PROWESS Honors China’s First Female Geologist

Leading up to AAPG’s centennial in 2017, the Professional Women in Earth Sciences’ (PROWESS) Pioneer Women committee has been researching the nation’s first female petroleum geologists, focusing primarily on the AAPG’s earliest members and publishing their biographies in the EXPLORER.

Along the way, the PROWESS committee has broadened its scope to include geologists from other countries. In doing so, they stumbled upon an eye-catching fact: Women in the United States became petroleum geologists much earlier than women in other countries – most likely because of freedoms and cultural dynamics so powerfully associated with America.

AAPG can trace its first woman member back to 1918, whereas in other countries, women began studying and practicing geology decades later.

China is one of those countries. The PROWESS committee recently discovered China’s first female petroleum geologist, Yang Yi, who began studying geology in the 1940s.

Although Yang is now 93 and unable to recall much of her life because of Alzheimer’s disease, her husband and daughter sat down with Chinese petroleum historian Ma Zhen last year to tell her story. Her husband died shortly after the interview.

AAPG member Guonong Hu, a project geological adviser at Anadarko Petroleum, found Ma’s article in July and translated it for the PROWESS committee.

“There are very few articles written about Chinese geologists in the West,” Hu said. “But if you look at their lives, they have the same kind of dedication to the science as people from any other country. Yang is remarkable, because not only is she China’s first female petroleum geologist, she is the first female geologist.”

Yang defied her parents’ wishes to join the family business and ran away to escape the Japanese occupation of China and to attend one of few elite colleges that would teach women geology. She endured imprisonment and bombings to pursue her degree and perform fieldwork, which would eventually open up one of China’s earliest oil fields – only to have her career cut short by the Anti-Rightist Movement in 1957 and the subsequent Cultural Revolution of 1966.

“Her story touched me greatly,” said past AAPG president Robbie Gries, president of Priority Oil and Gas in Denver, “not only because she endured the Cultural Revolution, but the fact that she struggled just to get a geology degree. I can’t think of any women in the United States who have had that kind of challenge.”


The following biography of Yang Yi is adapted from an April 18, 2014 article by Ma Zhen titled, “China’s First Female Petroleum Explorationist – Yang Yi.”

Born into a relatively wealthy family in 1920 in Anxin, in the Hebei Province of northern China, Yang Yi enjoyed comforts that many of her peers did not. When her family moved to Beijing she took martial arts classes as a teenager and watched her siblings – one by one – join the family’s well-known textile business.

Described as “tenacious” and having a “rebellious spirit,” Yang longed for a more independent life.

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Leading up to AAPG’s centennial in 2017, the Professional Women in Earth Sciences’ (PROWESS) Pioneer Women committee has been researching the nation’s first female petroleum geologists, focusing primarily on the AAPG’s earliest members and publishing their biographies in the EXPLORER.

Along the way, the PROWESS committee has broadened its scope to include geologists from other countries. In doing so, they stumbled upon an eye-catching fact: Women in the United States became petroleum geologists much earlier than women in other countries – most likely because of freedoms and cultural dynamics so powerfully associated with America.

AAPG can trace its first woman member back to 1918, whereas in other countries, women began studying and practicing geology decades later.

China is one of those countries. The PROWESS committee recently discovered China’s first female petroleum geologist, Yang Yi, who began studying geology in the 1940s.

Although Yang is now 93 and unable to recall much of her life because of Alzheimer’s disease, her husband and daughter sat down with Chinese petroleum historian Ma Zhen last year to tell her story. Her husband died shortly after the interview.

AAPG member Guonong Hu, a project geological adviser at Anadarko Petroleum, found Ma’s article in July and translated it for the PROWESS committee.

“There are very few articles written about Chinese geologists in the West,” Hu said. “But if you look at their lives, they have the same kind of dedication to the science as people from any other country. Yang is remarkable, because not only is she China’s first female petroleum geologist, she is the first female geologist.”

Yang defied her parents’ wishes to join the family business and ran away to escape the Japanese occupation of China and to attend one of few elite colleges that would teach women geology. She endured imprisonment and bombings to pursue her degree and perform fieldwork, which would eventually open up one of China’s earliest oil fields – only to have her career cut short by the Anti-Rightist Movement in 1957 and the subsequent Cultural Revolution of 1966.

“Her story touched me greatly,” said past AAPG president Robbie Gries, president of Priority Oil and Gas in Denver, “not only because she endured the Cultural Revolution, but the fact that she struggled just to get a geology degree. I can’t think of any women in the United States who have had that kind of challenge.”


The following biography of Yang Yi is adapted from an April 18, 2014 article by Ma Zhen titled, “China’s First Female Petroleum Explorationist – Yang Yi.”

Born into a relatively wealthy family in 1920 in Anxin, in the Hebei Province of northern China, Yang Yi enjoyed comforts that many of her peers did not. When her family moved to Beijing she took martial arts classes as a teenager and watched her siblings – one by one – join the family’s well-known textile business.

Described as “tenacious” and having a “rebellious spirit,” Yang longed for a more independent life.

Japan’s occupation of parts of China, including its coastal areas, in 1937 became the catalyst for Yang’s desire to move away from home. So did news of a university opening in Kunming in the Yunnan Province in south China, which was still under Chinese control.

The National Southwestern Associated University opened its doors in 1937 as a temporary school that merged the nation’s most elite academic institutions, including Peking, Tsinghua and Nankai universities, which were then located in areas occupied by the Japanese.

Lying to her mother, Yang left home and sought aid from the French embassy to buy a boat ticket to Vietnam, a viable detour to Kunming. Nabbed by Japanese military police before she could escape, she was whipped, tortured and imprisoned – only to be released after her family paid a bribe.

Fearing that the stunt Yang pulled – combined with her brother’s involvement with an anti-Japanese organization – would cast more vigilant eyes on their family, Yang’s parents moved the family to Shanghai for a more low-key existence. Yang remained in Beijing long enough to complete her senior year of high school and receive her diploma before heading to Shanghai.

However, she remained determined to attend Southwestern Associated, but her application materials arrived too late. Instead, she applied to an agricultural school in Yunnan and was accepted. Yang left Shanghai not knowing that would be the last time she would see her beloved mother, who later died of unreported causes.

Yang boarded a ship to Haiphong, Vietnam, and traveled from Haiphong to Hanoi, and then to Hekou, China before arriving in Kunming.

Upon arrival in 1940, “She was in tears because she was finally out of the devil’s shadow,” Ma wrote, referring to the Japanese occupation of China.

Geology Bound

Rather than attending the agricultural school, Yang learned that Southwestern Associated was recruiting new students, so she applied and was accepted by the Department of Physics. A year later she transferred to the geology department, determined to work in the field despite the fact that no other female student had taken such a path.

Coincidentally, Yang’s future husband, Zhang Jiahuan, transferred to the geology department after his civil engineering courses failed to interest him. The two were paired to perform fieldwork for their senior theses and fell deeply in love as they mapped areas near the village of Kebocun.

After graduation in 1945, the Gobi Desert – home to the promising Yumen Oilfield in the Gansu Province – beckoned. There was a desperate shortage of geologists to work the site.

“Few women chose to study geology. Even fewer chose field investigation in the middle of a wasteland,” Ma wrote. But Yang and her new husband grabbed the opportunity. Both believed that if oil could be produced domestically, it could help China defeat the Japanese.

The two rode on the back of a truck from Chongqing in southwestern China to the Yumen Oilfield. Poor roads made the roughly 1,500-mile journey last an entire month. After reaching Lanzhou, the capital of the Gansu Province, both bought old sheepskin coats to keep warm. As the truck moved along slowly, the landscape became more inhospitable – and the weather, worse.

“Bound with love in their hearts and a common ideal, this young couple was full of optimism and pride,” Ma wrote.

Eight geology graduates, including Yang and Zhang, were sent to the Yumen Oilfield to work as China’s first petroleum geological exploration team. Yang was the only woman. They were led by Sun Jianchu, who discovered the field in 1938 and is considered the earliest pioneer of Chinese petroleum geology.

Life in the Field

The team’s first assignment consisted of fieldwork, reviewing geological papers and writing reports. Witnessing her natural love for geology, Sun gave Yang extra guidance in the field.

Ironically, he treated her strictly as well, forbidding her – a serious scientist – to sing Beijing opera when he learned that she performed on a small stage one night at the encouragement of her friends. After that, she never sang again.

In early 1946, the Exploration Department of the Gansu Oilfield Bureau was established in Lanzhou, with Sun as its director. Sun led his team, which included Yang, to conduct detailed fieldwork and structural mapping in areas surrounding the Laojunmiao oil field in the Yumen area of the Gansu Province. This required her to extensively study structure and stratigraphy.

“This was the first time that Yang Yi did real field investigations, realizing her dream to be a geological explorationist,” Ma wrote. “Perhaps she did not realize this at the time, but when she traveled through the Gobi wilderness on horseback, Yang Yi made history – she became the first Chinese woman petroleum geologist.”

Old and grainy photos show Yang working in a hot field – sometimes during sandstorms – with her hair pulled back in thick braids. At night she slept in a tent where it was not uncommon for the piercing green eyes of wolves to surround her camp. Like her male counterparts, Yang would pick up a gun and shoot when they ventured close enough to become a threat.

Picking Up Speed

After several months of fieldwork, she and her colleagues authored the “Geological Report on the Qingcaowan Structure,” a first report of its kind for a new area. It essentially laid the foundation for future exploration work and exploratory wells.

Yang then participated in detailed geological investigations along the northern front of Qilian Mountain and provided a wealth of data that helped develop the Yumen oil field.

In 1947, Yin Zanxun, the director of the paleontology department of the National Geological Survey (also known as the founding father of Chinese paleontology) began collaborating with Yang’s team. They studied the fossils of Qilian Mountain to establish formation ages.

“The survey areas were vast and deep into the mountains. The work became hard. Down in the valleys, the weather was dry and hot, but up in the mountaintops, the weather was windy and chilly to the bone,” Ma wrote. “They even climbed to the main peak of Qilian Mountain to observe ice bridges.”

Studying fossils opened up a natural affinity for paleontology for Yang, who quickly became adept at identifying fossils. Her career began to segue into the fields of stratigraphy and paleontology. In 1948, Yang was sent to Nanjing – the capital of China at the time – to identify large amounts of fossil specimens gathered by her exploration team over the years.

Yet in 1949, the Chinese Civil War interrupted her work, and she was sent to Lanzhou for safety reasons, but not before protecting the team’s data and property.

Breaking More Ground

In 1950, Yang was assigned to teach paleontology at Tsinghua University, a comprehensive institute of science and engineering – similar to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – that was founded in Beijing.

The following year, her former exploration department moved from Lanzhou to Beijing under the Petroleum Administration Bureau of the State Council.

Although Yang was in Beijing, her husband remained in northwest China to continue his exploration efforts. By this time, they had a daughter, whom Yang raised temporarily by herself.

For the first time in China’s history, a petroleum engineering department was formed at Tsinghua University in 1952 to help meet the nation’s needs for hydrocarbons. A year later, the Beijing Petroleum Institute was founded. A well-known geologist, Zhang Geng, was appointed chair of the institute’s Geology Department, and Yang was appointed deputy chair.

“Few women made it to the position of department chair in the extremely hierarchical Chinese academic world,” Ma wrote. “In the male-dominated field of geology, what Yang Yi achieved can only be described as groundbreaking.”

In 1995, Yang’s husband joined her at the Petroleum Institute as a lecturer of physical geology. Having been married 10 years and starting off married life together in a tent, the two finally moved into a house in the nation’s capital.

“What did not change was their pursuit of geology. Yang Yi worked tirelessly like a machine every day,” Ma wrote, explaining that she helped launch the geology department by compiling teaching materials and conducting scientific research.

End of an Era

Just when the future looked brighter than ever for Yang, China was on the brink of becoming a victim of additional political turmoil with the arrival of the Anti-Rightist Movement in 1957. Along with roughly 300,000 Chinese intellectuals, Yang was convicted as a rightist and prosecuted under Chairman Mao Zedong’s Anti-Rightist Movement.

Her scientific career cut short, Yang was relegated to less meaningful work, and her home was raided numerous times. The maps and reports she worked so arduously to compile throughout her career were confiscated.

Although her conviction was overturned in 1979, she was at the age of retirement. However, she still managed to compile and co-author two publications: the “English-Chinese Geology Dictionary” and “English-Chinese Petroleum Dictionary.”

Today at 93, she has lost most of her memory to Alzheimer’s disease. In an effort to save as many pieces of Yang’s life and work as possible, her family and friends rummaged through an old warehouse of confiscated goods from the Cultural Revolution and managed to find a few photos of China’s first female geologist.

Unfortunately, none of her scholarly papers remain.

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