Yu Hsiu Ku

The 97-year-old professor, a national treasure in his native China, is still keeping up with current events, and his old contacts are still keeping up with him. He is pictured here with his wife Wei Zing; the calligraphy behind him is a gift from Chinese President Zhang Zemin.

Photoby Candace diCarlo

The Center City apartment of Yu Hsiu Ku, Ph.D., is chock full of the stuff of a full and rich life. On the bookshelves are binders holding the thousands of Chinese poems he has written; some time this year, they should be joined by another volume — a collection of 100 of those poems translated into English for the first time.

On the wall behind the sofa is a painting, the gift of an old friend. On the opposite wall is the 1972 Lamme Medal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, one of the many honors he has received for his contributions to the field of electrical engineering; there doesn’t seem to be enough no room for him to hang the two IEEE honors he received for his lifetime acheivements earlier this year (Current, April 20).

And in front of the bookshelves are banners filled with calligraphy, one of which was given to Ku by a former pupil and mayor of Shanghai.

That pupil, Zhang Zemin, is now China’s president. And when he paid a visit to Penn in 1998, he also called on Ku, who served as a Nationalist government minister in the years just before the final Communist victory in China’s civil war.

Ku would really rather talk about other things besides his role as a bridge between China’s Communist leadership and Taiwan’s recently-ousted Kuomintang government. He is particularly proud of his 48-year affiliation with Penn, the greater portion of seven decades of scholarship, teaching and research. Ditto his five children in the United States, all of whom are Penn alumni, thanks to the tuition benefit. (He does point out that he also has a granddaughter who graduated from Wharton, “and she paid for all the tuition.”) And his status as a national treasure in his native China is no small honor.

But China and Taiwan are very much in the news now. With the recent victory of opposition candidate Chen Shui-ban in Taiwan’s national election, tensions have risen between China and its increasingly independent-minded offshore neighbor. And because of that, China’s bid to join the World Trade Organization — which the Clinton administration backs — is no longer a sure thing.

But like former U.S. ambassador to China James Lilley (see “Hope blooms for Taiwan”), Ku is of the opinion that things will turn out fine if people will stay calm and keep focused on the things that matter, like economics and peace.

Q. How did you arrive at Penn?
That’s very easy. I needed the job.

Q. When did you start here?
1952 — 48 years ago. I came to the United States in 1950. I went to MIT, where I was a visiting professor. Then, after two years, I needed a job. I was on my way to Lehigh, where I knew Dean [Loyal V.] Bewley, and Bewley was going to hire me, but on the way I asked for advice at the University of Pennsylvania. And some people from the U. of P. phoned Dr. Bewley and said, Don’t hire Dr. Ku. U. of P. will hire him. And I got the job.

Q. Where had you taught in China prior to leaving?
Several places. I started in Hangchou, and the university there. That was 1929 and 1930, two years. I went on to Nanjing, where I became dean of engineering at the Central University. After one and a half years, I moved to Tsing Hua [University], my alma mater in Beijing, to start an [electrical engineering] department, then start an engineering school there. That takes me to 1937, the first year of the [Chinese civil] war.
    In 1938, in January, I joined the government. I entered as the vice minister of education in the Kuomintang government, and I served in the ministry for six and a half years. Then I became president of Central University, which I removed from Nanjing to Chongqing. There I served one year. Then I went to Shanghai, where I served as commissioner of education, two years.
    That was ’45 to ’47. And from ’47 to ’49 I served as president of Chengchi University. And then, of course, the Communists had taken over, so I went to Taiwan for half a year and to Hong Kong for half a year.

Q. You left after the Communists took over, yet you count some of the current Communist leaders among your contacts?
I went back [to mainland China] in 1973, when communication was possible. And it happened I knew Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier. We were personal friends. And then, of course, later on I became good friends with Deng Xiaoping. And then it happened that President Zhang Zemin was my student in China, this right after the war.
   Some people couldn’t understand how I could connect with Deng Xiaoping. I said, according to Chinese tradition, if was a friend of Zhou Enlai, then I become a friend of Deng Xiaoping.

Q. So you had a double connection with Zhang?

Q. What did he talk about when he visited you in 1998?
He talked about peace. Peace between both sides of China, mainland and Taiwan.

Q. Did he have any ideas on how to bring it about? Did he want your help?
No, he just went on principles in his talk. There should be a peaceful solution, reunification on a peaceful basis. [And my advice was] it all starts with trade.

Q. Do you know Chen Shui-ban?
I do not know this new man, who is from the DPP, the Democratic Progressive Party. But I know some of his close friends. The key person is Lee Yuan Tseh. He is the chairperson of the Academia Sinica [the Chinese Academy of Science, to which Ku was elected in 1959]. He sent me all this recent material, why he felt he had to help Mr. Chen get elected.
   He doesn’t want to be prime minister. He could also be a go-between between the two sides. That is his wish. I hope he can handle it eventually. I’ve got this image of him as a close adviser to the president-elect.

Q. And you would be content just to watch things as they unfold?
. Yes. I just want them to keep on at peace. My idea is very simple. Of course, the United States is going to help China into the WTO, the World Trade Organization. And if mainland China gets in, then Taiwan can also get in. But not as another country. It’s more of a district, as with Quemoy and those offshore islands. [But once both are in the WTO], then there will be direct communications between the sides. Without politics. It’s all in commerce.
   But we don’t know about the future yet. There is still the need for work. We hope for the best. I try to keep both sides calm. I just think this is a very fluid situation.

Originally published on May 4, 2000