On October 30, 1997, Dr. Yu Hsiu Ku, Hon'72, emeritus professor of electrical engineering, and his wife Wei-Zing played host to a visitor who had arrived in Philadelphia that afternoon and would leave that evening. For more than half an hour, the visitor shared talk and green tea and pastries with the Kus in their high-rise apartment behind Philadelphia's Academy of Music.
   His name was Jiang Zemin; his occupation, president of the People's Republic of China.
   Word quickly got out that Jiang had been a student of Ku's at Shanghai Jiao-Tong University back in the 1930s -- though it was a typically distant student-teacher relationship of that era, one that Ku does not even remember. (Another student of Ku's from his earlier life is the current premier of China, Zhu Rongji.) But since Ku has kept a low profile over the years, most people in the Philadelphia area were surprised by the visit and the brief flurry of press coverage that followed. Surprise turned to astonishment when it came out that Ku had also been friends with former Prime Minister Zhou Enlai -- a relationship that began in 1938, when Zhou was deputy minister under Mao Zedong and Ku vice minister of education under former Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, during the brief wartime alliance between the Communists and the Nationalists. More recently, we found out, Ku had met the late Deng Xiaoping, last of the Communist Revolutionary leaders. And he had a poem on his wall written by Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui in honor of Ku's 90th birthday. (For Jiang's visit, Ku diplomatically replaced the poem with a painting, and moved a scroll of Jiang's calligraphy to a more prominent spot.)
   Some six weeks after Jiang's visit, I met Ku in his apartment, agreeably cluttered with books and adorned with his wife's striking paintings in the classical Chinese style. Dressed in a dark suit and seated on a couch, he was then a couple of weeks short of his 95th birthday. Often I could only catch fragments of his faint, heavily accented answers, and although he politely addressed most of my questions, a cultural reticence informed his answers, and I came away knowing that I had barely scratched the surface of the man and his life.

  Dr. Yu Hsiu Ku and his wife Wei-Zing in their Philadelphia apartment.

   Yet even the surface of a life like Ku's is remarkable. Before coming to the United States in 1950, he had served as president of two universities (National Central University, 1944-45, and National Chengchi University in Nanking, 1947-49). Having earned his bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in just four and a half years back in the 1920s, he came to Penn in 1952 and became a celebrated professor of electrical engineering. His engineering achievements earned him the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' Lamme Medal for his "outstanding contributions to analysis of transient behavior of a-c machines and systems."
   But it was his relationships with the great and powerful that caused the sudden glare of publicity. Was it, I asked, a little strange to find himself in the spotlight with Jiang after so many years of relative anonymity?
   "No," he replied in a whispery voice. "Because it was the Chinese way. It seems very strange to an American audience."
   For the Chinese, he explained, because he was a friend of Zhou Enlai, then he was a friend of Zhou's successor, Deng Xiaoping -- and thus a friend of Deng's successor, Jiang. Similarly, having been an adviser to Chiang Kai-shek, he has had the confidence of the Nationalist government in Taiwan.
   "Both the Communists and the Nationalists trust me, and they value my opinion," he told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "Because they know I am totally objective. I am not on either side."
   Jiang had had other business in Philadelphia during that late-October visit. He gave a short speech at the University Museum, praising the new agreement between the Chinese government and Penn -- specifically the Wharton School and the Graduate School of Education -- which resulted in a sort of crash-course in capitalism for government officials and executives of state-run enterprises. (He also made a brief visit to Drexel University.) But it was still part of a state visit, and the only private stop he made was his visit to the Kus' apartment.
   "He wants to come here and relax," said Ku. "Just the two of us. He didn't say anything important. Because it was after his meeting with Clinton. All the serious things had been talked over.
   "But he listened to my advice, and he's going to think about it. You see, I think all other things are minor compared to world peace. And all the universities are for world peace, right? Benjamin Franklin was for world peace, and Harvard himself -- John Harvard -- was for world peace. So all educators are for world peace.
   "I am nonpolitical," he added. "I do have my ideas, but only as a retired professor. I just enjoy life. I don't try to influence anybody."
   Yet 60 years earlier, during the Japanese occupation, he had written politically charged plays protesting the invasion. In his autobiography, One Family -- Two Worlds, he describes how, as dean of the Engineering College of Tsing Hua University, he organized a group of professors and students to "make and deliver 8,000 gas masks to the Military Commission's Peiping Headquarters for emergency use in the defense of North China against Japanese aggression." By accident, they found a way to get activated carbon to absorb the poison gas by passing steam through burning coconut shells. "We were successful in getting young men and young ladies from Tsing Hua University campus to do all kinds of volunteer work," he noted matter-of-factly, "including wearing the gas mask to go through a tear-gas chamber to do the final testing." Today's undergraduates, take note.
   In addition to his scientific papers, Ku also published 12 volumes of literary works (poems, novels, plays, and essays) in 1961, followed by eight volumes of poems from 1963 to 1973. One was his "Ode to Nanking," written in honor of the city that was brutally invaded by the Japanese:
   Rain fell on the Terrace Wall outside the Temple.
   All the lotus in Lake Hsuan Wu withered.
   The Rouge Well remained,
   While the palace and court ladies' fashions
   Were gone for one thousand years.
   Nothing could be said in front of the parrots.
   By the Red Sparrow Bridge swallows murmured.
   Remember the famous River of Nanking!
   Old friends were no more and no-where to meet again!
   Frost came to the Lin-Ko Valley.
   Autumn leaves on the mountains fell and danced to the clouds.
   One should not forget the old, old pine tree
   Alive since the Six Dynasties!
   Let the moon shine and the wind
   Welcome the beautiful birds!

   Many years later, during his speech at the University Museum, Jiang Zemin also quoted from a Chinese poem: "You never know where you will meet your old friend in your long life." He had not seen Ku since he graduated from the university, he said in halting English. But the meeting "reminded me of our university life, which is the golden age of one's life -- and one cannot but cherish it so much." -- SH

Back to feature: The China Syndromes

March/April Contents | Gazette Home

Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 2/16/99