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.
Tsuen-hsuin Tsien was born on Dec. 1, 1909, in the Jiangsu Province of eastern China. As a youth, he edited a student publication advocating the overthrow of the warlords who since the 1910s had been savagely partitioning the country. Soon afterward, he and his teacher were arrested by a local warlord’s henchmen.
Young Mr. Tsien was released; the teacher was executed. Mr. Tsien joined the Nationalist Army, which in 1928 helped defeat the warlords, unifying China.
At the University of Nanking (now Nanjing), Mr. Tsien studied Chinese and Western history and library science, earning an undergraduate degree in 1932. He later went to work in the Nanjing branch of China’s national library.
In 1937, at grave risk, Mr. Tsien fled Nanjing with more than a dozen family members just before the Japanese massacre there. The massacre, known ever after as the Rape of Nanking, resulted in the killing of more than 300,000 civilians and the raping of more than 80,000 women. Settling in Shanghai, he joined the national library’s branch there.
In the wake of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, some 60,000 rare books, among China’s foremost cultural treasures, had been moved from Beijing to Shanghai for safekeeping. After Japan seized Shanghai in 1937, the books — including those Mr. Tsien would smuggle out of China — were secreted in the city’s French Concession and International Settlement.
Long-term plans for the volumes were essential, but the question remained: How to get them past customs?
Mr. Tsien agonized over the problem for the next few years. Then, in 1941, an old schoolmate of his wife’s came for a visit. The schoolmate had a brother who happened to be a customs agent. Mr. Tsien recruited the agent to his cause.
Covertly packing 30,000 of the books into 102 wooden crates, Mr. Tsien labeled them, on the agent’s advice, as new books purchased by the Library of Congress. In the guise of a bookseller, he created false invoices to accompany the shipments.
The crates left the Port of Shanghai a few at a time, moving through customs when Mr. Tsien’s confederate was on duty. The last one left China on Dec. 5, 1941, two days before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
At the Library of Congress, the books were microfilmed for posterity — an enterprise, entailing more than a thousand rolls of film, that has made them accessible to scholars worldwide.
In 1947, Mr. Tsien was dispatched to the United States to retrieve the books. But the outbreak of civil war between China’s Communists and its ruling Nationalists precluded his returning home.
Accepting an invitation from the University of Chicago library to catalog its Chinese holdings, he went on to earn a master’s degree in library science from the university in 1952, followed by a Ph.D. in library science and East Asian studies there in 1957. Over the coming decades, Professor Tsien builtthe university’s collection of East Asian books into one of the foremost in the United States.
Professor Tsien’s wife, Wen-ching Hsu Tsien, died in 2008, as did a daughter, Ginger Tsien. His survivors include two other daughters, Mary Tsien Dunkel and Gloria Tsien; a sister, Cunrou Qian; a brother, Cunxue Qian; and two step-grandchildren.
His books include “A History of Writing and Writing Materials in Ancient China” (1975); “Written on Bamboo and Silk: The Beginnings of Chinese Books and Inscriptions,” published in a revised edition in 2004; and “Collected Writings on Chinese Culture” (2011).
Among his laurels is the Distinguished Service Award from the National Library of China, which he received in 1999. In 2007, Nanjing University opened the T. H. Tsien Library, seeded with thousands of volumes from his personal collection.
The books Professor Tsien rescued from Shanghai were given to Taiwan by the United States in the mid-1960s. They remain there, housed at the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Professor Tsien tried for years to have them returned to the national library in Beijing, but because of historical tensions between Taiwan and mainland China he was never able to do so.
In interviews, Professor Tsien was sometimes asked why he assumed so grave a risk to smuggle books out of China. His reply was simple.
“It was my duty,” he said.