Yuan Longping swimming
Five things you didn't know about the "Father of Hybrid Rice"

On May 22, legendary agronomist Yuan Longping, known as the “father of hybrid rice,” sadly passed away in a hospital in Changsha, Hunan province, at the age of 91. Yuan’s breakthrough discoveries, made in the 1970s, created high-yield hybrid rice strains that are estimated to have helped feed an additional 80 million people in China each year.

A memorial service was held in Changsha to bid farewell to Yuan on May 24, and countless obituaries have paid tribute to the man whose work helped stave off famine for millions. But Yuan's private life is less well known, and involved swimming, motorbike riding, and almost led to a career in the air force. From a potential national athlete to his love of the violin, here are some of the lesser known aspects of Yuan’s life.

A National Swimmer in Another Life

Born in Beijing on September 7, 1930, Yuan’s family moved around the country in the first years of his life as war with Japan raged. When Yuan was 8 years old, his family left Hankou, Hubei province, and boarded a ship for Taoyuan county, Hunan province. On the journey, the young Yuan fell overboard, and had to be saved by a worker on one of the passing boats. This apparently inspired Yuan to learn to swim—he wanted to be able to save others just as the boatman had saved him.

Yuan began to learn from a classmate in exchange for teaching him maths. According to another of Yuan’s school friends, he was a quick learner, and would swim across the Yangtze to go to the cinema on the opposite bank in order to save money on the ferry fare.

Yuan became so proficient that he went on to represent Sichuan province in a national swimming competition in Chengdu. Yuan finished fourth in his race, while the top three entered China’s national swimming team program (Yuan later blamed his position on eating too much spicy Chengdu food before the race).

Such was Yuan’s love of swimming that he and his wife Deng Ze celebrated their wedding by going for a midnight swim in a river in Qianyang county, Hunan province, where they lived at the time.

Yuan Longping swimming, one of five things you didn't know about Yuan Longping

Yuan remained a keen swimmer into his old age (VCG)

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.”

Yuan Longping, writing

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.

The Almost-Pilot

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 Longping, Yuan's wife, Deng Zhe

Yuan and his wife return to visit their school in Anjiang, Hunan province (VCG)

Images from VCG

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Yang Tingting is a Chinese editor at The World of Chinese. Interested in telling Chinese stories, she writes mainly about culture, language, and society.

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Yuan Longping the father of rice.