Joan Hinton / Han Chun – China & USA

She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.

In September 2004, Joan Hinton (Chinese name: Han Chun), an 83-year-old American who had worked in China for more than 20 years, became one of the first 28 foreigners to get a Foreigner’s Permanent Residence Permit in Beijing. She started working with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Mechanization Sciences in 1979, after a lifetime of raising and studying cattle. She was thrilled that she could finally fully embrace her “second hometown”. (full text).

She says: “As long as there is war, science will never be free. Are we scientists going to spend our lives in slavery for madmen who want to destroy the world?”

She says also: “Are we scientists going to spend our lives in slavery for madmen who want to destroy the world?” and “can we not vision the world of tomorrow? Will it be a world of destruction and misery, agonizing death by radiation or will it be a world where mountains are moved by atomic bombs to change the course of rivers and make rich green land out of deserts? Where is our imagination?”

And she denounced the bomb (of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) as ‘a crime against humanity’.

.Joan Hinton - Han Chun - China.jpg.

Joan Hinton / Han Chun – China & USA
She works for the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Mechanization Sciences.

These were the words of Joan Hinton (Han Chun), an American nuclear physicist who defected to China in the 1940s and has just been granted a green card. Rarely do I turn on CCTV 9 these days, but with my DVD player inoperative I thought I’d take a look. On the interview programme, Dialogue, appeared this frail 83-year-old widow, chuckling at her own aphorisms, so used to speaking Chinese that she struggled to find the English words, spouting her theories on the progress of communism. It does strike you as a little odd that it took 56 years for her to get a residence permit. Also odd that a scientist with experience on the Oppenheimer project was assigned to agricultural development by the new communist authorities (though she understandably said she did not wish to participate in further nuclear research) … (full text).

Joan Hinton (Chinese name Han Chun) loves science and physics, but the better things became for her in physics, the more depressed she would become. Born in 1921, Hinton was very determined to become a scientist when she was a young girl. She recalled: “even in grammar school, I can especially remember forcing the teachers to let me study Faraday’s The Candle instead of taking Latin. In high school I concentrated on chemistry, oblivious to all my other courses. Finally, in college, I settled on physics, building a Wilson cloud chamber in my sophomore year and spending as much time as I could getting in the way of the cyclotron boys at Cornell. From college I went to Wisconsin where I studied as a graduate student for two years.

Later Hinton joined the Manhattan Project that changed her whole life. The Manhattan Project was not only the USA’s first large scale science-based technological project, but also the violent program to develop the very first nuclear weapons. The project started in June of 1942 and ended in 1945. The work of attempting to produce a controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction was conducted by Enrico Fermi’s group. Hinton was one of the graduate students and young physicists under Fermi. She worked at the Water Boiler reactor at Los Alamos, New Mexico State.

On July 16, 1945, she and others broke the rules and watched the world’s first nuclear explosion experiment in the New Mexico desert. She wrote: “it was like being at the bottom of an ocean of light. We were bathed in it from all directions. The light withdrew into the bomb as if the bomb sucked it up. Then it turned purple and blue and went up and up and up. We were still talking in whispers when the cloud reached the level where it was struck by the rising sunlight so it cleared out the natural clouds. We saw a cloud that was dark and red at the bottom and daylight at the top. Then suddenly the sound reached us.

It was very sharp and rumbled and all the mountains were rumbling with it. We suddenly started talking out loud and felt exposed to the world.” Yet, her excitement abruptly ended when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Hinton was totally shocked by the destructive force of nuclear weapons. She felt strongly that science could not escape the question of ethics. She even discovered that the army had sponsored her scholarship. She found herself caught in a moral dilemma. The questions kept gnawing at her.

After Hiroshima, Hinton protested the government’s use of scientific research, and lobbied in Washington as part of the peace movement. But she was deeply disappointed at America’s self righteous attitude of morality and military supremacy. She said, “No matter where you turned, you were faced by war, secret work, the Navy, the Army, and madmen locked in their laboratories thinking up new and better methods of total destruction” and “I will never forget my chagrin when I went to a certain Senator’s’s office to get some information and the secretary condescendingly looked up at me asking, ‘Is this in connection with school work’ – me, an atomic scientist, coming to Washington to fight for scientific freedom and world peace – the very nerve of her.”

Hinton was disillusioned by the USA’s “unnecessary” nuclear attacks on Japan, Churchill’s “terrible iron curtain speech” and unsuccessful lobbying for civilian control of nuclear energy. She then went to China to join the Communist Revolution in 1948. Labelled as “the Atom Spy that Got Away” in the McCarthy-era media, Hinton claimed that she never worked on nuclear weapons in China.

Rather, she helped the Chinese mechanize agriculture. She explained with her unbending social conscience: “I did not want to spend my life killing people, but rather, to make people have a better life, not worse.”

In her reply letter to the Federation of Atomic Scientists in 1951, entitled “Why China Wants Peace”, Hinton could not forget the tragedy of Hiroshima: “the Truman doctrine, the Marshal Plan, the stagnation of the Atomic Energy Commission at the U.N. – how could we just sit there in a laboratory and ponder in the depths of statistical mechanics. The memory of Hiroshima – 150,000 lives. One, two, three, four, five, six … , one hundred and fifty thousand – each a living, thinking, human being with hopes and desires, failures and successes, a life of his or her own – all gone? At the end, she urged that science should be made to work for peace: “use your strength, use whatever you can to work actively for peace and against war. As long as there is war, science will never be free.

In 1952, in the Asia and Pacific Regional Peace Conference in Beijing, Hinton again expressed “a deep sense of guilt and shame” for Hiroshima and denounced the bomb as “a crime against humanity.” Her first son was named after “Peace”. In response to the Sino-Indian dispute of the 1960s, Hinton stressed the importance of friendly negotiation: “World peace may only be maintained on the basis of the dignity, equality, and rights of all nations big or small… It is obvious to everyone that the Sino-Indian boundary question is not the kind that should be solved by any means other than friendly negotiation.”

From being a nuclear physicist to a dairy farmer, Hinton described the turning point in her life as a disillusionment with pure science, and a new belief in communism and internationalism. She carefully portrayed herself as an independent woman of judgment:”some people said that I followed Erwin Engst to Yanan. It was not true. The fact was that although we had good relationship, he was not my fiancé. If he were not in Yanan but in other places, I would not have gone to join him.” What was deep inside Hinton’s heart was nothing other than enthusiasm for a new world. Yanan of the 1930s and 1940s, the cradle of the victory of China’s revolution, attracted many young people including her brother, William Hinton, and his friend, Erwin Engst, who all passionately searched for alternatives to capitalism. To Hinton, the most important thing was her determination and commitment to internationalism; as for the question of with whom and where, that was only incidental.

In April 1949, Hinton married Erwin Engst in Yanan. From then on, they led a simple, but challenging and fruitful life. They lived in cave-dwellings in the early years of her stay in China and worked together in the countryside near Inner Mongolia and Xian farm in the northwest. Their living and working conditions were so difficult, for example, there was a lack of nails, electricity, or even a regular mail service, but they endured hardship and dedicated their lives to building the New China. Hinton remembered how she learned about transforming killing weapons into useful tools for a better life: “my fist job was working in an iron factory packed away in the mountains of Shaanxi Province. What were they making there? They were melting up American-made hand grenades, shells, wings from crashed planes sent from America to Chiang, steel and aluminum of weapons sent by America to kill them and making them into cooking pots, ploughs, and hoes. They were transferring these things of destruction into useful tools to build up a new and prosperous China, making wagon wheels and pumps and gates for irrigation canals.”

Making use of the local limited resources, Hinton developed farm tools, such as donkey dump carts. She also designed the milking system, farm machinery and irrigation systems. In the process of doing science for people’s livelihood, she made fun of herself: “once I devised a whole windmill by myself, when there was only a factory of 40 workers and nothing else. I designed and made all the parts of the windmill, but I forgot to make a brake. I remember that in March, the wind was rising. The windmill kept revolving and revolving… Bang! It broke off. It was really my first lesson.”

Hinton hoped that the technical improvement and mechanization could liberate farmers from back-breaking toil. In her article, “From a Farm Near Xian”(1963), she mentioned how she spent her time and energy working on the automatic milk pasteurizer: “I am working again on that continuous flow automatic milk pasteurizer which I started in 1958. The main purpose of the machine is to lighten the burden of our dairy workers who now have to pump thousands of pounds of milk a day through our present pasteurizer by hand. We had to stop working on the machine in 1958 because it was so difficult to get parts, but now conditions are much, much better. I can just go to the city and buy all sorts of things I couldn’t get before.”

Hinton has moved to the dairy farm near Beijing since the 1980s. She continues to devote herself to improve agricultural machinery, for example, designing a side opening milking parlor, computerizing a table of cow status, doing research on cattle semen and embryos in liquid nitrogen.

Hinton cherished her days of working together with farmers and workers to build a communal society. She recognized the power of “the hands of the people”: “everyone would do the most they could. Everyone developed to their full capacity. Everyone was busy. Everybody had a job. People weren’t exploiting each other.” As a people’s scientist, she longed for any place that “could put even more effort into construction, into building better homes for her people, into eliminating floods, into stabilizing crops, into bringing in machinery and transforming their land from one of despair and poverty into one of prosperity, enlightenment, a nation of scientists working for the enrichment of mankind.”

Hinton loves a society where everything is made by hand. She was deeply influenced by her mother, Carmelita Hinton, who founded a progressive secondary school, the Putney School, in USA which emphazied the virtues of the arts and physical fitness, and the outdoors and hard work. When she was four years old, her mother took her to Mexico, where they rode donkeys through the “hot country” escaping from bandits. They came back home safe except that they all got lice. Hinton could not forget that when she was a year 2 primary student, she learned carpentry, arithmetic and electronics, through a collective project of each child building his/her own house to make a small town full of various facilities such as post-office and shops.

When Hinton reminisced about her life, she affirmed her contributions: “I have taken part in two of the greatest things of the 20th century – the development of the atom bomb and the Chinese revolution. Who could ask for more?”

From making nuclear bomb to breeding livestock, Hinton demonstrates to us how an organic woman intellectual makes science work for peace and for the people. (1000PeaceWomen).


Development of Database and Establishment of Information Network for Agricultural Byproducts Processing, nApril 5, 2004;

NEWSLETTER CHINA SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY, by the Ministry of Science and Technology of the People’s Republic of China;

Agricultural engineering experts discuss promoting agricultural mechanization;

ASTI Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators;

International Seminar and Exhibition on Information and Communication Technology Applications for Agriculture/Rural Industry, and Agro-based Enterprise Development, 5-7 April 2004, Beijing, China.

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