Why are there no Han Chinese Fields Medalists?

IQ by country

I am specifically referring to Han Chinese from the People’s Republic of China (hereafter simply called “China,”) but wanted to keep the title to a reasonable length.

There are about a billion Han Chinese. They make up about 90% of the PRC, and they have some of the highest average IQs on the planet, with particularly good math scores.

Of the 56 Fields Medals (essentially, the Nobel for Math) awarded since 1936, 12 (21%) have been French. 14 or 15 have been Jewish, or 25%-27%.

By contrast, 0 have been Han Chinese from China itself.

France is a country of 67.15 million people, of whom about 51 million are native French. The world has about 14-17.5 million Jews. China has about 1.37 billion people, of whom 91.51% are Han, or about 1.25 billion.

Two relatively Chinese people have won Fields medals:

Shing-Tung Yau was born in China, but is of Hakka ancestry (the Hakka are an Asian “market-dominant minority,”) not Han. His parents moved to Hong Kong when he was a baby; after graduating from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, he moved to the US, where he received his PhD from Berkley. Yau was a citizen of British-owned Hong Kong (not the People’s Republic of China), when he won the Fields Medal, in 1982; today he holds American citizenship.

Terence Tao, the 2006 recipient, is probably Han (Wikipedia does not list his ethnicity.) His father hailed from Shanghai, China, but moved to Hong Kong, where he graduated from medical school and met Tao’s mother, another Hong Kong-ian. Tao himself was born in Australia and later moved to the US. (Tao appears to be a dual Australian-American citizen.)

(With only 7.4 million people, Hong Kong is doing pretty well for itself in terms of Fields Medalists with some form of HK ancestry or citizenship.)

Since not many Fields Medals have been awarded, it is understandable why the citizens of small countries, even very bright ones, like Singapore, might not have any. It’s also understandable why top talent often migrates to places like Hong Kong, Australia, or the US. But China is a huge country with a massive pool of incredibly smart people–just look at Shanghai’s PISA scores. Surely Beijing has at least a dozen universities filled with math geniuses.

So where are they?

Is it a matter of funding? Has China chosen to funnel its best mathematicians into applied work? A matter of translation? Does the Fields Medal Committee have trouble reading papers written in Chinese? A matter of time? Did China’s citizens simply spent too much of the of the past century struggling at the edge of starvation to send a bunch of kids off to university to study math, and only recently achieved the level of mass prosperity necessary to start on the Fields path?

Whatever the causes of current under-representation, I have no doubt the next century will show an explosion in Han Chinese mathematical accomplishments.

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