Tsuen-hsuin Tsien, Curator Emeritus of the East Asian Collection, 1909-2015

Tsuen-hsuin (T.H.) Tsien, Curator Emeritus of the East Asian Collection of the Joseph Regenstein Library and Professor Emeritus of Far Eastern Languages and Civilizations (now East Asian Languages and Civilizations) of the University of Chicago, passed away in Chicago on April 9, 2015, at the age of 105.

Dr. Tsuen-hsuin Tsien (center) with Professor Edward Shaughnessy (right) and Mary Tsien Dunkel (left) at the conference “Texting China—Composition, Transmission, Preservation of Pre-modern Chinese Textual Materials” at the University of Chicago Library in 2012. (Photo by Jason Smith)

Dr. Tsuen-hsuin Tsien (center) with Professor Edward Shaughnessy (right) and Mary Tsien Dunkel (left) at the conference “Texting China—Composition, Transmission, Preservation of Pre-modern Chinese Textual Materials” at the University of Chicago Library in 2012. (Photo by Jason Smith)

T.H. lived a long and extraordinarily full life. He liked to say that he was born under the last emperor of China, in 1909, in Taixian (today’s Taizhou City), Jiangsu, China. In 1927, before entering university, he participated in the Northern Expedition, a military effort of the Nationalist government of China that resulted in the unification of China. In 1928, T.H. entered Jinling University (the precursor of Nanjing University), from which he was graduated in 1932 with a degree in Library Science. After graduation, he worked first in Shanghai at the Jiaotong University Library, and then in Nanjing at the Nanjing Branch of the Peking Library (the forerunner of the National Library of China). In December, 1941, he was personally responsible for shipping rare books from the library to the United States Library of Congress for safe-keeping during the war, arranging for 2,720 individual titles in some 30,000 volumes to be crated for shipment. The books left the port of Shanghai, then still an open city, just days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and made it safely to Washington. After the conclusion of the war, T.H. went to Washington to arrange for the return of the books. However, the outbreak of civil war in China made their return at the time impossible, and T.H. remained in America together with the books. In 1947, Herrlee G. Creel (1905-1994; Martin A. Ryerson Professor Emeritus of Chinese Studies at the University) invited T.H. to the University of Chicago to manage the Far Eastern Library (now East Asian Collection). T.H. remained in Chicago thereafter.

It is no exaggeration to say that T.H. Tsien was the most influential Chinese librarian in America. Not only did he develop one of the country’s greatest East Asian libraries at the University of Chicago, but he also trained a generation of students for East Asian libraries around the country including those who went on to head the East Asian libraries at Harvard and Princeton. In addition, his published scholarship continues to have a profound influence on the fields of Chinese bibliography, paleography, and science and technology. He received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1957; his dissertation, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1962 as Written on Bamboo and Silk: The Beginnings of Chinese Books and Inscriptions, is still regarded as a classic in the field. In 1978, after retiring from his position as Curator of the East Asian Collection, T.H. accepted an invitation from Joseph Needham to participate in Needham’s great Science and civilisation in China project. In 1984, T.H. contributed Vol. 5.1: Paper and Printing, the first volume in the series to be published under a name other than Needham’s. After this time, he remained active. In 2011, his book Collected Writings on Chinese Culture, was published by the Chinese University of Hong Kong Press. It includes thirty essays on “Ancient Documents and Artifacts,” “Paper, Ink, and Printing,” “Cultural Exchange and Librarianship,” “Biographies of Eminent Scholars,” “Memoir of a Centenarian,” and “Essays about the Author.” The volume also contains prefaces by Edward L. Shaughnessy and Anthony C. Yu, his colleagues at the University of Chicago, relating many more of his contributions to the University and to scholarship.

T.H. Tsien has now rejoined his beloved wife Wen-ching Hsu, who was one of the first instructors of Chinese at the University, and his eldest daughter Ginger, both of whom passed away in 2008. He is survived by two other daughters, Mary Tsien Dunkel and Gloria Tsien, as well as by his nephew Xiaowen Qian, Assistant to the Curator for the East Asian Collection of the Regenstein Library. He has established a legacy that will endure as long as scholars continue to value books.

Updated 9/16/15

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