My sister asked me to write up our father’s life history. Because she’s four years younger than me, she knew some of his life milestones, but not all. In writing this up, I realize that I don’t have all the information either. This will be a work in progress as I dig a little deeper.
Still, I was amazed to find my father on the internet. His research is available as a PDF though you might need an advanced degree in mathematics to understand it!
Dr. Chien Chet Wenjen is to the right.
I remember my mother typing up his manuscripts when I was young. She needed a special set of typewriter keys for the mathematic symbols and often, she didn’t know what height to place the weird symbols. She would type it up and then my dad would correct it. Then, she would have to use those typing white-out strips to make the changes.
His manuscripts would be sent around the world to colleagues who would corroborate his research. Once it was verified by other experts, it could be submitted to math journals for publication. I’m not really sure how many papers he published in total, but I found three online which I have listed at the bottom.
Dr. Chien Chet Wenjen: His Life
My father, 闻人乾, was born in Jinhua, China. Jinhua is known for cured ham, much like Virginia ham. It’s a salty ham that can cost up to $1,200 and is used widely in cooking as a flavoring agent. My father’s family was in the silk business. I assume that they raised silkworms and spun the silk into fabric. It would not be a stretch to assume that they journeyed on the silk road to sell their wares. My niece from China thinks that they sold silk in a shop and did not travel.
His family, then, was middle-class merchants, neither rich nor poor (and this will be significant later on during the Cultural Revolution). I know that my father came from a large family with nine children. I know that he was one of the youngest. He might have been the youngest boy but I’m not sure.
My niece says that Chien was one of nine children. His eldest sister married into a rich landlord family. This sister was not married to a man but to a tablet of the family’s dead son. She was married as an instant widow and adopted a son as the landlord’s family’s heir. Chien’s other sisters were married out very young as child brides.
Chien’s college tuition was paid by his widowed sister’s family. He attended National Central University in Nanjing, the capital at that time. He then earned his Master’s degree at Tsinghua University.
In China, opportunities are determined by the National College Entrance Examination which makes the SAT or ACT seem like a walk in the park. The exams last about nine hours over a period of two or three days, depending on where you are from. The test included Chinese including Ancient Chinese, mathematics, and a foreign language. Candidates usually choose English. Test results to determine a student’s future has long been part of Chinese culture since the Tang dynasty in 700 AD.
Chinese imperial examinations were a civil service examination system in Imperial China for selecting candidates for the state bureaucracy. Although the exams had precedents from earlier times their implementation as a tool of recruitment selection only started in earnest during the mid-Tang dynasty. The system reached its apogee during the Song dynasty and lasted until the final years of the Qing dynasty in 1905. The exams served to ensure a common knowledge of writing, the classics, and literary style among state officials. This common culture helped to unify the empire and the ideal of achievement by merit gave legitimacy to imperial rule. The examination system played a significant role in tempering the power of hereditary aristocracy, military authority, and the rise of a gentry class of scholar-bureaucrats.
Attending college is wholly dependent on your score. It’s also a major determinant of which college will accept you (and there is a pecking order). My father attended Nanjing University (also known as National Central University, Nanking) and graduated with an undergraduate degree in Mathematics in 1931.
China’s universities did not have graduate programs back then. Shiing-shen Chern and my father were the first two math students who gained postgraduate degrees in China. Before that, all the Chinese mathematicians received their graduate degrees from the U.S. or Europe.
My father went to study at Tsinghua University (Qinghua) University, considered the best university in China, where he received his Master’s Degree in mathematics.
“The campus of Tsinghua University is situated on the site of the former imperial gardens of the Qing Dynasty and surrounded by a number of historical sites in northwest Beijing.
Established in 1911, Tsinghua University is a unique comprehensive university bridging China and the world, connecting ancient and modern, and encompassing the arts and sciences. As one of China’s most prestigious and influential universities, Tsinghua is committed to cultivating global citizens who will thrive in today’s world and become tomorrow’s leaders. Through the pursuit of education and research at the highest level of excellence, Tsinghua is developing innovative solutions that will help solve pressing problems in China and the world.” from World University Rankings
My niece says that my father taught at the Universities in Chengdu and Chongqing, both in Sichuan Province. During WWII when Japan invaded China, most universities retreated to Sichuan with the government. After that, he was recruited to Lanzhou University.
This is what I found: “He went on to teach as a lecturer at the Hunan Normal College, probably in the mid-1940s, and then moved to Lanzhou University in Gansu in 1947-1949, before coming to UCLA in 1949.”
“Nanjing University, which traces its history back to 1902, is one of China’s leading public higher education institutions.
In total, Nanjing has 21 schools, running courses at undergraduate, postgraduate, and research levels. The university has one of China’s largest libraries, holding more than 4.5 million volumes.
The university claims to have played a central role in the development of Chinese politics and society.
A group of communists from Nanjing Higher Normal School, a forerunner of the modern institution, are credited with introducing the theory of Marxism to the Chinese general public in the early 1920s.
Scholars and students from the institution also played a key role in the country’s fight against Japanese occupation, and in the development of the modern Chinese state.
Nowadays the university has built links with higher education institutions around the world and has set up several collaborative institutes, including the Centre for Chinese and American Studies, a partnership with Johns Hopkins University.” from World University Rankings
The Chinese government-sponsored students to pursue graduate degrees in the United States in STEM fields. The intention was for these students to gain knowledge and bring it back to China. I believe they were selected based on their test scores.
The Chinese government sent two math students, meaning that he was the first of two Chinese Math PhDs. The other student is Shiing-Shen Chern, a very famous mathematician, mentioned earlier who also studied with my father for their Master’s Degrees at Tsinghua University.
My father attended UCLA where he received his Ph.D. in mathematics in 1953. His dissertation was titled: A Generalization of Certain Properties of Banach Algebras.
Amazingly, I found my father’s UCLA roommate in this recent article:
by Ralph E. Shaffer
Professor Emeritus of History at Cal Poly Pomona
Wednesday, September 4th, 2019
Seventy years ago this September I began my junior year at UCLA, rooming with two graduate students from mainland China. Before the end of that academic year, both of my roommates were forced by the now in power communist government to make a choice: return to China now, or never. One returned to China. The other chose to remain in the United States permanently.
That order by the Chinese communists terminated, for several decades, a lengthy period of Chinese attendance at American colleges, particularly here in California. Although this state’s anti-Chinese attitude, written into law in the late nineteenth century, had attempted to block Chinese immigration to California, its institutions of higher education welcomed young Chinese who came to study but accepted the fact that when they earned their degrees they would have to go home.
Now the Trump Administration, prodded by Stephen Miller, an ultra-reactionary advisor from Southern California, is considering an order comparable to the one the communists issued seventy years ago. Under the proposal from Miller, who seems to have a fetish for supporting presidential executive orders that restrict non-whites from entering the country, all students from communistic mainland China would be barred from our colleges.
The justification? Those foreign students from China might have access to sensitive technological information currently forbidden to the Chinese. Allowing Chinese students to see or work with this protected material would endanger national security. Were that a legitimate concern, there would be no reason to bar undergraduates in any field since they would not be studying at a level that could place them in contact with restricted material. While that might be a convincing argument for banning Chinese graduate students in the sciences, it hardly justifies blocking entry of graduate students in social sciences, language arts, the performing arts or a variety of other fields.
The Red Scare argument against Chinese students has also been raised as a reason for denying them enrollment in our colleges. Visions of small cells of Chinese communist students, meeting secretly on or off campus to plot who knows what, have apparently wormed their way into the thinking of those on the far right who would block all Chinese students from coming here.
One theory as to why Trump and Miller are considering the ban on Chinese students is that sending home the 350,000 students already here would financially and intellectually punish colleges, which have been generally anti-Trump since his inauguration. With state and federal funds harder to come by under Trump, colleges enjoy the bounty of full tuition paid by foreign students, of which the Chinese are a major group. About 4,000 Chinese attend UCLA currently.
While Miller’s proposal may have been originally rejected in 2018, it has apparently resurfaced. A student ban now would serve as one more weapon in the escalating trade war with China.
The loss of Chinese students, however, would have more than a financial effect on our universities. They, like all foreign students, offer their American classmates a global education, both in and outside the classroom. In 1948 two of my roommates were an Israeli and a Palestinian!
I don’t know when Ho-Chow Chu or Chien Wenjen arrived in the U, S., or whether they already had undergraduate degrees before they entered UCLA. When I knew them, Chu was already well on his way to a Ph. D. in meteorology. Wenjen studied for a similar degree in mathematics.
As the deadline approached, Chu faced a dilemma unlike any that American students ever had to encounter. It was obvious that he was reluctant to leave UCLA, but he had family in China and would never see them again if he chose to stay here. Wenjen made his decision early. He would remain.
I came back to our room one day and Chu was gone. We recognized that any communication between us and him would jeopardize Chu and his family. None of us corresponded with him. Through the research by fellow Cal Poly Pomona history professor Zuoyue Wang, we now know how Chu fared in his homeland. He became a prominent meteorologist in China, although he apparently suffered during the Cultural Revolution.
Wenjen obtained his Ph. D. from UCLA and eventually joined the faculty in the mathematics department at what is now Cal State Long Beach, reaching the rank of full professor. He authored numerous technical papers in his field.
Seventy years ago, their communist government interrupted their academic progress. Today, the Trump Administration would like to be the culprit.
My father never spoke much about his UCLA experience. I know that he hung out with other Chinese graduate students. I also remember that he worked at a canning factory to earn money. I am not even sure where that would be, though in the 1950s I found a Star-Kist canning factory in Terminal Island (Long Beach) which was the largest in the world at the time.
I know that my father got word from a friend in China that things were bad for intellectuals when the Cultural Revolution. His friend urged him not to come back. My father stayed and went to work in Tennessee at Knoxville College as a Professor of Mathematics. I’m not sure what his exact title was, but it would have been his first teaching job.
From Knoxville College, my father moved to Lubbock, Texas to become an assistant professor at Texas Tech.
From AMERICAN MATHEMATICAL SOCIETY Notices (ISSUE NO. 19 OCTOBER, 1956)
Dr. Chien Wenjen of Knoxville College has been appointed to an assistant professorship at Texas Technological College.
Texas Tech University is a public research university in Lubbock, Texas. Established on February 10, 1923, and called until 1969 Texas Technological College, it is the main institution of the four-institution Texas Tech University System.
He became a full professor at Long Beach State College which became Cal State University, Long Beach. He received an endowed position there. I took calculus at Cypress Junior College in high school and my math professor studied under my father. He told me that my father was the only one in the Mathematics department doing research at that time. He also told me that my father was a really tough professor. My dad would never have been accused of being a grade inflator LOL!
I remember hanging out at Cal State Long Beach, running through the campus and visiting my dad’s office with my mother and siblings. We took swimming lessons on campus and ate at the cafeteria. My father was friendly with his office mate, also a math professor. I think they were assigned alphabetically, as his name was Dr. Verdena. I remember that my parents invited each other over for dinner parties and that Dr. Verdena wrote math textbooks. Their office had these industrial metal desks and bookshelves. It was a spartan space.
My father also took a special interest in Chinese graduate students over the years. I remember some of them coming over for holiday dinners.
My father’s research was in number theory and topology.
Number theory is a branch of pure mathematics devoted primarily to the study of the integers and integer-valued functions. German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss said, “Mathematics is the queen of the sciences—and number theory is the queen of mathematics.
Topology is the mathematical study of the properties that are preserved through deformations, twistings, and stretchings of objects. Tearing, however, is not allowed. A circle is topologically equivalent to an ellipse (into which it can be deformed by stretching) and a sphere is equivalent to an ellipsoid. from Wikipedia
My father’s published research papers:
1. Pacific Journal of Mathematics
Published: 1 March 1958
2. Project Euclid
Concerning paracompact space
3. American Mathematical Society
I know that my father also worked to solve Fermat’s Theorem. This was the Holy Grail of an unsolved puzzle that vexed mathematicians for centuries. He announced that he had solved the theorem and there was a rush of mail at our house. At that time, my father’s health was in decline due to Parkinson’s Disease and he was in a wheelchair and couldn’t really talk. I do believe that he thought he solved it in his head but he was unable to articulate it onto paper. Mathematician Andrew Wiles is credited for solving Fermat’s Last Theorem. The proof is 129 pages long!
In number theory, Fermat’s Last Theorem states that no three positive integers a, b, and c satisfy the equation aⁿ + bⁿ = cⁿ for any integer value of n greater than 2. The cases n = 1 and n = 2 have been known since antiquity to have an infinite number of solutions.
To examine any book more closely at Amazon, please click on image of book.
Zuoyue Wang, Professor of History
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
Dr. Zuoyue Wang found that my father was actually a fellow graduate student in math with the above-mentioned Chern at Tsinghua (Qinghua) University in the early 1930s! He had searched my father’s Chinese name before but somehow this info did not show up.
Dr. Wang has done a great deal of research on the Chinese students who returned to China in 1949-50. He is working on a book on a broad and transnational history of Chinese students/scientists of your father’s cohort–both those who returned to China and also those who stayed in the US.
He sent me this information:
[Your father was] actually was a fellow graduate student in math with the above-mentioned Chern at Tsinghua (Qinghua) University in the early 1930s!
I also found that [your father] taught for a while as a lecturer at the Hunan Normal College, probably in the mid-1940s, and then moved to Lanzhou University in Gansu in 1947-1949, before coming to UCLA in 1949.
From Dr. Ralph Shaffer:
The Prefab is where your Dad and I lived at the Co-op. When I moved in during the summer of 1948, I made a chart of the eight double bunks with the name of the guys who slept in each of them. From memory, I think I recall that your Dad bunked at one end of the Prefab near the bathroom. I was at the other end, and as I recall Chu had the bunk above me and I was on the lower one – but all that’s from a fuzzy memory.
The Prefab was still fairly new when I moved in. It was a WWII surplus building, long and narrow. Besides our bunk, each of us had a desk and a small dresser. There was one shower for all 16 of us! I recall that the summer I moved in – 1948 – we had one student from Israel and at least one from an Arab country. But we all got along. The Prefab was located at 500 Landair, on a hill – there are many in Westwood – on the west side of campus. The main Co-op, Robison Hall, was across the street, in a design-winning building that was originally up-scale apartments, but when the Co-op bought it in the 1930s it began to deteriorate. We probably had more than a hundred guys living in the three buildings.
The Prefab was cheap!! Room and board was $36 a month, 3 meals a day for at least 6 days and probably 2 meals on Sunday. For that, we had to work at the Co-op 4 hours a week, usually in the kitchen. No one needed a student loan in those days because there was no tuition at UC, only an incidental fee of about $50 or so each semester. We all graduated debt free.
Your Dad was a grad student – one of several in the Prefab during the three years I was there – 1948-51 – who earned their Ph. D degree while I was there. I didn’t know him very well, not as well as I knew Chu. I do recall that we all realized the traumatic experience Chu and your Dad were going through regarding the return to China.
If I can find a photo on the Prefab – and I know I took some – I’ll make a copy and send it to you,
Hope this gives you a little bit of what life was like at the Co-op and Prefab when your Dad was there.
Mathematician Picture Book Biography
The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity: A Tale of the Genius Ramanujan by Amy Alznauer, illustrated by Daniel Miyares
Srinivasa Ramanujan was a mathematical genius who found patterns all around him. He wasn’t formally trained in mathematics, in fact, he struggled in school until he turned ten years old and a schoolmaster finally understood his gift.
My father had some similarities with Ramanujan. They both immigrated to new countries in pursuit of mathematics. They both contributed to the field of number theory, a field of mathematics that explored patterns and properties of numbers. I think my father would have enjoyed this picture book. [picture book biography, ages 5 and up]
p.s. Related posts:
p.p.s. Math related posts:
BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.