袁隆平 Yuan Longping (1930 – 2021) was one of modern China’s most well-known and well-regarded scientists. A prolific agronomist, his research and development of hybrid rice helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of famine in many countries.
The essay forwarded here was first published in 2011, based on a speech that Yuan gave at the first Hybrid Rice Conference in Changsha in 2010. I will be basing my translation work on the version posted by Xinhua Radio yesterday, after his passing on the 22nd of May, 2021.
The rice crops are ripening. Mother, I am here to visit you.
I wished I could’ve come chat with you by myself, but the folks here at Anjiang are so eagerly hospitable, that they offered to accompany me despite the hot weather. I appreciate that.
Mother, you lived here, in Anjiang, and I was far, far away, in Changsha. I always saw you in my dream, and this place.
Alas, the paths of our lives were once so, so hard to discern: as someone as acclimated to a bustling urban lifestyle as you, even came and stayed behind in this isolated mountain village. Do you remember? When I got my job here after graduating college in 1957, you held a map up close, traced your finger along the criss-cross lines of railways and county borders, and did not find that little dot that said ‘Anjiang’, until after a long, long while. Then, you sighed and said, “Kid, you have to endure through a lot of hardships there.” To which I responded, “That’s all right. I am young, and I’ll bring my violin.”
What I did not foresee was that, to help with my kid’s upbringing, you’d yourself move to Anjiang one day, and bear the same hardship! How were you used to navigating the dirt roads in between fields! I always remember the early days, you always had to hold the hand of your grandson before setting foot in the winding paths around our house.
Anjiang was my everything, but I forgot, for somebody who’d spent 70 years in a city, you needed to adjust to everything as well. I’d not asked me if there are difficulties I could help you resolve; I believed that there would be time — there would always be — when I become less busy, and I can dedicate more time to look after you… I couldn’t have foretold that, even on the day you passed away, I was far away, at a conference in Changsha.
I remember, that day was Mid-Autumn festival, my colleagues from around the country were still gathered … Researching hybrid rice is hard, and I was the conference organiser, so I had to stay with them until the event ended, at the price that I became forever indebted to you… I actually knew, that time was the last moment of your life. But I missed your final moment even though I rushed to Anjiang before sunrise the next day.
Too late, it was all too late. How I wish there’d be a second chance! Mum, you must have waited for a long time, expected me for a long while; you must had a lot to say to your son, and matters to find closure in. How was I so blatantly foolish! For all those years, why didn’t I spend more time with you, at the price of one fewer field trip, one fewer experiment to run, one fewer conference trip … if only … not even … for once.
Mother, every time I see success in my work, every time I speak at an international forum, every time one after another trophy is handed to me, I would tell the people around, that you are the person that influenced me the most! I’d always failed to imagine, without you teaching me English, how I could possibly have begun reading science literature, with a view of the world wider than an era with knowledge in short supply would otherwise admit, and come across the minds and works of founding geneticists such as Gregor Mendel and T.H. Morgen?
I’d always failed to imagine, in the troubled times of war and strife, from Peking to Hankow, from Taoyuan prefecture to Chongqing, without your determination and encouragement, how I could have received a systematic modern education, and gained the courage to navigate the torrential rivers of science?
I’d always failed to imagine, without you, before my childhood bed, telling me the story of Friedrich Nietzsche, a great, strong-willed philosopher full of vitality, how could I have remained certain, after thousands of failed experiments, that there will be a seed that lifts humanity out of famine?
— They’d eventually say, that I changed the world with a seed. But I know, this seed was sown by you, in my childhood.
The rice crops are ripening, mother. Do you feel the fragrance? Is Angjiang good? Do you hear the familiar sounds of chatter and laughter around the fields? With 21 years of time separating us now, I still see vividly, a silhouette of you, holding your grandson’s hand, walking behind the waves of a rice field; I will also tell you, mother, who never farmed in her whole life, about the subtle tingling as you sweep your hand across the rice awn, about the stacks of golden hay in the field after a harvest, about the shuffling sounds of grains dancing under the sun, about the paddies emanating an scarlet-coloured scent at dusk. These are all things I wish I could tell you, things I can never finish telling you …
Mother, the rice crops are ripening. I miss you.