilization, such as insect-control work in Peking or cancer screening in Shanghai, has its advantages for scientific work. Likewise, working with the masses serves to re-educate the professional workers politically and give their research direction. In every research institute we saw evidence of this strong bond between science and the people. It is the open door to the outside. 

Not only is the interaction of the worker and the researcher emphasized, but also importance is placed on the “worker learning to create as well as applying scientific techniques. 

After our tour of the Shanghai Computer Institute, several of our hosts took us over to the Shanghai Door Handle Street Factory. Street factories, small enterprises in urban neighborhoods of China, are collectively owned by the people who work in them. The workers are predominantly former housewives and other people who were previously outside the work force. Depending upon the skills and materials available in the area, the products of such factories vary from handicrafts to integrated circuits. 

This street factory had 437 workers, 80% of them former housewives with almost no education. Its main products . . were door handles and arm rests for automobiles. In 1970, our hosts explained, the street factory established a computer section: 74 of its workers began to meet with members of the Shanghai Institute of Computer Technology and the Computer Science Department of Shanghai’s Futan University, to see if they could make computers at the factory. This three-in-one team set out to build advanced third-generation computers. Many obstacles had to be overcome, especially the lack of education among the workers in the street factory. Some of them had no idea what a computer was. Yet within a year and a half they finished their first computer. The second was finished a year later: the machine that we had seen at the computer institute. The third computer was being finished after three months’ work and they hoped to finish four more this year. 

The workers in the street factory spend a great deal of their time learning about computers as they build them. Many of them visit the institute and the university, as well as other computer factories, to increase their knowledge, and a full quarter of the time at work is spent studying the fundamentals of electricity, electronics, and computer architecture. We were told that workers learn quickly because they are involved in the processes they are studying, and that their work improves as a result of their increased understanding. 

People from the university and the institute do more than just contribute the plans and designs for the factory’s computers. They spend one day a week working alongside the factory workers. The computer workers said that the scientists and the workers learned from each other. Both considered the three-in-one combination of factory, institute, and university an important step toward the goal of eventually eliminating the distinction between mental and manual work. 

In education the theory is the same, science is taught to be something that is useful and productive in practice. 

Here too, in the formal science classes, we found many direct links to the surrounding community and to production. Workers from nearby factories come to the schools to share both their skills and their experience as workers. We met a factory worker who was teaching the students how to make electrical motors. A carpenter taught model building. Another man taught the making of semiconductor devices. There is also a link with a nearby cable station. where the students go to learn how to send cables. Through these experiences the children gain not only scientific knowledge but also a deep respect for labor and for working people. They are shown from the beginning how important science is to everyday life and how ordinary people can understand and use it. Without being mystified or awed by the “magic” of science, they are learning that through science they can help build the new China. Science is taught as it is practiced: as a tool forged by the people’s labor, to be used for the improvement of their lives. 

Thus the book cites example after example of how science in China is more broadly defined than it is in Western culture. For the Chinese, it is a process of thinking and developing rational thought through practice. As such it should not be regarded as something mysterious and special but rather as a natural part of everyone’s experience and as a way in which problems are solved in day to day life.


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  1. China: Science Walks on Two Legs, A report from Science for the People, Avon Publishers, New York, 1974.
  2. World-wide workers’ hymn.