Zhao Jiuzhang: The Father of China’s Satellites and His Tragic End

Jhao Jiuzhang and his wife.
Zhao Jiuzhang, a renowned Chinese meteorologist, geophysicist, and space physicist is hailed as the 'Father of Chinese Satellites.' (Image: via Public Domain)

Zhao Jiuzhang, a renowned Chinese meteorologist, geophysicist, and space physicist is hailed as the ‘Father of Chinese Satellites.’ However, in the quiet of the night on October 26, 1968, this internationally acclaimed scientist took his own life at his home in Zhongguancun, Beijing. He was 61. Today, we delve into the life of Zhao Jiuzhang and the circumstances that led to his tragic end.

The early years: A brilliant scholar

Born on October 15, 1907, in Kaifeng, Henan, Zhao Jiuzhang was a top student. He entered Henan’s preparatory class to study in Europe and America as the top student in September 1922. In August 1929, he was admitted to the Physics Department of Tsinghua University, ranking fourth among 174 male students.

Due to his outstanding academic performance, Zhao Jiuzhang was highly appreciated by Physics Professor Ye Qisun. In 1935, he ventured to the University of Berlin, Germany, to specialize in dynamic meteorology and high-altitude meteorology, earning his doctorate in 1938 with excellent grades.

Numerous achievements marked Zhao Jiuzhang’s life. (Image: Public Domain)

Zhao Jiuzhang’s significant achievements

Numerous achievements marked Zhao Jiuzhang’s life, but three stand out:

1. Pioneer of Chinese meteorological science

Zhao Jiuzhang wrote China’s first lecture notes on dynamic meteorology, established the Joint Weather Analysis Forecast Center and Joint Climate Data Center, and led wave research, significantly contributing to China’s wave forecast research. He laid the foundation for the development of China’s numerical weather forecasting.

2. Leader of Chinese geophysics

As the first director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geophysics, Zhao Jiuzhang attracted many talented people and he paid attention to talent cultivation, which rapidly improved the academic level of the institute and expanded its academic fields.

3. Chief designer of China’s first satellite

From 1957, Zhao Jiuzhang actively advocated the development of China’s satellites. In 1965, the Communist Party of China approved the plan to develop the first satellite. As the institute’s president responsible for implementing the satellite development plan, he played a crucial role in the overall plan and critical technology research.

The Cultural Revolution and its consequences

In May 1966, the Communist Party of China launched the Cultural Revolution, a significant disaster for Chinese intellectuals. Many senior intellectuals returning from abroad were labeled “American-Jiang spies” and subjected to humiliation, insults, and physical abuse. Zhao Jiuzhang was stripped of his power and often paraded through the streets with a large sign around his neck that read “Reactionary Academic Authority Zhao Jiuzhang.”

His final days

In 1968, ZhaoJiuzhang was sent to a Red Guard brigade in the suburbs of Beijing for labor reform. Despite the physical and emotional torment, Zhao Jiuzhang’s passion for satellite research did not diminish. However, when he learned of the brutal killing of rocket material expert Yao Tongbin in June 1968, his heart was shattered, and he saw no glimmer of hope. On the night of October 25, 1968, he swallowed dozens of sleeping pills he had saved and quietly lay on his bed, leaving the world without a word.

Two specific reasons led to Zhao Jiuzhang’s tragedy. First, he was the nephew of Dai Jitao, a Kuomintang elder. Second, he was considered a “cousin” of Kuomintang member Chiang Wei-kuo. In the extreme left-wing frenzy of the Cultural Revolution, the Kuomintang was labeled “reactionary.” Being associated with the “Kuomintang reactionaries” was deemed unacceptable, leading to Zhao’s tragic fate.

In 1999, Zhao Jiuzhang was posthumously awarded the title “Meritorious Figure of Two Bombs and One Satellite” by the Chinese Communist Party. However, whether this title is a form of compensation or a cover-up for tyranny remains a question.

On April 24, 1970, China’s first artificial satellite, Dongfanghong-1, was successfully launched into space. Unfortunately, Zhao Jiuzhang did not live to see it. (Image: Public Domain)

In closing

Zhao Jiuzhang’s life and tragic end serve as a stark reminder of the devastating impact of political turmoil on scientific progress and personal lives. His contributions to Chinese meteorology, geophysics, and space physics are undeniable, but his life was tragically cut short by the tumultuous events of the Cultural Revolution. His story is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity and a call for the protection of intellectual freedom and human dignity.

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