On Thursday, April 9, one of America’s most influential Chinese librarians passed away at the age of 105. Professor emeritus Tsuen-hsuin “T.H.” Tsien, a pioneer in his field, risked his life during World War II to secretly ship 30,000 rare Chinese volumes to the U.S. Library of Congress for safekeeping, days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Beyond saving some of China’s most ancient and valuable articles, Tsien also wrote publications that revolutionized the fields of Chinese bibliography, paleography, and science and technology.
Tsien was born on December 1, 1909 in Taizhou, China, during the reign of Puyi, the last emperor of the Imperial Dynasty. After studying history and library science at Jinling University and working extensively at National Jiaotong University and the National Library of Beiping, he came to the University of Chicago as an exchange scholar. While at the University, Tsien earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in library science and later went on to curate the East Asian Library from 1949 to 1978. During his tenure in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, he trained more than 30 graduate students, many of whom went on to head East Asian libraries all around the country. He also helped build the University’s East Asian Collection into one of the most comprehensive and distinctive of its kind in North America. Even after retiring in 1978, Tsien continued to remain active as a centenarian scholar, stating in a 2010 interview with Tableau magazine that he continued to keep in touch with his former students through correspondence, conversation, and dinners.
Tsien led a distinguished career during his lifetime, publishing 10 books, 17 monographs, and more than 150 articles in English and Chinese. Edward Shaughnessy is a professor in Early Chinese Studies who worked closely with Tsien. In the preface that he wrote for Tsien’s book Collected Writings on Chinese Culture, he said, “Professor Tsien was...a daily presence at the library, the contents of which he knew like the back of his hand.” Tsien’s Written on Bamboo and Silk and Paper and Printing are now regarded as classics of Sinological scholarship. His volume Paper and Printing was written as the fifth volume of Joseph Needham’s monumental Science and Civilisation in China, which was later included as one of the Modern Library Board’s 100 best nonfiction books of the 20th century.
Ten members of his family in three generations have studied and worked at the University. He is survived by his daughters Gloria and Mary and his nephew Xiaowen Qian, an assistant to the curator for the Regenstein Library’s East Asian Collection. In 2009, the T.H. Tsien Research Fund for Chinese Studies was created in his name to support faculty research.