I wrote this to Steve Hsu after he discussed the matter in the title of this post to me.
I saw a wechat moment involving 吴文俊 Wu Wenjun who did seminal work in algebraic topology and later automated theorem proving who I mentioned.
The Chinese who first did seminal work in modern science tended to be in pure math the field that is aside from a brain at the far tail arguably lowest barrier to entry. In theoretical physics the arbiter is experimental validation so there is more politics/connections/cred involved whereas for pure math if the proof is correct then it’s absolute truth.
Before 1950 Chinese in pure math already produced SS Chern (differential geometry) Hua Luogeng (analytic number theory and some other fields too to be fair he may well have been smarter and also more discerning than Terry Tao) Weiliang Chow (algebraic geometry) Wu Wenjun (algebraic topology), Chern and Chow stayed in US after PRC was founded while Hua and Wu returned. Hua’s student Chen Jingrun proved best current result towards Goldbach conjecture (every sufficiently large even number is sum of two primes or sum of prime and semiprime). I read that he and his students in the 50s in China did some seminal work in several complex variables that was published as a monograph that was translated to Russian and then English. Also Zhang Yitang’s breakthrough started with his learning the work of Chen Jingrun as a teenager on his own before he went to college at age 23.
To be fair pure math got only more abstract and esoteric and divorced from the rest of science after WWII. Chinese mathematicians were still kind of minor the really mainstream stuff was happening in US France USSR Japan. To my take it was really only Chern who really revolutionized math and he was born in 1911.
As for physics aside from Yang and Lee in theory I know there was a guy 赵忠尧 who experimentally discovered but likely didn’t fully explain the positron in the early 30s (at Caltech I believe), I think he had to go back to China after getting his PhD and if not for that likely he would’ve done more there and maybe actually gotten full credit for that thing. Back then there was just much more low hanging fruit. Nowadays we’ve kind of reached a bottleneck in science.
In experimental physics I also know of 王淦昌 who led a team that discovered some particle while in USSR in late 50s but it was not quite Nobel prize level maybe close. And of course there were some ethnic Chinese in US like Steven Chu who did win Nobel in experimental physics.
Certainly it was very difficult to do such level work in China or in the four Asian tigers due to lack of powerful scientific community at the forefront in those places. I think Japan was different after WWII they already had first rate science of their own by then. So naturally the best Chinese in pure science were the ones who went to US and stayed before PRC or went the Taiwan/HK route afterward. Mainland China really only had access to USSR in 50s and also during that era the best people tended to be pressured into applied work.
Again the era of fundamental advances seems to be kind of over. There hasn’t been much serious breakthrough in science and technology since end of cold war. World Wide Web and AI doesn’t really count in my view. Nothing compared to semiconductors and satellites and computers and lasers which all happened during cold war. AI is just a natural product of advances in computing power and GPUs.
My Indian friend also said that Indians did better in pure physics than Chinese due to Brit education. CV Raman Bose Chandrasekhar their elite got into modern science arguably earlier than the Japanese too let alone the Chinese. Modern science is a Western thing East Asians just got into it quite late with Chinese much later than Japanese and Koreans even later really.
Access and tradition matters a lot too it’s not just about g or the right maverick personality. It’s just too bad that East Asians didn’t create modern science or anything close to it on their own despite obviously being quite gifted in it based on their achievements after they got into that stuff. But not long after it became kind of saturated.
You’re free to publish this on your blog credit me for it of course.