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The People’s Peking Man

Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth-Century China

The People’s Peking Man

Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth-Century China

In the 1920s an international team of scientists and miners unearthed the richest evidence of human evolution the world had ever seen: Peking Man. After the communist revolution of 1949, Peking Man became a prominent figure in the movement to bring science to the people. In a new state with twin goals of crushing “superstition” and establishing a socialist society, the story of human evolution was the first lesson in Marxist philosophy offered to the masses. At the same time, even Mao’s populist commitment to mass participation in science failed to account for the power of popular culture—represented most strikingly in legends about the Bigfoot-like Wild Man—to reshape ideas about human nature.

The People’s Peking Man is a skilled social history of twentieth-century Chinese paleoanthropology and a compelling cultural—and at times comparative—history of assumptions and debates about what it means to be human. By focusing on issues that push against the boundaries of science and politics, The People’s Peking Man offers an innovative approach to modern Chinese history and the history of science.

See Schmalzer in dialogue with Joshua Blu Buhs about Bigfoot and the yeren.

368 pages | 24 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2008


Asian Studies: General Asian Studies

Biological Sciences: Paleobiology, Geology, and Paleontology

History: Asian History

History of Science


“In this ambitious study of the introduction of Darwinian thought to China, Schmalzer aims to change the way historians of science and Sinologists both look at their disciplines. She demonstrates that knowledge of science dissemination practices is necessary for understanding larger questions of modernity and cultural transformation in China. At the same time, by placing Chinese science in its unique political and cultural context, she challenges the historian’s perception of how the popularization process operates. In the course of telling the story of paleoanthroplogy against the backdrop of the turbulent path of twentieth-century Chinese history, Schmalzer successfully deals with a series of important issues, such as the state’s use of popularization to undermine superstition and embrace socialism, the nationalist symbolism surrounding the ‘Peking Man,’ and the tensions between top-down science dissemination and bottom-up mass science.”

Bernard Lightman, York University

“A passionately argued story of human identity, popular science, and politics in twentieth-century China, delightfully out of step with our cynical times and certain to captivate even the most skeptical reader. Schmalzer’s work combines intellectual curiosity mentored by the imagination with serious scholarship firmly grounded in the empirical.”

Michael Schoenhals, Lund University

“This wonderfully original book takes a seemingly arcane topic—paleoanthropology and the changing political and cultural meanings of Peking Man—and uses it to explore the changing political cultures of republican, Maoist, and post-Maoist China in a new and subtle way. The author ranges confidently across issues as diverse as evolutionary theory and the search for yetis, illuminating, as she goes, major issues concerning the relationship between science and politics, the relationship between academic elites and citizens who lack scientific knowledge, and the ways in which science is represented and visualized in popular culture. In a consistently thought-provoking fashion, she uses the Chinese case to grapple with fundamental questions concerning the democratic control of science in modern societies.”

Steve Smith, University of Essex

“This is one of the few books on science in twentieth-century China, a burgeoning area of research, and the first book on popular science in China. The People’s Peking Man unquestionably breaks new ground.”

Fa-ti Fan, State University of New York, Birmingham

"A highly original book....Schmalzer’s book finds a great deal to say about issues as diverse as the historical significance of Chinese fossil humans, the search for yetis (called yeren, or ’wild people’ in China), changing concepts of human identity, and the conflict between top-down science dissemination and bottom-up mass participation in Chinese science. She also explores other diverse issues that include the connections among science, politics, religion and culture, and the relationship between professional scientists and the general public. Schmalzer presents all these topics in a lively, accessible and thought-provoking way."

Xu Xing | Nature

"Peking Man, then, is a wonderfully charged focus for this absorbing study of ideas about popular science, evolution and human identity in 20th century China. . . . An extraordinarily rich, perceptive and highly readable book, that takes in ideas about yeren (the Chinese yeti), the evolutionary link between labour and humanity, the government’s response to Falun Gong and much more."

Mike Pitts | British Archaeology

Table of Contents

1. "From ’Dragon Bones’ to Scientific Research": Peking Man and Popular Paleoanthropology in Pre-1949 China
            Celestial Clouds and Zip Wires
            A Willingness to Change
            Nationalism and Internationalism
            Tradition, Superstition, Science
            First Contacts
            Who Discovered Peking Man?
            Presenting Peking Man
2. "A United Front against Superstition": Science Dissemination, 1940–1971
            A Role for Scientists in Revolution
            Ghosts into People, Apes into Humans
            The Who and How of Science Dissemination
            Darwin "Strikes A Blow" for Materialism
            Scientists Feel the Heat
            The Pursuit of Monsters
3. "The Content of Human": In Search of Human Identity, 1940–1971
            The Question of a Universal Human Nature
            Labor as the Core of Human Identity
            Primitive Communism
            Peking Man as a National Ancestor
            All the World Is One Human Family
4. "Labor Created Science": The Class Politics of Scientific Knowledge, 1940–1971
            Top-Down and Bottom-Up Approaches to Popularizing Science
            Science Dissemination for Whom, by Whom?
            Ivory Towers and Cow Sheds
            Mass Science
            Paleoanthropology and Popular Culture
5. "Presumptuous Guests Usurp the Hosts": Dissemination and Participation, 1971–1978
            Cultural Revolution Science on Its Own Terms
            A Favorable Time for Popular Science
            Dissemination: Fossils Magazine Strikes a Blow for Popular Science
            Dissemination: Dinosaurs and the Masses at Zhoukoudian 
            Dissemination: Learning about Humanity at Zhoukoudian and Beyond
            Mass Participation: Laborers and Hobbyists
            Mass Participation: Criticism of Scientists
            The Missing Link
6. "Springtime for Science," but What a Garden: Mystery, Superstition, and Fanatics in the Post-Mao Era
            Some Other Spring
            Tensions of Reform
            The Strange and the Mysterious
            "Labor Created Humanity" and Its Post-Mao Fate
            Mass Science and Its Post-Mao Fate
7. "From Legend to Science," and Back Again? Bigfoot, Science, and the People in Post-Mao China
            "Yerén Fever"
            Replacing Superstition with Science
            The Scientific Significance of Yerén
            From Mass Science to Scientific Heroism
            Popular Culture Goes Wild
8. "Have We Dug at Our Ancestral Shrine?" Post-Mao Ethnic Nationalism and Its Limits
            The Scope and Limitations of Chinese Ethnic Nationalism
            Earliest Origins of Humanity
            The Origin of Modern Humans
            Ethnic Nationalism, Defensive and Assertive
            Making a Contribution: China as a Research Center
            Making Connections: China as a Center for the Human Family
            Ancestors, National and Personal
            Choices and Interpretations


Social Science History Association: Allan Sharlin Memorial Award in Social Science History

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