The Heroes are the Practical People Who Recognize Current Tasks (识时务者为俊杰 )

The Heroes are the Practical People Who Recognize Current Tasks (识时务者为俊杰 )

Yanli Mi

Heroes are the practical people who recognize current tasks (识时务者为俊杰 ) 

Chinese Proverb

The vast majority of Nobel prize winners have religious beliefs, religious identity and some are even religious professionals. Most Nobel Prize winners from the West have Christian backgrounds. As of 1996, out of 639 Nobel laureates, there were 618 believers and only 21 a-religious laureates (for a reference in Chinese, see The a-religious are mainly from the former Soviet Union and Eastern European socialist countries.

Among those laureates who were religious, 596 were Christian (including Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox), eight were Jewish, eight were Buddhists, four were Muslims, and two were Hindus. Among the 81 Nobel Peace Prize laureates, religious identity was even more prominent.  This data illustrates the close relationship between modern Western science and Western religion.

China, Nobel Prize Winners, and Religion

China has produced few Nobel laureates – I wonder whether this is linked to the fact that the Chinese are essentially non-religious. Just as one cannot imagine a completely non-Christian or atheist president being elected in the United States, in China it is difficult to imagine a theist would be elected president of the Republic. The Chinese ruler cannot be a Christian, Muslim or Buddhist yet.

The above suggests two realities: (1.) most Americans are Christian and (2.) most Chinese are a-religious. The traditional Chinese religions include Confucianism, Taoism, Mohism and others, which are essentially different from the world’s three major religions. In some ways, China’s religions are more like philosophy and wisdom.


The Chinese communist government, having banned all temples, mosques and churches along with religious professionals in the 60’s and 70’s during the “Break the Four Olds” and Chinese Cultural Revolution eras, started to gradually open up to the world over the last 20 years. Policy about religious practice has relaxed more in big cities and small provinces, evidenced by the occasional sightings of churches and temples full of Chinese followers. However, there is a long way to go for complete “religious freedom” in China. Or, it may be an impossibility for Chinese people in the foreseeable future; freedom of religion can only be promoted if religious activities do not threaten Communist rule.

Nonetheless, I predict that in the next few decades, more Chinese people will join one or another religious organization. First, the various religious organizations will find that China is a religiously empty land and there is much need to import various religions. Secondly, Chinese people are desperate for some religious beliefs and they will be eager to hear any gospels. As if drawing on a blank canvas, the visual effects from the new drawing will be very obvious. China can change from undeveloped to developing country in terms of religion, as it has with science and economy.

The Rebirth of Buddhism In China

Jade Buddha Temple (Shanghai)

This year when I returned to China I was surprised to find many friends have chosen to practice Buddhism. My generation of Chinese people were neither naturally baptized believers nor destined to be completely a-religious – until we were brainwashed by atheism during middle school.  My godmother, diagnosed with a type of lung cancer, refused chemotherapy and radiotherapy with Western medicine and chose to become a full time Buddhist devotee in order to gain longevity in this life, and hopefully, peace in death.

Buddhism advocates vegetarianism, self-cultivation, daily chanting and good works, which meets the findings from the latest scientific research about longevity. Traditional Chinese religion is very practical to improve both one’s own – as well as other’s – quality of life, but not to promote individual accomplishment and glory. When Western science and religion entered China like twin brothers, it brought with it political and economic practicality. In this process, China has trained more scientists than religious practitioners because Chinese authorities came to the realization that scientific progress will be the path to lead to eventual prosperity and wealth for China.

Journey to the West

Zhengling (Chen Ning) Yang, Nobel Prize Winner

Although as many young scientists as government officials would like to build their country back to wealth, much young talent chose to come to the West to conduct their research due to the limited resources and poor experiment conditions in China ten years ago. More and more scientists are going back to China to contribute to the further modernization of China and to escape from the high unemployment in the West recently.

However, the scarcity of accomplished scientists in China these days is exemplified by the popularity and celebrity status of the Physics Nobel Prize winner, professor Yang Zhengling. Many Nobel Prize-winning scientists are from the U.S. Here, the Nobel laureates are treated as other “outstanding” scientists after the award, still tirelessly seeking the truth in the laboratory. But Yang in China not only won his 54 years younger woman’s admiration and marriage, but enjoyed a movie star’s glamorous visibility across the country, with the Communist Party and National People’s infinite tolerance and blessings. Interestingly, Yang, educated partly in the West, is also a firm believer in God, a Christian, who admitted that science alone cannot answer many questions in our world.

Catching up with the United States

Chinese Bullet Train

China has developed very rapidly. One can say that China’s development miracle largely borrowed the achievements from modern Western scientific research, especially in the areas of computers and wireless communications, as well as the fields of medicine and healthcare. China borrowed a few hundred years of Western development of scientific exploration. Many research results directly contributed to the high degree of wealth in modern Chinese society.

Of course, there are other factors, such as, the “superiority” of authoritarian governance vs. the democratic government in the West, the consumption and energy from such a large population, as well as the hard-working nature of the Chinese people. In many aspects, such as renewable energy, infrastructure, urban construction, high-speed railway and so on, the country has even caught up with the U.S.

The Chinese government is also increasingly aware of the importance of science and technology. The government is not only increasing funding for the various national research institutions, but is also making great efforts to stem the effects of brain drain, giving incentives and creating a positive environment to attract research talents at all levels. In this way, China would not only import its talented expatriates, but also master the core technologies from the Western countries, eventually developing its own core technologies.

But I must also add: Western science and Western religion are still in their infancy in China. If Buddhism or Christianity do not promote tangible longevity or physical health, the religions can get very few followers. If scientists cannot commit or promise their projects will be profitable within three to five years, they cannot get the bulk of investment money. Billionaires still make more money on traditional industries than on high-tech industries in China. Whether for the government or private investors, their investments for Western science are largely driven by utilitarian and short-term profits. However, in China, unfortunately, these types of short-term visions are already creating safety, environmental and bio-economical concerns for future Chinese citizens.

The Chinese, as a nation, need a vision for their children and grandchildren. Such shortsighted views cannot be changed unless education promotes citizen awareness both from the perspective of science and religion, which are apparently a Chinese “catch-22”: if the authorities are educated by short-term visionaries, how can they become the long-term visionaries themselves?

Avoiding Materialism

Fortunately, the Chinese government has started to increase funding for both natural sciences and social sciences. However, funding from the government alone cannot possibly support a nation’s passion for science and religion. Nonetheless, scientists from China are mostly non-believers. Without a religion as the fearless and insistent truth-seeking spirit in the bones, how many intellectuals in modern Chinese society can eventually resist the temptation of materialism? That being said, when a society’s material wealth reaches a certain level, there are always some people who will begin seeking mental and spiritual pursuits.

For thousands of years, the popular Confucianism and Taoism in China will continue to carry forward, Chinese medicine will continue to be ambiguous between efficacy and toxicity; but at the same time, the Western world’s religious culture of being good and truth-seeking will find the right soil to take root in China.

For thousands of years, the Chinese did not invent antibiotics or cardiac surgery, but their traditional eating habits are being regarded as secrets of health and longevity by Western scientists. Living thousands of years on the earth, the Chinese people passed down a very practical wisdom: avoid being the risk-taking explorers and adventurers like the western-born. No matter how developed China is, it will eventually succumb to its “everything in moderation” philosophy.

So, China will have its version of “western science” and “western religion” in the end to accommodate the practicality of Chinese soil and people there.


Yanli Mi was born in Sichuan, China where people love spicy food.  After studying in Beijing at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests, she worked in the medical, pharmacological, pharmaceutical and biotechnological fields.  She obtained a Ph.D. at the U. of Tennessee in 2002.  In addition to science, she enjoys spiritual exploration at an intuitive and religious level.  She currently lives in Mountain View, CA, with her two daughters, her husband, and a greyhound dog.



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19 thoughts on “The Heroes are the Practical People Who Recognize Current Tasks (识时务者为俊杰 )

  1. This is a fascinating post and, importantly, gives a different view on the relationship between religion, the commitment to search for truth, and science – refreshingly different than the increasingly sterile debate in the West between atheists who seem unwilling to explore truth and who assert atheism as invincibly true on the one hand and people of faith.

    This post’s perspective is a useful corrective.

    1. Yes I am different because I am a Chinese who have been educated and worked in both worlds for equally important amount of years. Atheists declare a non-belief of God, which is not enough to support a belief system….

      There must be correlation between a strong belief system and the consistent truth-seeking spirit, which is the backbone of Science. In my real life, I met so many excellent scientists who actually had strong belief system, religiously.

      Yanli Mi

  2. There’s a LOT here to discuss. I have several points in mind, but will limit to just a couple.

    1) To say the Chinese are “a-religious” couldn’t be further from the truth.

    I think what you mean to say is “they’re not Christians.” The Chinese, and broader Asia, have an extremely deep and rich history in religion and spirituality, much more so, I would argue, than the west. A hundred years of Communism has obscured it a bit, but certainly not eliminated it. That said, it’s so different from Christianity, in so many ways, it’s very easy to pass it over as not-religion, especially from the western perspective.

    Taoism is an incredibly deep and broad tradition, it’s thinkers and spirtual leaders having taken on the most difficult questions. Taoism’s principles, even after 5000 years, continue to be relevant today, and some would say are becoming even more relevant, as quantum physics gets closer and closer to pure energy, and astrophysics gets closer to the beginning of time. Personally, I find Taoism much more cogent and tangible than Christianity, today.

    In terms of pure science, I don’t think you’ll find a more natural “religious” fit than Taoism. Countless numbers of histories greatest Physicists wound up Taoists, or with beliefs that could easily be labeled “Taoist.” From Oppenheimer to Neil Bohr to Heisenberg, and more recently with people like Fritjof Capra (Tao of Physics).

    Einstein was a Jew. However, his Judaism was very much like that of the modern Philosopher, Baruch Spinoza (also a Jew). Spinoza was a 17th century monist, he thought everything in the universe (Nature) consisted of one thing (Reality). Change some of the names around, translate to mandarin, and Spinoza’s a Taoist.

    What the other major Chinese “religion”, Confucianism, lacks in depth of spiritual consideration, relative to Taoism, it makes up for in practical application. The Chinese, and Confucius specifically, are considered the earliest society to have a meritorious system of promotion, in both government and academics. Meaning, you got As, and you got promoted, or you got a good job. The idea that essentially anyone could better themselves through education and effort was an immensely important influence in Chinese society, absolutely felt even today(!), 2500 years later. Confucius’ prescriptions for living well we very tangible, practical, and comparable to the kind of guidance any church would offer in the western world, now.

    2) You connect (I think) success in science (vis-a-vis Nobel prizes) with western religion. I would argue that what you’re seeing is in fact the result of the bias of the Swedish Royal Academy of Science.

    The charter of the of The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is as follows: “The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is an independent organization whose overall objective is to promote the sciences and strengthen their influence in society.”

    Clearly there’s an agenda above and beyond pure science. Or, the charter would read, “The Nobel prize is awarded to the best scientists (et al).” Nobel invented dynamite. Some say he created the prize due to his guilt at having been indirectly responsible for so many deaths (via dynamite).

    The Swedish Royal Academy is an institution, situated in and among the other elite academic institutions in the western world. All of these institutions require funding, and have to exist within the societies that provide for them. They’re all absolutely and unequivocally influenced by the Christian tradition. That tradition is clearly “Christian white male” in nature.

    This is the same reason only 40 women have won Nobel prizes.



    1. Joe,

      1). Thank you for being protective of my cultural heritage and reminded me of the Chinese long history of various “religious traditions”. I would like to have more balanced view during my original writing. However, I somehow still feel that I could not have written this topic otherwise.

      In different dynasties of China, a lot of rulers and rebellious leaders had deep connection with Buddhism. You are right again, communism has obscured the organized religions in China. Or, communism was the most organized religion for the last few decades in China.

      That said, organized religions always are the double-edged swords. So, Taoism and confucianism or the modern buddhism are not as evangelical as the modern Christianity or Islamic religions. They did make up for the practical guidance for many people’s belief systems.

      2). Nobel prize is not the ultimate criteria for judging the advancement of science and technology. However, admittedly, the West had done most of the major discoveries for our modern society, including cars /planes, electricity/computer, biotechnology, etc in the last centuries. There must be connections between the explosive discoveries and many cultural or geographic factors other than religions. However, religions are always closely related to science development in human minds/ hearts. “Christian white males” had discovered more in the last century does not mean it will be always the case since now the globe is flat, people, ideas and goods can travel across the borders…and opportunities are open to other nations.

      3). I am sadly still not very optimistic about Woman Nobel prize owners for various reasons…I hope that will improve, but not the other way around…

      Thank you for your long thoughts.

      1. I love this topic! I have spent a lot of time studying history and philosophy of science, and religion — there’s not many others (off-campus) that care to discuss this very much…

        I can’t say with any conviction why The West seems to have surpassed the Chinese in scientific achievement, historically. I could offer a couple hypotheses.

        1. The Chinese were xenophobic like no one else in history. They had no real desire to have outside cultures influence them. (Great Wall!?) If innovation and science are, at least in part, driven by a confluence of ideas and perspectives, it could be argued the Chinese suffered by lack of that.

        2. Much of western accomplishment can be traced back to the Greeks, and the way they, for the first time, diligently investigated the workd around them, trying to understand and explain what was going on. Many of Science’s fundamental principles germinated during the days of people like Socrates, Pythagoras, Democritus, and others. For the first time, they asked questions like “How do we know something to be true?” (Epistemology) and commended the ongoing process of getting answers. Democritus, for example, was really the first person to take what we call now an “atomistic” view: all things are made of smaller bits…

        Why did the Greeks do this? I don’t know. Was it simply the mechanical evolution of consciousness? Was it a result of finally having enough prosperity and leisure time (i.e. not farming)?

        Good stuff.

        1. Joe, maybe some of your questions can be answered in this book “Why the West Rules-For Now” by Ian Morris. I am reading it and found that history painfully repeated itself sometime. Thanks Steve F for the recommendation.

          1. Wikipedia on China as a superpower

            The People’s Republic of China receives continual coverage in the popular press of its potential superpower status,[21] and has been identified as a rising or emerging economic and military superpower by academics and other experts. In fact, the “rise of China” has been named the top news story of the 21st century by the Global Language Monitor, as measured by number of appearances in the global print and electronic media, on the Internet and blogosphere, and in Social Media.[22][23][24][25][26] The term “Second Superpower” has also been applied by scholars to the possibility that the People’s Republic of China could emerge as a “second superpower,” with global power and influence on par with the United States.[27][28][29] The potential for the two countries to form stronger relations to address global issues is sometimes referred to as the Group of Two.
            Barry Buzan asserted in 2004 that “China certainly presents the most promising all-round profile” of a potential superpower.[30] Buzan claimed that “China is currently the most fashionable potential superpower and the one whose degree of alienation from the dominant international society makes it the most obvious political challenger.” However, he noted this challenge is constrained by the major challenges of development and by the fact that its rise could trigger a counter coalition of states in Asia.
            Parag Khanna stated in 2008 that by making massive trade and investment deals with Latin America and Africa, China had established its presence as a superpower along with the European Union and the United States. China’s rise is demonstrated by its ballooning share of trade in its gross domestic product. He believed that China’s “consultative style” had allowed it to develop political and economic ties with many countries including those viewed as rogue states by the United States. He stated that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization founded with Russia and the Central Asian countries may eventually be the “NATO of the East”.[31]
            Economist and author of Eclipse: Living in the Shadow of China’s Economic Dominance Arvind Subramanian argued in 2012 that China will direct the world’s financial system by 2020 and that the Chinese renminbi will replace the dollar as the world’s reserve currency in 10 to 15 years. The United States’ soft power will remain longer. He stated that “China was a top dog economically for thousands of years prior to the Ming Dynasty. In some ways, the past few hundred years have been an aberration.”[32]
            Lawrence Saez at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, argued in 2011 that the United States will be surpassed by China as military superpower within twenty years. Regarding economic power, the Director of the China Center for Economic Reform at Peking University Yao Yang stated that “Assuming that the Chinese and U.S. economies grow, respectively, by 8% and 3% in real terms, that China’s inflation rate is 3.6% and America’s is 2% (the averages of the last decade), and that the renminbi appreciates against the dollar by 3% per year (the average of the last six years), China will become the world’s largest economy by 2021. By that time, both countries’ GDP will be about $24 trillion.”[33]
            Historian Timothy Garton Ash argued in 2011, pointing to factors such as the International Monetary Fund predicting that China’s GDP (purchasing power parity adjusted) will overtake that of the United States in 2016, that a power shift to a world with several superpowers was happening “Now”. However, China was still lacking in soft power and power projection abilities and had a low GDP/person. The article also stated that the Pew Research Center in a 2009 survey found that people in 15 out of 22 countries believed that China had or would overtake the US as the world’s leading superpower.[34]
            In an interview given in 2011, Singapore’s first premier, Lee Kuan Yew, stated that while China supplanting the United States is not a forgone conclusion, Chinese leaders are nonetheless serious about displacing the United States as the most powerful country in Asia. “They have transformed a poor society by an economic miracle to become now the second-largest economy in the world. How could they not aspire to be number 1 in Asia, and in time the world?”[35] The Chinese strategy, Yew maintains, will revolve around their “huge and increasingly highly skilled and educated workers to out-sell and out-build all others.”[36] Nevertheless, relations with the United States, at least in the medium term, will not take a turn for the worst because China will “avoid any action that will sour up relations with the U.S. To challenge a stronger and technologically superior power like the U.S. will abort their ‘peaceful rise.'”[36] Though Yew believes China is genuinely interested in growing within the global framework the United States has created, it is biding its time until it becomes strong enough to successfully redefine the prevailing political and economic order.[37]
            Chinese foreign policy advisor Wang Jisi in 2012 stated that many Chinese officials see China as a first-class power which should be treated as such. China is argued to soon become the world’s largest economy and to be making rapid progress in many areas. The United States is seen as a declining superpower as indicated by factors such as poor economic recovery, financial disorder, high deficit and unemployment, and increasing political polarization.[38][39]

            Below are the opposing views.

            [edit]Contrary views
            Geoffrey Murphay’s China: The Next Superpower (2008) argued that while the potential for China is high, this is fairly perceived only by looking at the risks and obstacles China faces in managing its population and resources. The political situation in China may become too fragile to survive into superpower status according to Susan Shirk in China: Fragile Superpower (2008).[40] Other factors that could constrain China’s ability to become a superpower in the future include limited supplies of energy and raw materials, questions over its innovation capability, inequality and corruption, and risks to social stability and the environment.
            Minxin Pei argued in 2010 that China is not a superpower and it will not be one anytime soon and argued that China faces daunting political and economic challenges.[41] In 2012 he argued that China, despite using economic power to influence some nations, has few real friends or allies and is surrounded by potentially hostile nations. This situation could improve if regional territorial disputes would be resolved and China would participate in an effective regional defense system that would reduce the fears of its neighbors. Alternatively, a democratization of China would dramatically improve foreign relations with many nations.[42]
            Amy Chua stated in 2007 that whether a country has enough pull to bring immigrants is an important quality for a superpower. She also wrote that China lacks the pull to bring scientists, thinkers, and innovators from other countries as immigrants. However, she believed that China made up for this with its own diaspora, and said that size and resources for them are unparalleled.[43]

    2. Joe, your assessment is inconsistent with the religious demographics of the PRC. A plurality to a majority of Chinese people are non religious since the Cultural Revolution.

      Non religious 42-53.41%
      Chinese folk religion 30-31.8%
      Buddhism 10.85-22%
      Christianity 3.93-4%
      Islam 2%

      To say China has a religious history isn’t proof of China having a religious present without stats of the religious beliefs of people to back up your assertions.

  3. Stephen, thanks for paying attention to an old article:). I read I Ching and used it to predict the future when I was deeply troubled:). They are playing your psychology there, interestingly.

    1. That reminds me. Should I use Wade-Giles or Pinyin romanization? Which do you prefer? Pinyin is the international standard, but for words and names commonly known in the English speaking world, Wade-Giles usually.

      Also, Mailand China being the C in BRICS is projected to surpass the West soon.

      Can you seperate the statistics by what they won the Nobel Prize for? Chemistry, Economics, Literature, Medicine, Peace, and Physics are the categories. Medicine is sometimes called Physiology.

      Are you familiar with Liu Xibao and Charter 08?


      I forgot to add this third option as well to the debate on one versus two Chinas. This is One China and One Taiwan effectively making the de facto status quo the de jure one. Currently both sides claim to be the One China, with most of the world recognizing the PRC as China with some recognizing the ROC as China. I personally recognize the ROC despite the fact my country (the USA) recognizes the PRC.

  4. Stephen,

    Thanks for so many of the comments and reference. I would love to discuss the China issues with you since you claimed to be a sinophile. I came from the mainland China so I believed PRC is China. Taiwan was a beautiful island of China, where the important defeated National Party members escaped to settle there in 1949. I agreed they carried heavy heritage, culture and tradition to Taiwan since then. However, Taiwan is either Taiwan or part of China, similar to Hong Kong and Tibet (although they all had their different status in relation to their respective histories). Sorry if I challenged your recognition on this. However, heroes are the practical people who recognize the current status:). Thanks for commenting again!

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