The Computer Pioneer Who Built Modern China
We often meet people in India who look at China in admiration and say wistfully that “if only we too had an authoritarian government which could prioritise economic development over everything else, we too would be like India.” This tendency to look at a successful company or country and come up with a one-dimensional view of what made that collective entity successful is very common in the stockmarket. The only problem with this view is that it is wrong. This well researched piece from the BBC provides a very unusual perspective on China’s rise on a technological superpower.
The piece focuses on a geeky Chinese woman who we in India had never heard of – Xia Peisu. Battling tremendous odds, this lady “pushed computing from a geeky obsession into a transformative industry…She helped shape some of China’s first computing and computer science institutions and developed their training materials. She taught the first computer theory class in the country. Over her career, she would usher hundreds of students into the country’s burgeoning field of computer science.
In the aftermath of war and political upheaval, Xia shaped a new field of science and a new industry in China. Through both her technological innovations and the many students she taught, Xia‘s influence resonates throughout China’s computing world today.”
Xia’s origins show how important widespread availability of good education are for the rise of a country: “Born into a family of educators in the south-eastern municipality of Chongqing on 28 July 1923, Xia rarely went without an education. First attending primary school aged four and receiving private home tutelage at eight, she went on to excel at Nanyu Secondary School and graduated top of her high school class at National No. Nine in 1940.
China was in the throes of the Second Sino-Japanese War, an eight-year conflict that ravaged China and claimed the lives of millions of Chinese civilians. At the war’s onset in 1937, the Japanese captured Nanjing, the capital city of the Republic of China. Xia’s home of Chongqing became a haven for Nanjing refugees. It also became home to National Central University – an institution which, despite forced relocation from Nanjing, kept teaching students. In 1941, Xia joined as a student in electrical engineering.”
Xia’s intellectual development as young scholar shows the importance of learning at world class institutions and then returning to help the mother country move forward: “Xia left for Shanghai for graduate studies at the Telecommunications Institute of Jiaotong University and Yang left to study under Nobel laureate Max Born at the University of Edinburgh.
Two years later, Xia reunited with Yang when she began to study for her doctorate in electrical engineering at the University of Edinburgh. In her dissertation, “On Parametric Oscillations in Electric Circuits and A Graphical Analysis for Non-Linear Systems”, she developed methodologies that could more accurately predict variations in frequency and amplitude within electronic systems, which led to wide-reaching applications for any system with an electrical frequency, from radios to TV to computers.
In 1950, she was awarded her PhD. Later that same year, she and Yang married in Edinburgh. Both scientifically-minded and deeply invested in putting those minds to work in their home country, the couple returned to China in 1951. They both took up positions at Tsinghua University (or Qinghua University), where Xia worked on telecommunications research.”
Post her return from Ediburgh, Xia then worked non-stop for 40 years to develop China’s computer industry. Thanks to the efforts of the teams she led China went from being a country which couldn’t produce a computer until the late 1950s to a country which became the world’s centre for computer production 60 years later:
“In 1956, she joined a delegation to Moscow and Leningrad to explore Soviet research, production and education in computing. When she returned that same year, she undertook translation of Soviet computer design from Russian into Chinese, including a 1,000-page manual that became the course text for teaching Chinese students Soviet computing.
That same year, under the auspices of the CAS’s Institute of Mathematics and Institute of Physics, Xia taught the country’s first computer theory class….Xia was involved in developing the computer science courses at both institutions, and as a course developer and lecturer, she oversaw the training of hundreds of students between 1956 and 1962.
“What [China] needed above all was a training program,” Mullaney notes. Xia gave them one.
By 1959, China had succeeded in replicating two Soviet electronic computer designs; the 103 model and the 104 model, each based on the Soviet M-3 and BESM-II computers respectively….
Far from stopping after the 1960 USSR withdrawal of support, China’s computing industry continued to advance.
CAS researchers continued to pursue computing technology and computer science on their own. Xia’s 107 model was the first computer that China developed after Soviet withdrawal, and unlike the 103 and 104 models based on Soviet design, the 107 was the first indigenously designed and developed computer in China. The 107 was soon reproduced and installed in training institutions around China.
Throughout the 1960s, China continued to develop more powerful and sophisticated computers at the CAS in isolation, progressing from tube circuits like that of the 107 to transistors and, in the 70s and early 80s, to integrated circuits. When a delegation of US computer scientists visited China in 1972, they didn’t expect to find China’s computer industry humming along. “All of the members of that delegation, in the few testimonials we have, all express surprise at how far [China had come],” Mullaney says…”
This is how countries develop. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of effort from millions of committed, talented. Demagoguery is neither sufficient nor necessary for economic progress.