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Idyllic Setting for Extraordinary Accomplishments

 Photo by Zhang Xuefei  

THE modern Gothic building at 320 Yueyang Road has been a palace of scientific progress since its completion in the summer of 1931.

“Shanghai Institute of Science, a young but already full-fledged organization which is doing work that is both valuable and interesting” — this is how the North-China Herald described the building in an article dated August 7, 1935.

The building’s history spans multiple eras, but has always been focused on science. The institute was erected by the Japanese and after World War II it was taken over by the Kuomintang and renamed Academia Sinica in 1945.

In 1949, the new government changed it to the Shanghai branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), which later became the academy’s Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences in 1999.

According to the 1992 book “A Guide to Shanghai’s Modern Architecture,” the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs conceived two important projects in China — a Chinese cultural center in Beijing and a natural sciences research institute in Shanghai.

Due to some opposition, only the science institute was realized.

“Japanese used funds from the Boxer Indemnity to build this institute to enhance their influence in China,” says Tongji University professor Zheng Shiling.

According to the North-China Herald report, 120 staff members were carrying out scientific research on urgent questions “within this beautiful building, which is surrounded by spacious and lovely gardens.” Many of them were graduates of universities who had been recommended by their professors.

“The first group of specially appointed scholars, who worked before the present fine laboratories, libraries and lecture halls were anything more than a dream, conducted studies of the Chinese parmacopeia, fish of the Yangtze, fermentation fungi products in China and products of fermentation, epidemics and endemics in China, geology of regions south of the Yangtze, natural inorganic compounds, and terrestrial gravitation and magnetism in China,” the report noted.

‘Building of characters’ 

Perched on a 17-acre lawn, the three-story modern structure is imposing and dignified, featuring “airy, light, modernly equipped laboratories, fine libraries and an excellent auditorium.” Construction materials, including the scratched tiles used for exterior finishing, were shipped from Japan. This solid steel-and-concrete structure was designed to withstand a magnitude-eight earthquake.

According to archives of the institutes, the building was constructed by a Chinese builder named Qi Xielin, who was famous for his attention to quality. To ensure the adhesive strength of the concrete, his team cleaned the stones as carefully as most people washed rice. The construction is still so solid that modern workers have complained about the difficulty in drilling through its walls to install air conditioners.

“This is a building of characters,” professor Zheng says. “Its designer, the Japanese architect Yoshikazu Uchida who graduated from Tokyo Imperial University in 1907, also designed the university’s new campus in the 1920s, including the engineering building and the main library. The Shanghai institute building has striking similarities to the Tokyo university library, such as its numerous vertical lines, porch capitals and simplified Corinthian Orders; all of them exquisitely designed.”

This imposing building was a huge maze for Li Xiaoliu when he was a child. He spent his childhood on the grounds of 320 Yueyang Road. He later spent decades working in the building before he retired as Party secretary of the two institutes.

“I often snuck into the building to play hide-and-seek with my friends,” recalls Li, whose famous historian father, Li Yanong, was the first director of the institute after 1949 and lived in a villa a stone’s threw from its main building.

“The building looked so mysterious in our eyes ... It was so big and complicated and had so many rooms and labs. I often couldn’t find a way out from this ‘maze’,” Li says.

“The spacious yard was designed in Japanese style, which featured big gardens planted with Japanese sakura, lots of greenery and was sprinkled with only a few buildings. Now new buildings have taken up the former gardens. Chen Yi, Shanghai’s first mayor after 1949, loved to visit the yard during the sakura blossom season and play chess with my father,” he adds.

When Li’s father was assigned to take over Kuomintang’s Academia Sinica in June 1949, around 60 of the former 81 academicians chose to stay in Shanghai to work for the new government. The others went to Taiwan or overseas with the Kuomintang regime.

In the following decades, the building witnessed milestone scientific breakthroughs in China. It’s where Chinese scientists first created artificial insulin, artificial DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and succeeded with artificial Parthenogenesis (cloning). The latter achievement was documented in a popular scientific movie titled “Toad Without a Maternal Grandfather” in the 1960s.

A galaxy of renowned Chinese scientists, including biochemist Wang Yinglai, biologist Zhu Xi and physiologist Feng Depei, all worked in the building. The porch graced by a line of beautiful Gothic arches is a favorite backdrop for scientists to take group photos following seminars in Shanghai.

“Several first prizes in the State Natural Science Awards were born in this building,” Li adds.

Earlier this year in a seminar commemorating the 454th birthday of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) scientist Xu Guangqi, whom Xujiahui is named after, Fudan University professor Li Tiangang noted how far-sighted Xu was when he called for the founding of an institution akin to the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

“Jesuit Johann Schreck, who brought the telescope to China, was No. 18 academician of the scientific society in Rome, while Galileo Galilei was the No. 17 academician. If China had followed Xu’s advice, the Chinese academy’s history could rival with the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the French Academy and China would have risen during the 17th and 18th centuries,” he says.

In recent years Li Xiaoliu has been invited to give orientation speeches to young scientists new to the institute, which has more than 2,000 employees today. He often kicks off his talk with the history of 320 Yueyang Road and then to the life stories of several patriotic scientists who made remarkable achievements in this Gothic building.

“The science institute is not just a place for creation and innovation. Here, this building is also a home to pass down the scientific spirit,” Li said to the young scientists.

Building No. 11  

Address: 319 Yueyang Rd

This three-story British country-style villa, built in 1928, once served as the French Consulate in Shanghai. The building became the Shanghai branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1956. Many government heads have visited the building, including former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Kim II-sung, former president of North Korea.

Building No. 16 

Address: 320 Yueyang Rd

This three-story villa is where historian Li Ya’nong, the institute’s first director after 1949, lived. Today it serves as an administration building.  

(Source: Shanghai Daily, by Michelle Qiao )

320 Yue Yang Road Shanghai, 200031 P.R.China
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