Our friend Betty Peh-T’i Wei had been pondering about writing a biography of her late father, Wei Hsioh-Ren, for quite some time. Betty’s mother, Yin Bao Liu Wei, before her death in 1991, made her daughter promise that she will write a book about the life of her father, but Betty, an historian by training, had to gather all the necessary data which were scattered in files and in the memory and friends and relatives, before starting to write it. Admittedly, not an easy task for her but after years of research and hard work she has finally fulfilled her promise by pulling together all the data, photos and notes, giving the final imprimatur to an edition in Chinese and English of her father’s main achievements in life, under the title of: A Chronological Biography. Remembering my father Wei Hsioh-Ren (1899-1987): scientist, educator, and diplomat.
Betty starts by tracing her family’s beginning with the illustrious mythological pater familias of the Wei clan, Biwan, who achieved the title of Marquis of Wei in 661 BCE and then moving fast forward to the XIX century.
Betty’s father, Wei Hsioh-Ren, was born into a middle-class family of artisans in Nanjing, and even if he did experienced a great shock very early in life, at 3, when his father passed away, his bright intelligence and application made him a model student since elementary school, excelling in mathematics and sciences. He had a bright scholastic career which culminated in 1928 at the University of Chicago, where he was awarded a doctorate in nuclear physics, discussing his thesis with two Nobel prizes laureates, Albert A. Michelson and Arthur H. Compton. Paradoxically the money to pay for his scholarship was coming from the returned indemnity paid by the Qing government to the United States and Great Britain as a compensation for the Boxer insurgency of the year 1900. The two nations in 1909 had nobly decided to return it back the new China which was taking shape, in order to spur its modernization.
Then, turning down offers to remain in Chicago and wanting to contribute to the progress of the motherland, Hsioh-Ren returned to China in 1929, establishing the College of Science at the University of Nanjing, because he wanted to see China progressing in the scientific and social field, and stop of being the sick man of Asia. He had brought back to China with him hundreds of documentaries on film which were then used as teaching material, even producing one himself: ‘The Farmer in Spring’ which in 1936 won the first prize at the first International film competition of China and then was also the first scientist in the world to film a total solar eclipse.
A dark cloud hovered over China during the Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945) but Hsioh-Ren doggedly refused to leave the Country, as he may have done. He set up his home in Chongqing and tried his best to help the common folks, teaching and working out some practical solutions to solve their problems. He patented a new type of wet cell battery which was put into production and, under continuous Japanese bombings, he worked at the electrifications of some nearby villages.
In 1945, at the end of the conflict, he was sent to New York, at the United Nations, as a member of the atomic commission which then proceeded to set up the International Atomic Energy Agency, headquartered in Vienna.
Unfortunately his tenure become troublesome starting from 1950 because of a strong pressure coming from the Soviet Union, as they wanted the Republic of China excluded from the United Nations, leaving the place to the newly founded P.R.C. The Soviet representative Jacob Malik tried hard to have Hsioh-Ren unseated, since in his own words, he was: ‘representing a government which no longer exists’ but he failed and he then stomped out of the assembly in a fit of rage. This is a story which was widely reported and commented in the American press.
Then, from 1954 onward, he worked at proposals for international nuclear disarmament, but finally in 1963 the pressure from communist China to occupy his place at the United Nations became unbearable and he decides to quit it, accepting the appointment of “Distinguished Professor of Physics and International Affairs” at Bethany University, in West Virginia, where he taught until 1972. Finally retiring in Honolulu, he died less than a month short of his 88th birthday.
According to Betty, her father had a full and happy life, blessed by many achievements and leaving behind a loving and united family. His only regrets were probably three: not having visited Jerusalem, not having visited Los Alamos and not having returned to Nanjing for a last time to bid farewell to his old friends and relatives, which had been left behind.
This book is the moving tribute of an intelligent daughter to the greatness of her parents, although reading it leave us with the unfulfilled desire of knowing more and with the lingering hope that this is just the beginning, not the end. Notwithstanding that, here we are dealing with a very important biographical chronology which perhaps one day – when the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China will cease to exist by merging into a single entity, called China – a new generation of historians will use it for writing a complete biography of such a great man.