Yuan Longping, China’s father of hybrid rice, dies aged 90

Domestic News

Hybrid rice varieties created by Yuan Longping fed China and the world, and made him a hero in China. Millions of people have mourned publicly online and in person since his death over the weekend.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

Yuán Lóngpíng 袁隆平, a Chinese scientist who was born in Beijing in 1930 and developed higher-yield rice varieties that helped feed people around the world, died on Saturday in Changsha, Hunan Province.

  • Yuan was a young student of agrarian studies, during the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s, when he witnessed communities eating grass to survive, and vowed to “study rice…just to make more people have enough to eat.”
  • His hybrid rice helped people in China and across the developing world feed themselves despite rapid population growth.
  • Yuan was still working when he turned 90 last year, overseeing a test site in Guangdong for yet another new fast-growing rice strain.

For more on Yuan and his achievements, see the profile of him we published last year.

A low-profile service but millions of mourners

Yuan reportedly wished to have a low-profile, private funeral, but that didn’t stop mourners across the country from flocking to Changsha, where he died, in a spontaneous outpouring of grief and admiration.

  • On Sunday, over 100,000 people gathered in the rain outside the funeral home where Yuan’s body was being kept.
  • The memorial service honoring Yuan took place in Changsha this morning. The ceremony was closed to the public, as Yuan wished, but hundreds of thousands of mourners lined up outside the funeral home, laying chrysanthemums and standing in contemplative silence as the service proceeded inside the building.

On the internet, millions upon millions of commenters expressed profound sadness over the news, with many sharing memorable quotes from him and anecdotes about what Yuan meant to them.

  • About 12.8 million people have paid their final respects to Yuan at a virtual memorial service held by the Hunan Daily. The scale of the collective mourning was on par with the funerals of some of the most important political heavyweights in China’s modern history, like Zhōu Ēnlái 周恩来 and Dèng Xiǎopíng 邓小平.
  • The hashtag “Yuan Longping passed away” (袁隆平逝世) has accumulated about 8.5 billion views and appeared in more than 14 million posts on Weibo as of today.

Many mourners vowed to personally stop wasting food, in remembrance of Yuan’s contributions to China’s food security.

No room for not-so-nice comments

Yuan was a beloved figure in China, but he wasn’t liked by everyone, apparently. Some social media users have slammed the government for exaggerating Yuan’s achievement and idolizing him, while online GMO skeptics questioned Yuan’s favorable opinion about food produced by genetic engineering.

  • While these negative remarks gained little traction online, censors quickly moved to scrub such critical comments.
  • More than 10 internet users have been detained after making comments in connection with Yuan’s death that allegedly had “an adverse impact on society,” according to police statements (in Chinese).
  • Weibo announced (in Chinese) today that it had shut down 64 accounts that had “seized on the news of Yuan’s passing” to “post harmful content insulting him.”