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University of Pittsburgh

Application in Research

From a Revolutionary Invention to a Market-Economy Product:
5406 Bacterial Fertilizer and a Technopolitical History of Development in the PRC

 Qingyi Yin (University of Washington) and Zhaojin Zeng (Duke Kunshan University)

Abstract: The Type 5406 Fertilizer, discovered by a group of Chinese agricultural scientists in 1953, was the first bacterial fertilizer in the world made of clover root extracts. First in the Great Leap Forward and then in the early 1970s, the 5406 bacterial fertilizers were hailed as a revolutionary solution to boosting China’s grain output. To increase fertilizer production, enthusiastic peasants, rural cadres and technicians, and sent-down youth constructed small plants and factories across the country. These experimental facilities, while failing to induce an agricultural revolution, became a symbol of rural industrialization that began to yield mushrooms for neighboring urban markets in the 1980s. Drawing on a wide range of regional primary sources, such as village and township gazetteers, film and video materials, and local government documents, this paper recounts the 5406 bacterial fertilizers’ transformative journey from a socialist invention to market-economy goods over the second half of the twentieth century. It explicates how the changing social, technical, and economic forces on the ground shaped its continuous developmental trajectories despite political turbulences and ideological change. Adopting a micro-historical perspective on fertilizers and rural economic life, this paper tells a larger story of how China’s technopolitical development has been driven by a mix of contentious relations between politics and development, technology and everyday life, grassroots entrepreneurship and the national economy.