Home > technology > (Letter from TonyP4) Tsien Hsue-Shen, the father of China’s missiles.

(Letter from TonyP4) Tsien Hsue-Shen, the father of China’s missiles.

October 31st, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

He passed away at 98.

The description of his life in Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qian_Xuesen.

I just finished a book on him by Iris Chang. It is translated from English to Chinese. A very fascinating life.

99.9% chance he was not a communist when he was in US. He was a dedicated scientist.

The joke of the century is the witch hunt of communists in US and drove Tsien back to China to help China to develop missiles. It speeds up China’s missile development by at least 10 years when China did not know how to build good bicycle.

Did Middle East and N.Korea benefit from his initial work?

The book mentioned one or two flaws in his life. I believe he needed to do so to be political stable and be able to secure the funds for his work.

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  1. November 1st, 2009 at 00:24 | #1

    What do most folks in China think of him?

  2. linho
    November 1st, 2009 at 16:35 | #2

    LA Times: “I do not plan to come back,” Qian told reporters. “I have no reason to come back. . . . I plan to do my best to help the Chinese people build up the nation to where they can live with dignity and happiness.”


    Qian did what he set out to do, and overachieved his goal at age 98. How many people on the Earth had ever been close to his level of achievement. May he rest in peace !

    Qian’s father-in-law, Chiang Baili, is also a famous historical figure in China, educated in Japan and Germany as a talented military strategist, he was also an active participant of the New Cultural Movement.

    He married a Japanese nurse while studying in Japan. However, foreseeing Japan’s pending invasion in the 30s’, he dedicated himself to nation’s defense, yet achieved little real result because China was then ruled by narrow-minded Chiang Kai-shek.

    Chiang Baili shared with Chiang Kai-shek on family name, but was not related. In fact, Chiang Baili was a few more years senior than Chiang Kai-shek.

    Choosing Chiang Kai-shek as his leading general and disciple was one major mistake of Sun Yat Sen, the founder of new China. Things would be very differently, should he knew the talent and dedication of Chiang Baili.

  3. November 1st, 2009 at 17:05 | #3

    Hi Linho,

    Good comments. You love CCP more than KMT.

    Tsien’s father-in-law worked for Chiang, KMT. How did the politician isolate Tsien as a communist is just beyond me. When he returned to China, he had to keep it low-key.

    He had two flaws but it could be natural. He had some stupid scientific theory to grow food fast (inspired by Mao?) and in his later life he had some stupid theory of strange human energy. We all our human and make mistakes.

  4. linho
    November 1st, 2009 at 18:33 | #4

    #3 “Tsien’s father-in-law worked for Chiang ..”

    That was way late in his life. Many students of Chiang Baili were not close to Chiang Kai-shek. When one of them rose against Chiang Kai-shek, he asked Chiang Baili to exile. When refused, he jailed Chiang Baili with intention to kill him.

    Chiang Kai-shek did not embrace Chiang Baili, until the later gave a very helpful hand to Chiang Kai-shek when he was under house arrest in 1936 by his own general, Chang Hsüeh-liang, because of Chiang Kai-shek’s refusal to fight invading Japanese ..

    Even so, Chiang Kai-shek never give Chiang Baili any real power, only let Chiang Baili be the substitute president at Chiang’s army university.

  5. linho
    November 1st, 2009 at 18:41 | #5


  6. November 1st, 2009 at 19:12 | #6

    Qian was just a dedicated scientist. I do not think he was a communist by choice at all. He was humble in his own way but a terror to his students in MIT and those students sent from the army. He did not like to talk to anyone he thought not to be his level. From his time in US, I do not think he was a good teacher even he was the youngest professor at MIT at his time.

    His contribution to US rocketry was not appreciated. Read Iris Chang’s book and you will understand him more. This could be the best description of his life. Besides some minor ideas, most of my thoughts were from her book. I would like to read another biography about him from a neutral writer like Iris.

    By the way, from two pictures, her wife is (or was) very beautiful and a very talented lady.

    He set up a strong foundation for China in developing missiles. It was quite tough as the industry at that time could not possibly support such a venture.

  7. linho
    November 1st, 2009 at 19:51 | #7

    To describe Qian as a gifted and dedicated scientist is an understatement, Qian is a people’s scientist. He will likely receive a state funeral.

  8. November 1st, 2009 at 20:39 | #8

    I do not know what does a ‘people’s scientist’ mean – sounds like a term CCP would use. I do not classify missiles and bombs are good for people’s world. I agree that he contributed more for China than any scientist I can think of.

    Iris Chang spent about 3 years on this book. She bought up almost everything she could find except she was turned down for interview. Since she could not read Chinese, she depended on second-hand Chinese info. that do not have too many articles on him.

    Some interesting incidents.

    * When China had the first satellite, that day I was very cheerful as the 250 or so years of humiliation finally came to an end. I agree with Mao that we need weapon to depend ourselves, as long as we do not use it against world peace.

    * He did not really express what he felt when his fellow audience (at a cinema I guess) asked him not to sit next to him being a Chinese. I was not surprised at that time, even today for some older folks here. I would ask any US citizen what would they feel if the roles are reversed.

    * I also am very curious to know what happens if there are 20 silk worm missiles target a US undestructible destroyer at the same time. Just curious and I do not really want it to happen.

  9. linho
    November 1st, 2009 at 21:26 | #9

    People’s scientists — great scientists with forward-looking social conscience and influence, people like Madame Curie and Albert Einstein ..

    Qian’s contribution to China is not just rockets, missiles and atom bombs, there are many, many more aspects you don’t know.

  10. Wukailong
    November 2nd, 2009 at 02:52 | #10

    @linho: “Qian’s contribution to China is not just rockets, missiles and atom bombs, there are many, many more aspects you don’t know.”

    Care to tell us about them? 😉

  11. reader
    November 2nd, 2009 at 07:45 | #11

    he educated a school of scientists and engineers, built up institute of mechanics, helped set up a new university and acted as chairman of department of mechanics.

  12. jpan
    November 2nd, 2009 at 08:08 | #12


    To China, Qian apparently played the roles of Robert Oppenheimer, the director of Manhattan Project, as well as William Barton Rogers, the founder and first president of MIT. Like Rogers, he helped founded many scientific institutions that “serve the times and the nation’s needs.” He has been an active participant as well as a long-time adviser to China’s highest leadership on formulating China’s science research policy.

    His earlier scientific achievement includes establishing the theory and experiment of jet propulsion, engineering cybernetics (now known as system control theory) etc.

    >> Qian Xuesen obituary by the Guardian
    >> http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/nov/01/qian-xuesen-obituary

    BTW — tonyp4: Iris Chang’s biography was an okay work, limited by her lack of personal access to Qian and his close associates, as well as her knowledge on the inner-interaction between Qian and China’s leadership. Iris Chang’s work on the Rape of Nanjing was more an outstanding one.

  13. November 2nd, 2009 at 13:36 | #13

    #12 jpan.

    Thanks! Do you know who else wrote a biography on Qian (confusing to have the same person spelled differently). Most likely I would not read another one on the same topic, but it is nice to know.

    To me, it seems he played the same role as his teacher at CalTech. It was not described how he taught in China and I hope it was not the same as he did at MIT.

    One of my best friends has a PhD. on the same field. He did not want to talk much about him – it could be due to the security clearance. I believe the rocketry research even today is divided into camps: maths and practice. With the computer today, maths could be less and wind tunnel simulation could be more important – my theory. Qian was into maths. initially. Is it better to explain the formula to his students instead of he spending all the time in writing out formula on a black board?

    He was the chief designer of only one rocket in China in the book. His contribution most likely was to set up the organization, a blue print for China on rocketry, and helping the next generation of scientists. His contribution in US was more on state-of-the-art research. How can you accuse some one of betraying his country while contributing so much?

    From a magazine (Space Age if my memory is correct), he was one of the top 10 rocket scientists and before last Saturday he could be #1 still alive. RIP, thanks!

  14. linho
    November 2nd, 2009 at 16:26 | #14

    #12 — Iris Chang, in the back of her mind,, clearly saw Qian as a great ‘traitor’ to her ‘beloved’ adopted land, a place did not shield her from harassment as the result of her work on the Rape of Nanjing.

  15. November 2nd, 2009 at 17:37 | #15

    #14 Iris Chang was born in USA and her professor parents migrated from China. US is not her ‘adopted’ land as you said. She did not portrait Qian as a ‘traitor’ as you said also. I could not find anything biased in this book.

    To me, she is the best Chinese American writer/historian, past and present. Amy Tan is a good one but Chang was more a historian.

    She bought the rape of Nanjing to the international scene and no one on earth is able to do so.

  16. linho
    November 2nd, 2009 at 20:58 | #16

    #15 “her ‘adopted’ land”

    Yes, of course, from both culture and history perspectives.

  17. tanjin
    November 3rd, 2009 at 20:07 | #17

    “Tsien Revisited”

    An old article on Caltech News on Qian by Frank Marble, PhD ’48, Caltech’s Hayman Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Professor of Jet Propulsion, Emeritus.


    A simple obituary from Caltech.


    Qian’s large family consists of many renowned and accomplished figures, past and present.

    Qian’s wife, Jiang Ying, was a renowned Soprano trained in Germany and a retired professor of music and opera at China’s Central Conservatory of Music.


    Qian’s cousin, Hsue-Chu Tsien, was a renown aeronautic and mechanical engineer, who later became a chief engineer of Boeing Co.

    Of course, his son, Roger Yonchien Tsien, won the 2008 Noble prize in Chemistry,


    In Qian’s late year, Qian investigated and contributed ways to fight land desertification in China’s North-West regions, a place he gained personal attachment because of his work at these remote places in his earlier years.

  18. YinYang
    November 3rd, 2009 at 21:48 | #18

    Thx for the post, TonyP4, and the links linho, jpan, and tanjin. Very interesting story.

    I thought it was really admirable for Caltech to come to his assistance when he was put under house-arrest by the U.S. government.

    On the other hand, I think if Tsien did not accomplish for the U.S. the things he did, Caltech would probably not have come out on his behalf, and his fate would have been very different.

    Anyways, to me, this story is a lot about the strength between personal relationships. Such can withstand the Cold War. So, as long as at a personal level, Chinese and Americans strike up relationships, that’ll tend to help mitigate the ideological differences between nations.

  19. NenPin
    November 6th, 2009 at 22:01 | #19

    Qian is a thinker, many of his ideas are still ahead of the curve. He worked till the end of his life on scientific thought and systems. I do not thinks we can label as stupid his ideas for Universal system and comples human system.

  20. November 7th, 2009 at 00:10 | #20

    Hi NenPen,

    Are the following scientific for a scientist like him?

    1. His theory of growing food many times faster than normal. Of course, in Big Leap Forward era. Most if not all his fellow scientists did not agree with him in this, but not too many want to show their disapproval. I do not think he believed it himself, but that could be the reason he got political stability and that’s why the other two Qians were persecuted for speaking out. Three Qians were the top scientists in China at the time.

    2. His belief of strange human power looks like from Steven Chow’s movie (or the movie made fun of him – my theory). It could be his old age that caused him this strange theory.

    His contribution to China is so big that we can forget the above two minor blemishes. It seems no one is perfect.

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