Author: Tiny Texas Town

One nifty part of being a scientist is the opportunity to travel to far away places to meet with colleagues.  I went on a trip in 2012 to Beijing, China as a member of a group of plant scientists and agronomists. Our goal was to set up collaborations with our colleagues at China Agricultural University.  I was really looking forward to it for a few reasons — the meetings and discussions were likely to be excellent given their expertise in the area. More importantly, it would be my first trip to mainland China.  Our plan was to arrive in Beijing, travel to the CAU campus, get some sleep, then begin meetings the next morning.

We were pathetic come the first day of meetings.  We were watching and delivering seminars at what were the wee hours of the morning back home. Our disadvantaged situation continued, perhaps by design, due to many toasts with mao tai (AKA lighter fluid) during dinner.  Luckily this gave the American contingent an excuse to be a little goofy, which was much appreciated — especially by me.  Stumbling over what I say and smiling a lot comes naturally with or without sleep, with or without libation.

Following the first day’s formal meetings we toured the campus then met with professors and students to discuss ideas. I was so tired that my usual southern charm was wearing thin. Luckily there were a few stops for concocting Nescafe, which was a very important part of keeping me from saying things I shouldn’t.  During coffee breaks we made plans for the following days: wonderful meals and visits to palaces, archaeological sites, and agronomy farms.  A second segment of our trip was much discussed; we would fly to Xi’an to an international conference on heterosis where we could also visit the terra cotta warriors, walk the city wall, and see the bell and drum towers.  This may all seem a bit excessive in the culture department, but it’s not without reason.  Ideas for collaboration blossom with familiarity and time spent together learning about and comparing cultures can do just the trick. It turns out that building civilization, warding off invaders, and trying to feed the masses are all human endeavors. The specifics get lost.

While still in Beijing we made plans for an afternoon trip to the nearby Summer Palace.  We were blown away, both by the palace’s raw beauty and because it was the site of historic decisions that define Eastern civilization.  We walked the grounds and marveled at the intricate architecture, beautiful sculptures including dragon and phoenix, and scenic views of the giant lake covered in water lilies. I had no idea the seeds from the pods of water lilies were edible – these were being sold by vendors.  Because the contingent was all plant biologists, this started a discussion on when and how the various poisonous substances in lilies arose, questions around whether these ‘lilies’ were genuinely in the Liliaceae and not derived from some alternate lineage that just looks like lilies, discussions on how these lilies relate to the lilies we knew were poisonous, and questions about whether the poisonous substances in lilies are derive via conserved metabolic processes related by descent.  Such are the conversations of plant dorks…  I digress.

As we were discussing plant biology, the beautiful views, and ideas on how best to get members of our research groups to work together, we came upon a glorified stone gazebo.  I walked inside to find a bronze statue of a scholar – the god Wenchang.  The plaque explained that a matching tower across the lake housed a warrior.  It went on to state that the ruler relied on the help of both scholars and warriors. As my colleagues wandered on,  I just stood there.  I was awestruck by this simple truth and marveled that the emperor appreciated it so much that he had the idea committed to stone and bronze within these matching towers.  Of course both were needed!  The idea that every problem that came to a leader could be solved by one or the other seemed utterly silly. Clearly it’s not either/or.

Scholars and warriors rejoice: the good of the country (any country) and the success of our leaders relies on being prepared not only to be thoughtful and philosophical, but to put muscle, blood, and steel behind our ideals and words.  We’re all in it together.

{Top image credit: Cultural China}