A Famous Letter to Yuan’s Mother
A heart-warming letter written by Yuan to his late mother Hua Jing caught the public’s attention in the days after Yuan’s death. In the letter from 2010, titled “Mom, the Wheat is Ripe,” Yuan recalled how his mother, a teacher at a missionary school, taught him English and encouraged him to read Nietzsche while he was growing up. When Yuan moved to Anjiang, Hunan province, to devote himself to studying rice, his mother moved with him to support his family and research.
Yuan also expressed his deep sorrow at failing to be by his mother’s side when she passed away. Yuan was away from home attending conferences on hybrid rice in Changsha when Hua fell ill: “It was so late, it was all too late. I’m so sorry. Mom, at that time you must have waited for me for such a long time. You must have had so much you wanted to say to me and a lot to explain.”
Old letters written by Yuan have reemerged after his death (VCG)
The Elderly Biker
Yuan’s love of motorbikes almost outstripped his love of swimming, and he rode his bike to visit the fields where he worked until the age of 73. Yuan eventually decided it was too dangerous to continue riding his bike, but back then regulations prevented over-70s from applying for a car drivers license in China. Yuan’s reputation, however, led the local transportation department to grant Yuan a life-long “honorary license” to drive from his home to the test fields, and also provided him with a driving instructor. Such a privilege apparently puts Yuan on a par with Queen Elizabeth II, who is also granted special permission to drive.
Before his science career, a 22-year-old Yuan enrolled in the PLA Air Force during the Korean War. Out of 800 candidates, Yuan was one of just eight who passed the strict physical and mental examinations of Southwest Agricultural College (where Yuan was studying at the time).
But before Yuan could set foot in a cockpit, the war ground to halt. Yuan, along with the other student recruits, returned to campus to continue his studies as China embarked on its first Five-Year Plan. Yuan’s dream of flying in the air force may have gone unfulfilled, but at least he was kept out of danger, eventually making an even bigger contribution to China’s development.
Finding Love and Living Separately
Yuan’s devotion to his work means he spent little time thinking about marriage until his late 20s. At that point, Yuan started dating but found it difficult to make connections with the young women his friends introduced him to. Yuan was known for being particularly frugal, wearing simple clothing which he loathed to replace even when they had become ragged. His classmates also made fun of him for his notoriously greasy hair.
When Yuan was 33, he met 25-year-old Deng Ze, one of his former students. After just one month together, Yuan walked onto the campus basketball court where Deng was playing and proclaimed: “Deng Ze, I’m scared you’ll be taken away by someone else, let’s quickly go to the town hall and get our marriage certificate!”
After their marriage in 1964, Yuan and Deng had three children together. The couple lived separately for much of the 1960s and 70s as Yuan worked in the Hunan Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Deng raised their three children and cared for their elderly parents on her own in Qianyang county.
When they were together at home, Yuan delighted in playing the violin (another of his hidden talents) while Deng accompanied him on piano.
Yuan and his wife return to visit their school in Anjiang, Hunan province (VCG)
Images from VCG