The China Quarterly

Research Article

Fang Lizhi's Expanding Universe

James H. Williams

During an interview in September 1986, some three years prior to seeking political asylum with his wife at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, Fang Lizhi was asked how he felt about the progress of political reform in China. Fang responded, “I must start with cosmology in answering this question.”

Fang's linkage of politics with cosmology – a branch of astrophysics concerned with the origins of the universe – must seem peculiar to those who know him only as a human rights advocate and critic of the Chinese Communist Party. Yet this was no idiosyncrasy on Fang's part. Fang's life and published work from the early 1970s to the present leave no doubt that his emergence as the symbolic leader of China's democracy movement is deeply rooted in his experiences and outlook as a scientist.

Fang's personal universe began to expand in 1972, when he and his colleagues at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) published a paper in Physica entitled “A Solution of the cosmological equations in scalar-tensor theory, with mass and blackbody radiation.” This innocuous-sounding article met with a furious response from leading theoretical circles of the Party. Fang et al. had broken a long-standing taboo by introducing the Big Bang theory to the Chinese physics world. Insofar as the Big Bang contradicted Engels's declaration that the universe must be infinite in space and time, Fang's paper was tantamount to heresy.