China | On his 110th birthday, Prof. C.K. Jen gets a hometown honor

On his 110th birthday, Prof. C.K. Jen gets a hometown honor

George Koo October 7, 2016 8:24 PM (UTC+8)
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On the 110th birthday of the late famous Chinese American C.K. Jen, his bronze bust was unveiled at the corner of the town square

The crush of travelers for the week around China’s National Day on October 1 broke previous records again. This time, my wife, May, her younger sister, Linda, and I were part of the bustle. We took a three-hour, high-speed train from Beijing westward to Taiyuan and then drove south for three hours to Qinyuan to participate in the ceremony honoring the memory of Professor Chih-Kung (C.K.) Jen, my father-in-law.

Jen, also known as Ren Zhigong in pinyin, was born in one of the 1,000 plus villages that make up the Qinyuan County in southern part of Shanxi province. After elementary school at the local village, his father arranged for Jen to live with his uncle in Taiyuan, the provincial capital, in order to obtain superior quality of schooling.

When Jen turned 14, Tsinghua Preparatory School in Beijing, where he would study for 6 years, accepted him. When he was 20, the school used funds from the Boxer Indemnity to send him to America for further education. Within five years, Jen received his Bachelors from MIT, Masters from Penn and PhD from Harvard, either in electrical engineering or physics.

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High School of Qinyuan and reflection on Qin river. Photo: George Koo

Returns to China to begin teaching at 27

After touring some of the higher institutions of learning in Germany, Jen returned to Beijing to begin teaching. On the day of his wedding, July 7, 1937, the Marco Polo Bridge incident took place between the Japanese troops and the Chinese soldiers guarding the bridge, which marked the beginning of China’s war with Japan. He barely made it through the city gate and back into the city of Beijing for his own wedding.

Shortly thereafter, he and his new wife had to abandon everything in their new home and make hasty plans to depart from the soon-to-be occupied Beijing. They made the long cross-country trek to join the faculty, first in Changsha and then on to the newly-formed Kunming, formed when the then-three most prestigious schools in China combined out of necessity.

The three universities were Peking University and Tsinghua University from Beijing and Nankai University from Tianjin. In order for China to continue to train its youth, these universities were asked to move south and combine forces. Thus, the awkwardly named National Southwestern Associated University was established in Kunming. Xinanlianda in Chinese was a more elegant and a better known name.

This university began with bare ground and farmers’ barns and homes on loan, operated under extreme hardship and faced regular bombing runs by the Japanese warplanes.

Yet in its eight years of existence from 1938 to 1946, the university accepted around 8,000 students and graduated slightly less than half.

Among the graduates were the first two future Chinese recipients of the Nobel Prize in physics, T.D. Lee and C.N. Yang, and many of the most influential scholars and intellectuals China has ever seen.

Jen’s role was to serve as the director of the Radio Research Institute, which came with a laboratory. From his memoir, he said of those War years in Kunming, where he was mugged and robbed twice, “my life was quite adventurous and probably the happiest period of my life, although the material environment was the hardest.”

He probably spoke for all the students and faculty who were tested by those challenging years.

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The bronze bust of C.K. Jen unveiled during his 110th birthday. Photo: George Koo.

Leads first group of Chinese American scientists to China

In 1972, after Nixon went to China, Jen, at the time the deputy director of the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University, immediately set about organizing a group of Chinese America scientists and academicians to visit China.

When this first Chinese American group arrived in Beijing, it was a news sensation. Premier Zhou Enlai greeted this group at the Great Hall and held a five-hour long conversation that kept the group past 2 am. Jen was to be remembered as the leader of the first group of Chinese Americans to visit China.

Between 1972 and 1986, he visited China nine times including two visits to his ancestral village. Each time, he spent roughly six months giving lectures at various universities. He spoke not only on his scientific specialty but also on the latest topics in physics. He saw that scientific knowledge in China had fallen badly behind the West and he wanted to help the Chinese catch up.

He took full advantage of his personal meeting with Deng Xiaoping to put an emphasis on teaching science in China and urge Deng to revive the physics department at Tsinghua, a wing that was disbanded during the Cultural Revolution. The department soon resumed classes and the faculty continued to express their gratitude for Jen’s energetic advocacy.

At the dedication of his bronze bust at the corner of the town square on the occasion of his 110th birthday, C.K. Jen was remembered as the native son who became an accomplished scientist with an international reputation and loved his motherland. His life story was told on display boards around the bust, intended to inspire future generations.

The idea of honoring my father-in-law came from another remarkable young man, also a native son. As a boy, David Wei heard stories about Jen and one day it occurred to him that honoring him would be a good way to inspire younger generations. He talked to his two close friends into agreeing to jointly fund the memorial. He contacted me for the Jen family’s support and access to the family archive. Then he convinced the leaders of the county of the merits of the project.

David had been a major contributor to the growth of Qinyuan’s economy. Until he came along, the Qinxin Group had been making high quality coke from the rich coal deposits but did not have anyone to sell the final product. Within the first week of his joining the company, he sold out the inventory and proceeded to book annual standing orders from steel mills around the world that justified a succession of plant capacity expansions.

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C. K. Jen’s daughters May and Linda (left) with some schoolchildren and their teacher. Photo: George Koo.

The Qinyuan County today

Today’s Qinyuan County covers nearly 1,000 square miles, virtually all consisting of steep hills and mountains with deep gullies. Elevation runs from just under 1,000 meters to just over 2,500 meters. Less than 9% are considered arable farmland, all on sloping terrain. About two thirds of the county consists of forests, known for a wide variety of medicinal herbs, amazing assortment of wild mushroom and game. The population of the county is under 160,000 and about 90% live on the farmland.

We were surprised by what we saw, namely lush green forested mountainsides and blue skies. Being the headwater source of three rivers, Qinyuan also did not lack water. Mayor Lian explained to me that Qinyuan had been following the dictum from the central government in not allowing any polluting industries. Qinyuan’s only industry is extracting the coal from the mine and converting it into coke. Tailing from the washing and gas from the conversion are captured and burned to produce electricity. The residual ash has been used in cement for building material.

During WWII, Qinyuan was bitterly contested between the PLA and the Japanese. For two and half years, the two sides fought to a virtual standstill. The civilians paid the price. Periodically, the Japanese troops would wage a “three all” campaign. The troops would sweep into a village and loot all, burn all and kill all. That’s the reason when we visited the ancestral home in the Hexi village, our hosts could only show us a partial wall and one remaining doorway.

Happily, those evil days are long gone. Today Qinyuan is enjoying an economic boom but without the usual accompaniment of dirty air and dirty water. I am not familiar with the criteria for a model development in China but Qinyuan should qualify.

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Qinyuan’s Vice mayor Sun at the unveiling ceremony of C.K. Jen’s bronze bust. Photo: George Koo.

George Koo
Dr. George Koo recently retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is a member of the Committee of 100, and a director of New America Media.
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