He Zehui an Example for Chinese WomenCelebrating the Centennial Anniversary of the Woman Scientist

August 4, 2014
By Liu BohongEditor: Frank Zhao
He Zehui an Example for Chinese Women
He Zehui in Paris, France, in 1946 [nths.cn]

He Zehui (March 5, 1914 to June 20, 2011), was a distinguished female physicist in modern China. She accomplished great things in physics, and she became a stellar example for all Chinese women.

Distinguished Physicist

He Zehui was born in Suzhou, in East China's Jiangsu Province, on March 5, 1914. At the age of 22, she graduated with a bachelor's degree in physics from Tsinghua University. She was the top student in her class. Between 1936 and 1940, she studied at the Technical University of Berlin (Germany), where she majored in ballistics. She received a doctorate from that university. After she graduated, she joined the Institute for Nuclear Physics, in Heidelberg, Germany, as a researcher. During that time, she made a great discovery: Elastic collision, during which positive and negative electrons exchanged energy.

In 1946, He moved to Paris, where she met Qian Sanqiang (1913-1992), another famous Chinese physicist. Over time, they fell in love and got married. For a while, they worked under Irene Joliot-Curie (daughter of Marie Curie and Pierre Currie, world-famous French physicists and chemists, and pioneers in radioactivity and winners of the Nobel Prize in 1903) and her husband, Frederic Joliot, two world-renowned physicists, at the French Academy in Paris.

During their stay in Paris, He and Qian made great discoveries in the field of uranium fission. (Fission is a nuclear reaction, in which the nucleus of a particle splits into smaller parts.) The discoveries caused a global sensation and, of course, earned He and Qian tremendous reputations. Many Western media outlets called them the "Marie Curie and Pierre Currie of China."

In 1948, He and Qian, who wanted to serve their home country, returned to China, and they established a nuclear-research institute in Beijing. After the People's Republic of China was founded on October 1, 1949, He served as a researcher at three organizations under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS): The Institute of Physics (IP), the China Atomic Energy Authority (CAEA) and the Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP). She also served, at one time or another, as vice-president of both CAEA and IHEP.

During the 1950s, the research group under He's leadership produced nuclear emulsion (a photographic emulsion that can be used to record and investigate fast-charged particles, such as nucleons, mesons and hadronic [a hadron is a composite particle made of quarks held together by the strong force] subatomic particles, which are composed of one quark and one antiquark and bound together by strong interaction). That discovery marked a milestone in the development of China's experimental neutron physics and fission physics (branches of nuclear physics).

During the late 1950s, He and her research group took the lead in both establishing China's first lab of neutron physics and fission physics and in building China's first nuclear reactor and accelerator. She completed many experiments, and she made many great achievements in the study of nuclear physics. Under He's guidance, many young researchers emerged as promising scientists in China.

Beginning in the 1970s, He focused her work on space science (the study of everything in outer space). He played a role in the development of China's scientific balloon, and in building the cosmic ray observation station in Western China's Tibet Autonomous Region. Thanks to He's efforts, China made outstanding progress in high-energy astrophysics.

As a female scientist, He overcame many obstacles, and she was constantly on the front lines of China's science-related work. The world’s top physicists recognized He as a famous scientist in the fields of experimental physics, nuclear physics and high-energy physics. She served as a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and as a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

Striving for Gender Equality

As a female scientist, He's achievements can be attributed, at least in part, to her lifelong struggle against and rising above biases against women. She always demanded equal rights — for herself and other women.

Admittedly, He was fortunate, as she was born into a modern family, whose members advocated democracy and equality, and who believed in using science to save the nation. He's grandmother, Xie Changda, was a feminist. Xie helped establish several women's organizations in her hometown, Suzhou.

To fight for their emancipation, she encouraged women to oppose the binding of feet. She also stressed that women should remain confident and independent. In 1906, Xie established a girls' school in Suzhou. Influenced by her grandmother, He believed, at an early age, that men and women should be equal, and she established the lofty ideal of using science to save the nation.

In 1932, when He was 18, she enrolled in Tsinghua University's physics department. Even though Tsinghua University began recruiting female students in 1928, Ye Qisun, then-dean of the school's physics department, argued females were not capable of studying physics. Ye tried to persuade the female students to switch to other disciplines. He, though, was determined; she insisted on studying physics, and she eventually became the top student in the department. After she became a famous scientist, Tsinghua University invited her to write an inscription for the university. He wrote: "All men and women should be equal."

In China, men once dominated science, especially physics. That was also once the reality in the West. He, though, emerged as an exception; she fought against the odds and proved that women were as capable as men. To produce good weapons for her motherland, He went to Germany to study ballistics. When she applied to enter the program, Professor Krantz, head of the program, rejected her application. He was undeterred; she tracked down the professor and asked, "I came a long way to study in your program, because I want to use the knowledge to fight against Japanese invaders. Why did you turn me down?" The professor was tongue-tied. Moved by He’s sincerity, and also by his sympathy for Chinese people, who had become the victims of Japanese invaders, the professor decided to accept her. He became the first female student in Krantz's program.

He devoted her life to fighting for gender equality. She also taught the younger generation about her ideology. In December 1984, she wrote the following inscription in a magazine for middle school students: "Young people, especially young women, should not succumb to the force of habit. You should keep on working hard, to build your country into a prosperous, powerful State, and to contribute to the promotion of scientific development."

He not only did her best to educate youngsters, she also gave women various opportunities to make achievements in the sciences. During Spring Festival in 1991, Wen Jiabao, then- alternate director of the Secretariat of the Central Committee and director of the General Office of the CCPCC (Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party) visited He and Qian in their home. He said to Wen: "According to the government's policy, women have to retire at age 55, but I think the regulation is unreasonable. When women reach 55, they are still energetic and can make achievements in their work. Moreover, they may devote less energy to caring for their families, as their children are grown up. If the government asks them to retire, it wastes human resources."

Replied Wen: "Your suggestion is very important. Since it relates to our legislation, I will bring your suggestion to our judicial organs … As far as I know, other people have also raised the issue. I think researchers, like you, should postpone their retirement, so they can make greater contributions to their country."

Even though the retirement-age issue has yet to be resolved, He's spirit of frank criticism (of a national policy) impressed many people.

Laying Low

In November 1949 (one month after New China was founded), He and Qian were appointed to establish the Institute of Modern Physics. At that time, they faced great challenges. They lacked lab equipment, including fundamental experimental instruments. Nevertheless, they did not give up. The couple rode bicycles as they visited secondhand stores and salvage yards in Beijing to buy the materials that they needed. Later, they designed and built two lathes. With the machines, they produced some of the equipment that they needed to conduct lab experiments.

He's family was quite rich; her father, He Cheng, was a famous entrepreneur and collector in old China. However, He and her six siblings preferred to lead a simple life after 1949, when the People's Republic of China was founded. After their father died, He and her siblings donated all of his assets (including family properties and cultural relics) to the Chinese Government.

Even though He was an octogenarian (between the ages of 80 and 89), she continued to wear simple clothes. She even rode the bus to work every day.

Even though she was a well-known physicist, He always maintained a low profile. Since the 1950s, often under He's leadership, many Chinese scientists have recorded many achievements, and they have had many essays published. He never asked them to include her name on the essays. In 1994, National Academies Press published the "Dictionary of Modern Chinese Scientists' Biographies," but He said she did not want to include her biography.

Let History Tell the Future

He was a distinguished female scientist in China; however, she was not alone, as she was representative of a group of female scientists in China. The female scientists included: Wu Jianxiong (1912-1997), nuclear physicist; Wang Chengshu (1912-1994), theoretical physicist; Lin Lanying (1918-2003), physicist; Xie Xide (1921-2000), physicist, Wang Mingzhen (1906-2010), statistical physicist; He Yizhen (1910-2008), physicist; Gu Jinghui (1900-1983), physical educator; and Zhou Rusong (1912-2005), physicist. All of those women were born in old China, and all of them were determined to fight against the feudal forces in China. They all received degrees abroad, and they all achieved great things in physics.

Even though Chinese female scientists have delivered outstanding performances during the past century, much must be done to improve the country's education system. Qian Xuesen (1911-2009), a world-famous scientist who was recognized by the Chinese Government for leading Chinese scientists in the development of China's first atomic bomb, missile and man-made satellite (between 1964-1970), once asked the following thought-provoking question: "Why can't Chinese schools cultivate such outstanding talents as Nobel Prize winners?"

I sometimes ask myself: "Nowadays, female students account for more than half of the students on university campuses in China, but the number of women who study and conduct research in physics is decreasing. Why?" I think that question should be answered — and handled properly — by the Chinese Government. As we celebrate the centennial anniversary of He's birth, I think we should carry on her scientific spirit, and we should strive for a better future for China's scientific development.

(Source: Women of China English Monthly March 2014 Issue)

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