Center for the History of Global Development

Sowing Seeds and Knowledge: 

Agrarian Development in the US, Mainland China, Taiwan, and the World, 1920-1980

This project explores how ideas and practices of development changed China and became transformed themselves as they were disseminated across China and the world. For example, the authorities in Taiwan initiated the US-funded Operation Vanguard (先鋒案 xianfeng an) in 1961, sending Taiwanese agricultural and rural experts to introduce new seeds, organize farmers associations, and teach modern farming practices to over two dozen decolonizing nations in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia.

At first glance, Vanguard appeared to be a story of US-backed Cold War politics, with the Taiwanese providing a front for American currency and development methods. However, Vanguard officials deftly highlighted the unique aspects of Taiwanese development that separated it from American and Communist methods. Vanguard practitioners pointed to the success Taiwan achieved in the 1950s through their own path of development, a model they claimed was more suited for developing nations because of Taiwan’s own agrarian-based economy and subtropical environment. Yet complicating this narrative was the origin of many of those ideas in the diffusion of American thought into China in the early 20th century that was then carried over to Taiwan by Chinese Nationalist (Guomindang) experts. These ideas became localized and then retransmitted in a manner representative of how development unfolded as a global project.

This is a history of international development, spanning global currents but also deeply grounded in local archival research. Based on two and a half years of researching Chinese, English, French, and Vietnamese documents from over twenty libraries and archives in five countries, this project answers how development actually unfolded and became transformed on the ground in the Global South through transnational networks and transmissions of knowledge. It highlights the agency of developing nations in coopting and transforming transnational development ideas and practices. Scientists, social scientists, and intellectuals in China began adopting American ideas of plant breeding, social organization, and land reform and putting them into practice. During the Cold War after many of these experts fled in 1949 to Taiwan, they exported these practices abroad as part of the Taiwan development model. This South-to-South history seems unexpected from a Western-centric perspective, and my work answers how it occurred and why. Ultimately, it sheds light on a key narrative of the 20th century, and that is how intellectuals and technical experts have attempted to modernize the agrarian, postcolonial state through development.

Researcher: James Lin