CHANGSHA, May 24 (Xinhua) -- China on Monday morning held a memorial service to bid farewell to Yuan Longping, known as the "father of hybrid rice," who passed away on Saturday.
Despite being a busy work day, thousands of people dressed in black showed up and laid flowers at the site before the service began at 10 a.m. in Changsha, capital of central China's Hunan Province.
The top rice scientist, who cultivated the first high-yield hybrid rice strain, died of organ failure at 91 in Changsha.
The agronomist helped China work a great wonder -- feeding nearly one-fifth of the world's population with less than 9 percent of the world's total arable land.
He is deeply respected in China, where getting enough to eat was once a serious problem. In 2019, Yuan was awarded the Medal of the Republic, China's highest state honor.
On Monday morning, the influx of mourners created a traffic gridlock miles long, prompting many to descend from their vehicles to walk to the memorial site inside a mortuary house. Some mourners arrived by train from other cities to "see Grandpa Yuan for the last time."
"People from outside Hunan are coming to bid him farewell," said Liu Haohui, one of the taxi drivers who offered free rides to the mourners. "As a local taxi driver, we hope to do something to pay tribute to Yuan."
Also among the huge crowd of mourners were couriers holding flowers that they said were ordered by distant buyers.
Many florists in Changsha told Xinhua that their chrysanthemums had sold out.
"Online orders kept flowing in. We worked overnight to prepare the flowers but still couldn't meet the demand," said florist Tan Lijuan.RICE HERO
Yuan began his pioneering research on hybrid rice in 1964. After nine years of painstaking research and testing, his team successfully cultivated the hybrid-rice strain in 1973. Yuan spent the next four decades improving hybrid rice, which has now progressed to its third generation.
In China, where rice is the staple food for the majority of its 1.4 billion population, the annual hybrid rice planting area has exceeded 16 million hectares, or 57 percent of the total rice planting area. That helps feed an extra 80 million people a year.
Yuan's lifelong dedication to reducing hunger has made him a national hero and a household name in China.
"We travelled all the way here to see him off. We farmers owe him gratitude," said Zhou Xiuying, 70, inside the memorial hall.
"We must thank him for bringing us food," a woman was seen telling her young child at the site.
In 1999, an asteroid discovered by the national astronomical observatories was named after Yuan.