T.H. Tsien, 105, Dies; Scholar of Chinese Books

The New York Times

T.H. Tsien, 105, Dies; Scholar of Chinese Books Rescued 30,000 of Them

By  APRIL 19, 2015

 T. H. Tsien was one of the world’s renowned scholars of Chinese bibliography and paleography, the study of ancient writing.  [Credit University of Chicago]

T. H. Tsien, a scholar of Chinese books and printing who in 1941 risked his life to smuggle tens of thousands of rare volumes to safety amid the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, died on April 9 at his home in Chicago. He was 105.

His death was announced by the University of Chicago, with which he had been associated since the late 1940s. At his death, he was an emeritus professor of East Asian languages and civilizations there and an emeritus curator of the university’s East Asian library.

One of the world’s most renowned scholars of Chinese bibliography and paleography — the study of ancient writing — Professor Tsien (pronounced chee-AHN) was the author of scores of books and articles, many in English, about the august history of the written word in China. As he was fond of reminding people, movable type originated in China centuries before Gutenberg.

Professor Tsien, who was born in China in the twilight of the reign of its last emperor, was a young librarian there during the Japanese occupation, which lasted from 1931 until the end of World War II. Working in secret, he was charged with keeping a trove of precious volumes, some dating to the first millennium B.C., from falling into the occupiers’ hands.

The Library of Congress in Washington agreed to take some 30,000 volumes, but the difficulty lay in getting them out of Shanghai. By 1941, the city’s harbor and customs office were under the control of the Japanese, who would have seized the books and very likely destroyed them. Had Professor Tsien’s work been uncovered, he would almost certainly have been executed.

Determined to get the books out of China at all costs, Professor Tsien could not have done so, he later wrote, had it not been for a turn of fate.

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