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Alumni newsmaker:
> > Tsuen-Hsuin Tsien, AM'52, PhD'57, preserves history through books

image: Class Notes headlineWhen the National Library of China marked its 90th anniversary this past fall, Tsuen-Hsuin Tsien, AM'52, PhD'57, couldn't make it to the celebration in person. So library officials from Beijing came to Chicago in December to present the U of C professor emeritus with a distinguished service award, bestowed for saving 30,000 rare Chinese books during the height of World War II.

image: Tsien is honored by china's national library.
Tsien (center) is honored by China's national library.

Before and during the war, Tsien worked at the National Library's Shanghai office. Fearing the volumes--some of which dated to the tenth century--would be destroyed, the Chinese government and the U.S. State Department had tried to move them to the U.S. for safekeeping, but failed because the Shanghai harbor and customs were under Japanese control.

In 1941, Tsien risked his life to meet with a Shanghai customs inspector and hatch a plan: The books were packed in 102 wooden crates, sealed with galvanized iron sheets, and sent in installments to the United States. The crates were disguised as new-book purchases made by the U.S. Library of Congress. "Each time I accompanied the crates on the journey to customs when this inspector was on duty," Tsien recalls. "These crates of rare books were then examined by him and immediately cleared as ordinary cargo. About ten crates were sent each time, so it took almost two months to complete the shipment of all the books." The last shipment was sent on SS President Harrison just two days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The next day Tsien heard that the ship had been captured by the Japanese navy. But six months later, he learned via a German news agency dispatch that the Library of Congress had announced the safe arrival of all 102 shipments in Washington, D.C., and that microfilming had begun. "It is still a mystery as to how the last shipment crossed the Pacific," says Tsien.

image: Tsien

In 1947, East Asian languages & civilization professor Herrlee Creel, PhB'26, AM'27, DB'28, PhD'29, invited Tsien to become an exchange librarian at the U of C Library. Though Tsien planned to remain in Chicago for just two years before returning to China, Creel urged him to stay, going so far as to persuade Illinois senator Paul Douglas to introduce a special bill in Congress granting Tsien permanent residency. In 1949, Tsien became the first curator of the University's Far Eastern Library, now the East Asian Collection. He also earned his Ph.D. in library science at the U of C, becoming a professor in the Graduate Library School and the Department of East Asian Languages & Civilizations. During his 32 years at the University, he helped build the East Asian Collection into one of the nation's leading centers of East Asian literature, holding about 530,000 volumes in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Manchu, Mongolian, and Tibetan.

Tsien himself has published more than 100 books and articles on Chinese culture and the history of books and printing in China, including Written on Bamboo and Silk: The Beginnings of Chinese Books and Inscriptions (University of Chicago Press, 1962) and Paper and Printing (Cambridge University Press, 1985).

After retiring from the University in 1979, Tsien served as a fellow of the Joseph Needham Research Institute in Cambridge, England; chaired a section of the third International Conference on the History of Chinese Science in Peking; and continued to publish. Other honors include distinguished service awards from the Council on East Asian Libraries and the Chinese-American Librarians Association, a 1996 Professional Achievement Citation from the U of C Alumni Association, and being named to the Chicago Senior Citizens Hall of Fame.

As for the books he rescued from China almost 60 years ago, in 1965 the United States sent them to Taiwan. Visiting the National Palace Museum in Taipei in 1984, Tsien was happy to see that the 30,000 volumes were well cared for. However, the National Library in Beijing has asked for their return, and Tsien supports its claim. "These rare materials are China's national treasures accumulated through many dynasties over the past 1,000 years," he says. "It is hoped that they will be returned to their owners before too long."--B.B.

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  AUGUST 2000

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