My father, Chen Yingyuan, passed away on November 1st, 2016 in Xian. He was 90 years old. Searching deep down memory lane, while walking around the apartment with things all over the place as if someone still lived there, I realized that I didn’t really know many details about him. A few gaps were filled only after days of going through his belongings and searching on the net.
While in his teens, his father was killed in a Japanese bombing raid during the World War II. He moved to Shanghai to live with an elder brother and continued his studies there. After the fall of Shanghai into the hands of the Japanese, the school was relocated to the southwestern part of China. During his journey to the west, along the Yangtze River, he survived a sunken boat with his unique sideways doggy-paddle.
Upon graduating from Guanghua University, a spin-off of St. Josh’s University Shanghai, with a major in civil engineering, he served in the municipal government of Fushun in Northeast China. During the Korea War, he participated in the construction of a military air base for the newly established Chinese or really USSR air force. As a second duty, he also guarded the base. I recall seeing a photo of him taken at that time, with a bandoleer full of ammunition around his waist and a Mauser military pistol hanging on the side, wearing a sheep-skin jacket. If not for the pair of glasses and youthful face of a student, he looked more like a bandit than an engineer.
In 1957, he joined the faculty of a newly founded college in Xi’an, now Xi’an University of Architecture and Technology. Today the administration building, built by students under his supervision, is one of a handful surviving buildings from the founding era. Perhaps because of a near-decade-long experience in real construction projects, he was assigned or asked to assist during the construction of Jiuquan Steel in Gansu Province in the 1950’s and 60’s, and Bao Steel near Shanghai in the 1970’s and 80’s. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong decreed that colleges needed to be established on site and the time required to graduate had to be shortened, known as the “721 Instruction”. That provided a golden opportunity for many to commit fraud. Father, on the other hand, made best of the situation and truly trained a few lucky ones who had him as a teacher. When the stupa in Famen Temple in Fufeng, Shaanxi Province, collapsed without warning after a rain storm in the 80’s, the temple requested assistance from his school to find the root cause. He was assigned to lead the investigation because of his experience and expertise. That led to a pursuit, more than a decade long, to understand why the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, built in 652 C.E., started tilting and more importantly, to find a solution to stop it and better yet correct it.
The father in my memory, while growing up, was extraordinarily cautious. Right after the armed border skirmish with the Russians in the 1960’s, the country was in a frenzy, building bomb shelters, some designed to withstand nuclear bombs. Once to satisfy my curiosity to see a tunnel boring machine in action, my mother helped to get permission to access one of the shelters being constructed. My father was, upon learning it, vehemently against the plan. Failing to convince us, he insisted going down with us. While we were watching the machine grinding earth, he paced the tunnel in circuits, watching the walls so intensely that his facial expression was like a soldier at the dawn of a big battle, until we were out and on solid ground again. I still have a hard time imagining how he would have reacted, had he known that a few friends and I played so many times in the jigsaw-like shelter on campus that we could walk in pitch-black as if we were in broad daylight. Despite his own experience on Yangtze, he was against my learning to swim. He only gave in after the insistence of my mother and an offer from a neighbor, who was a faculty member in the same department, to teach me.
However, there were occasions of risk-taking as well. In the 70’s, the school workshop was in need of an arched, all-brick facility with a bridge crane built in. How big could the span be with the materials in hand and how soon could the support beams be removed after bricks were laid? There was not much reliable data to refer at the time. The wait time was shortened gradually with each section. He was on the scaffold every time the support beams were disasembled. “The roof was visibly sinking!” was how he described the disasembling with zero wait time. The excitement in his voice was no less than that of a kid receiving a dreamed toy on Christmas day.
Confucian culture considers music, game of Go, calligraphy and painting to be the four essential factors of a scholar. He would be one if painting were replaced by his expertise on civil engineering. Perhaps the unique combination of a strong liberal arts and engineering education, he fell deeply in love with ancient Chinese pagodas. He spent all his energy into the investigation of the root cause for the Big Wild Goose Pagoda project and continued well into his retirement. Now the pagoda has not only stopped tilting but also is self-correcting towards the medial axis at a pace of one millimeter per year. In the early days of the project, I proposed a digital signal processing approach when he was searching for a solution to determine the inner structures of the walls without drilling a hole. Due to various reasons it was not adopted. It would have been awesome to have cooperated with him.
Father lived an ordinary and plain life. His greatness is, to me, what he didn’t get to maintain his integrity. He could have become super rich by being a consultant in name for the countless construction firms which had knocked on his door in the past three decades of booming constructions. Is there a better memorial than a standing Big Wild Goose Pagoda a thousand years from now?