Exploring the Influential Legacy of Dr. Zhu Zuxiang

Widely considered the founder of the soil chemistry discipline in China, Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences alumnus Dr. Zhu Zuxiang (Chu, Tsu-Siang), Ph.D. (’46, ’48), exemplifies the reach of CANR’s global impact.

Since the first international student was welcomed to campus in 1873, MSU has been a destination for tens of thousands of students and scholars from around the world. For over 150 years, these students have brought with them a wealth of knowledge, experiences, and cultures that have enriched the entire MSU community.

The Office of China Programs has launched a series highlighting stories about Spartan students, faculty and alumni from China, including a recent profile about Dr. Zhu Zuxiang, Ph.D. (’46, ’48), a distinguished alumnus of the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences (PSM).

After completing his education at MSU, Zuxiang went on to become a prominent academic leader in China. He is credited as being the founder of the field of soil science in China and served as president of Zhejiang Agricultural University from 1980-1983.

“PSM is proud of our longstanding impact to the global soil science community. We are proud of all our alumni and particularly, Dr. Zhu Zuxiang, for his influential work in China,” says Dr. Brian Horgan, the Chairperson of the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences.

Zuxiang’s Journey at MSU

Zuxiang was born in Cixi, China, a city located in the north of the Zhejiang Province. In middle school, his teachers inspired an early interest in science and technology. He graduated from the College of Agriculture in Zhejiang University in 1938. At a time of great turmoil during World War II, Zhejiang University was forced to move west and Zuxiang played a critical role in transferring all of the College of Agriculture’s materials, instruments, and equipment to its new location. This massive undertaking earned him special recognition for his courage and commitment.

 In the final year of World War II (1945), he decided to pursue his graduate studies at MSU, then known as Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science. He earned a master's degree (1946) and Ph.D. in soil science (1948), with a minor in plant physiology and surface chemistry.

At MSU, Zuxiang distinguished himself among the faculty and his fellow students for his work ethic and academic achievements. He regularly gave up summer and winter holidays to spend more time in the agricultural chemistry lab or take additional courses. It took only three years for Zuxiang to complete his dissertation and he exceeded the doctoral degree requirement by 30 course credits. During his graduate studies he served as the president of the MSU Chinese Student Association. His leadership connected many fellow students from China to social activities on campus and helped to foster a special relationship between the growing group of Chinese students and the wider MSU community.

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Zhu Zuxiang and his wife Zhao Mingqiang on campus at MSU.

In 1947, the president of Zhejiang University visited MSU for a lecture and met with Zuxiang personally. He urged him to return and teach at his alma mater after finishing his doctoral. Despite receiving more lucrative offers from other Chinese universities, Zuxiang chose to return to Zhejiang University and was appointed a full professor in the College of Agriculture at just 33 years old.

A trailblazing soil scientist

Zuxiang became known as the founder of soil chemistry in China for his pioneering research innovations. Throughout his career, he focused on the availability of exchangeable cations and their influencing factors in soil. His scientific contributions garnered international acclaim, particularly for introducing two new concepts: the saturation effect and co-ion effect. These insights advanced a greater understanding of the dynamic changes in soil available nutrients and their influencing factors. His was regularly cited by U.S. soil science textbooks and international scientific papers, significantly advancing the teaching and research of soil science.

A prolific scholar, Zuxiang wrote nearly 90 scientific papers, books, and translations, including some of the earliest soil science textbooks in China. Many of the theories and technologies developed by Zuxiang played a vital role in improving agricultural science, technology, and agricultural productivity in China.

“Dr. Zhu Zuxiang’s achievement is inspirational for young scientists. He is a role model for his students and even a wider community across China,” says Dr. Zhu Yong-guan, a prominent soil scientist from Chinese Academy of Sciences, who is an academician of the Academic Divisions of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the recipient of the 2022 International Union of Soil Sciences Von Liebig Award.

Zuxiang consistently engaged in outreach activities, including leading the national soil survey and soil diagnostic research cooperation group and carrying out a large number of rapid chemical tests on soil and crop nutrients. During his tenure as vice president of Zhejiang Agricultural University, he was responsible for establishing the first environmental protection department in an agricultural college in China.

His work earned him numerous awards and academic honors throughout his career. In 1980, he was elected as an academician of the Academic Divisions of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (like a member of the US National Academy of Science). He served as a member of the general editorial board of Agricultural Encyclopedia of China, the chair of the editorial board for the Soil Volume of Agricultural Encyclopedia of China and editorial board of International Tropical Agriculture. He also received scientific and technological recognitions from the Zhejiang Provincial Government, the Provincial Science Conference, the Provincial Education Committee, and the National Education Committee.

“Seek truth, seek kindness”

Zuxiang played an active role in public service. In 1980, under the direction from the China’s Ministry of Agriculture, Zuxiang served as the vice chair of the preparation committee for establishment of the China National Rice Research Institute. In 1981, the project received support from the National Sixth Five-Year Plan and a special long-term interest-free loan from the World Bank. In 1983, Zuxiang was appointed as the first director of the China National Rice Research Institute by the Ministry of Agriculture.

He held positions as Vice President of both the Soil and Fertilizer Research Society of the China Association of Agricultural Science Societies and the Soil Science Society of China. Additionally, he served as a representative to the eighth National People's Congress and as a member of the fifth and sixth Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference National Committee.

A lifelong advocate for educational empowerment, Zuxiang always sought out opportunities to inspire the next generation of leaders. In remarks to students at his middle school alma mater, Zuxiang gave the following advice, “Seek truth, seek kindness, seek beauty, be a teacher, and strive for better! Be moral, be intelligent, be physical, teaching requires nurturing."

Zuxiang passed away in 1996 but the legacy of his many achievements continues to inspire others. The academic collection of Zhu Zuxiang was released at a commemoration conference for his 100th birthday in 2016.


Learn more about the Office of China Programs and the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences.

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