Solving For Creativity

Li Junfeng, a wide-faced, moppy-haired 23-year-old earning a doctorate in mathematics at one of China's top universities, has a problem. When he sits in his cramped dorm room talking with his fellow students about their dreams for the future, he says, "we always end up discussing these famous people." He rattles off a list of great thinkers who have solved history's most complicated math mysteries. The names are American, French, German, but not Chinese. "The Chinese we don't talk about," Li says matter-of-factly. "There aren't that many famous ones."

It's a problem that vexes some of China's brightest minds: why is China so far behind the world in math? After all, this is a country with a long intellectual tradition, one that invented the abacus and may have come up with the Pythagorean theorem before it dawned on Pythagoras. Sure, Chinese high-school students consistently dazzle the world with sky-high standardized-test scores and gold medals at the International Mathematical Olympiad. But high school seems to be where they peak. Chinese scholars have contributed virtually nothing to modern mathematics research, say academics, and even optimists acknowledge the country is at least a decade behind the cutting edge.

Only one Chinese-born mathematician has won the Fields Medal, the Nobel Prize of math, in its 70-year history. And that man, Yau Shingtung, is among those most worried. Now a professor at Harvard, he was stunned after recently interviewing a faculty candidate at a prominent Chinese university. "A student at that level, I wouldn't even give a master's degree," he said. "I'm not pessimistic, but the problems are there."

Many of China's leading minds believe the problem rests in the country's competitive, test-driven education system. Primary and secondary schools stress rote memorization, and they can be brutally unforgiving of creative mavericks--one bad test early in life can ruin a student's chances for college. At the doctoral level, this has resulted in low-risk, derivative research. "When students get into the university, we have to change their way of thinking," laments Bai Fengshan, deputy chairman of the math department at Qinghua, China's MIT. "The important thing is to be creative, but because they've had to focus on the exams, they spend most of their time following rules."

At the same time, Chinese scholars have generally been reluctant to reach out to their foreign colleagues for advice--or criticism. In France, Germany, the United States, and most other math superpowers, international review of research is standard. In such a specialized field it's the only way to have thorough critiques and worthwhile collaborations. But Chinese scholars have resisted this practice, and not just because of the country's long-held skepticism toward foreign interference. Those in charge of determining how to rate research--usually older, entrenched professors--are often those who would suffer most from opening up the system. So quite often, Chinese universities simply tally the number of papers someone has published when it comes time to decide promotions. The result is that many Chinese scholars publish more mediocre papers and less groundbreaking work.

That mediocrity could impair China's technological ambitions. The country hopes to be more than a factory to the world; Beijing wants its own high-tech centers to rival Silicon Valley. But many of the greatest innovations come from people in laboratories doing pure research. Sure, a country full of high-school-math whizzes can offer the world millions of qualified computer programmers. But if China truly wants to become a high-tech player, then its students must be able to create cutting-edge technology--not simply serve it.

China's mathematicians may still be able to solve for these variables. People like Yang are fighting to change the rules for promoting professors. At his academy, for example, the three-person evaluation panels now must include two overseas experts. Perhaps even more promising, Chinese universities are going beyond the elite city colleges and into the impoverished countryside in search of future Chinese Newtons and Nashes. Harvard's Yau helped establish a mathematics institute in Hong Kong where, he says, some of the students producing the most creative work are the ones from the countryside or the poorest mainland schools.

Back in his dorm room, Li, the young doctoral student, imagines what it would be like to win the Fields Medal. "Every young mathematician has that dream. I have the dream," says Li. Maybe he also has what it takes. He is, after all, from the countryside.