A Chinese geologist at Bristol: Yu Jianzhang 俞建章 (1898-1980)

Today, 17 December 2020, marks the eighty-fifth anniversary of the first award of a PhD by the University of Bristol to a Chinese student, Yu Jianzhang. Yu received his award from Vice-Chancellor Thomas Loveday in a ceremony in the Great Hall. As part of the ‘100 Years of PGR’ project, being co-ordinated by the University’s Bristol Doctoral College, supported by the Brigstow Institute and our John Reeks, a team including two historians has been developing a bank of material about the history of PhD study at Bristol. Following on from our earlier story about the first Chinese undergraduate at Bristol, current history PhD student Liu Xiao — who is working on the history of science in China — has built on their work, and on materials provided by colleagues at Jilin University, to pen this introduction to Yu Jianzhang’s life and career.

What prompted a Chinese scholar to study for a doctorate at the University of Bristol?[1] The city had very little by way of a profile in China in the 1930s, and there were very few Chinese undergraduate students there, nor was there any sort of Chinese community in Bristol. The story of the first Chinese PhD student of the University of Bristol illustrates an individual’s pursuit of advanced knowledge as well as his ambition to serve his motherland.

Yu Jianzhang (俞建章, known in his time at Bristol as Chien Chang Yu), born in 1898, was an influential geologist and educationist in twentieth century China. Growing up in a poor family in Anhui Province, Yu realised the importance of knowledge from a very young age and that the only way to improve his life was through education. Therefore, by making great efforts in learning, Yu achieved excellent grades among his classmates, on the basis of which he was admitted to Peking University, one of the top academic institutions in China, to study for a bachelor’s degree in 1920.[2]

Fig 1. Yu Jianzhang in 1927. Source: Qingnian Lizhihui Huiwu Jiwen 2, 1927.

At Peking University Yu commenced what would become a distinguished lifetime’s career in geology. There Yu met his long-term mentor Li Siguang 李四光, widely regarded as the leading geologist in modern China. Under Li’s guidance, Yu participated in two field trips during his undergraduate study, which laid a very solid foundation for his future academic research.[3] In addition, due to his outstanding achievements, Yu was also given the opportunity in 1924 to visit Japan on behalf of Peking University, which helped him develop a better understanding of overseas geological research.[4]

Yu Jianzhang commenced his PhD study in the University of Bristol in the winter of 1933, nearly a decade after graduating from Peking University in 1924. Before his trip to Britain, Yu taught at Zhongzhou University in Kaifeng (1924-28) and later worked as an assistant researcher in the Institute of Geology in Shanghai. This was part of Academia Sinica, the Republic of China’s highest-level official scientific institution.[5] Li Siguang had been appointed director of the Institute in 1928, and Li’s appreciation of Yu’s talent led him to bring Yu south to work with him. For China in the first half of twentieth century, a major problem faced by the scientific community was a shortage of trained scientists. Li had received his PhD from the University of Birmingham and this had equipped him to make a leading contribution to the development of the study of geology in China. Yu realised that studying abroad was the way to further improve his academic research level to an international standard. Hence, following in Li’s footsteps, Yu Jianzhang was sponsored by the Institute of Geology to study in Britain in 1933.[6]

To achieve his ambition, Yu decided to study in the University of Bristol, which was undoubtedly the ideal institution for him. Yu’s mentor in the University of Bristol was a British geologist – Stanley Smith (1883-1955), who was regarded as a world expert in the study of Palaeozoic corals.[7] It should be noticed that China did not have any specialist studying corals at that time, and Yu’s task was to become the authority in this field. Accordingly, the achievements of Dr. Smith attracted Yu’s attention and motivated him to study in Bristol. He wrote at the time that ‘in comparison with Woods and Elles who taught in the University of Cambridge, it seems that studying with Dr. Smith was the best choice in terms of my research field’.[8] Moreover, ‘compared with spending more than 300 pounds a year for living in Cambridge, the relative low-cost of living in Bristol’ was also another reason attracting Yu to select there.[9]

As was to be expected, Yu found no Chinese compatriots in the city of Bristol, but such circumstances also made him more open to the Western way of life and learning. He spent his weekends in London or Cambridge attending lectures or searching for materials. During holidays, he would start an internship in the British Museum.[10] In his daily life, British etiquette also impressed him a lot, which he summed up as the ‘maintenance of order’, illustrating an embodiment of civilisation. Yu attributed it to the benefits of education and thought that ‘developing education was a priority for China to realise national salvation because it could shape youth’s ideology and form habits’.[11]

Of his life in Bristol, we have few other traces. It is probable that Yu took part in events held by the university’s Geological Society, and the monthly meetings of the Geological Section of the Bristol Naturalists’ Society, which met to hear talks in the university, or went on field trips led by department staff which might finish with refreshments and snacks courtesy of the landed gentry across whose estates the members had rambled. The first of these that took place during his time in Bristol involved a walk across the Suspension Bridge, into Leigh Woods, and the last was an excursion to Chipping Sodbury. One talk that might have resonated with Yu, given the underlying politics that concerned him, was given by Dr. F.S. Wallis, deputy director of the City Museum & Art Gallery on ‘Geology and the Citizen’, which outlined ‘modern methods of mass instruction in popular science’.[12]

Although materials about Stanley Smith’s valuation on Yu have not been found yet, it seems that he was quite satisfied with the progress made by the first Chinese PhD student in the University of Bristol. After only two years’ research, Yu was able to complete his doctorate in the winter of 1935. On 17 December 1935, at a short ceremony in the Great Hall of the university, the award of PhD was conferred on Yu by the Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Thomas Loveday.[13] The thesis, ‘The Tengninian (Lower Carboniferous) Corals of South China’, received great attention among the university’s geological community.[14] Yu’s friendship with Dr. Smith did not end with graduation. Supervisor and student co-authored an article – ‘A Revision of the Coral Genus Aulina Smith and Descriptions of New Species from Britain and China’, which was published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society in 1943.[15] When both China and Britain struggled during the Second World War, we see that the alumnus of the University of Bristol still kept in touch and maintained a link through scientific exchange and cooperation.

Fig. 2. Li Siguang (first from left) and Yu Jianzhang (in the middle) on a field trip in Guangxi Province in 1939

As Yu was assigned by the Institute of Geology, he remembered his responsibility in developing China with advanced science. While studying at Peking University, he had joined the Youth Inspirational Association青年励志会, an organisation formed by young intellectuals to promote education aiming to ‘save’ China. Subsequently, when Yu studied in Bristol, he remained a member of the association and expressed his opinions in its official journals, particularly encouraging Chinese youth to receive modern education. Benefitting from his experience overseas at University of Bristol, Yu put this belief into practice in his later career.

Being an expert on coral research in China, he established the “Mesocorallia” order and discovered many new genera and species of heterocorals. His research on heterocorals filled the gap of this category in China. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Yu became a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the supreme national academy for the natural sciences in the PRC. In 1951, Yu engaged in the preparation work for the establishment of China’s first geological junior college—the Geological Junior College of Northeast China. The former first Chinese doctoral student at University of Bristol, now began to recruit and train the first batch of geological doctoral students in the PRC.[16] He also maintained close connection with Li Siguang in terms of geological education, thus opening a new chapter in the training of scientific talent (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Letter from Yu Jianzhang to Li Siguang, 1965 March 15th.
Source: Ma Shengyun, Ma Yue & Ma Jin, eds., Li Siguang he Tade Shidai [Li Siguang and His Era], Beijing: Science Press, 2012, pp. 246.

Yu devoted the rest of his life to teaching and scientific exploration. From 1964, Yu was vice-chancellor of the Changchun College of Geology, which was incorporated into Jilin University in 2000. Besides, he actively participated in comprehensive regional geological research in Northeast China, laying a foundation for the collection of geological information and contributing to the large-scale economic construction of this region. In 1979, Yu was elected as a member of the International Sub-commission on Carboniferous Stratigraphy at the 9th International Conference on Carboniferous Stratigraphy.[17] He died in Jilin in 1980.

Today, the Chinese government continues to support students to pursue doctoral study at the University of Bristol. In the light of this continuity across nine decades, we might well remember Yu Jianzhang, who set an example through his own efforts for succeeding generations – as a Chinese scientist who applied knowledge to realise his ambitions for himself personally, and for China.

Figure 4. Yu Jianzhang working in Changchun College of Geology
Source: Photo provided by Jilin University

 

Bibliography:

China Association for Science and Technology, Zhongguo Kexue Jishu Zhuanjia Luezhuan 中国科学技术专家略传[Brief Biography of Chinese Scientific and Technological Experts], Vol.1 of Geology, Hebei: Hebei Jiaoyu Chubanshe, 1996.

Lai, Jiang & Fen, Xiao, Li Siguang李四光[Li Siguang], Beijing: China Juvenile and Children Books Publishing House, 2005.

Shengyun, Ma, Yue, Ma & Jin, Ma, eds., Li Siguang he Tade Shidai李四光和他的时代 [Li Siguang and His Era], Beijing: Science Press, 2012.

Yu, Jianzhang, ‘Huiyi Lisiguang Laoxiansheng回忆李四光老先生[Memories of Li Siguang]’, in Tong Zongsheng, ed., Daxue Xiaozhang Yi Laoshi Sanwen Xuan 大学校长忆老师散文选, Hunan: Hunan Wenyi Chubanshe, 1995.

[1] Jianzhang Yu, ‘Yu Jianzhang Zi Yingguo Bulisituo Laihan [Yu Jianzhang’s Letter from Bristol]’, Qingnian Lizhihui Huiwu Jikan 6/7 (1934):844.
[2] China Association for Science and Technology, Zhongguo Kexue Jishu Zhuanjia Luezhuan [Brief Biography of Chinese Scientific and Technological Experts], Vol.1 of Geology, Hebei: Hebei Jiaoyu Chubanshe, 1996, pp. 229.
[3] Yu Jianzhang, Baogao Shanxi Dizhi Lvxing Baogao [Report on Shanxi Trip], Beijing Daxue Rikan Daily, 1923 June 6th; See also Yu Jianzhang, Diaocha Lu Tangshan Qinghuangdao Shanhaiguan Yidai Dizhi Lvxingji Futu [Geological Travel Notes of Shanhaiguan, Qinhuangdao, Tangshan with Picture], Beijing Daxue Rikan Daily, 1923 December 28th. Li Siguang (1889-1971), was a Chinese geologist and politician. Li was the founder of the geomechanics in China, as well as one of the main leaders and founders of modern geoscience and geological work in China. For more information see Jiang Lai & Xiao Fen, Li Siguang[Li Siguang], Beijing: China Juvenile and Children Books Publishing House, 2005.
[4] ‘Beijing Sanda Xuesheng DiR’ [Students of Three Universities in Beijing Arrived in Japan], Shenbao, 1924 March 28th.
[5] China Association for Science and Technology, Zhongguo Kexue Jishu Zhuanjia Luezhuan, pp. 229-30. Zhongzhou University is the forerunner of today’s Henan University.
[6] Jianzhang Yu, ‘Huiyi Lisiguang Laoxiansheng [Memories of Li Siguang]’, in Tong Zongsheng, ed., Daxue Xiaozhang Yi Laoshi Sanwen Xuan, Hunan: Hunan Wenyi Chubanshe, 1995, pp.195.
[7] Stanley Smith (1883–1955) was a British geologist and academic. Dr. Smith became assistant lecturer in geology at the University of Bristol in 1922 and eventually retired from the university in 1948.
[8] Yu, ‘Yu Jianzhang Zi Yingguo Bulisituo Laihan’, pp. 844.
[9] Yu, ‘Yu Jianzhang Zi Yingguo Bulisituo Laihan’, pp. 844.
[10] Yu, ‘Huiyi Lisiguang Laoxiansheng’, pp.197-8.
[11] Yu, ‘Yu Jianzhang Zi Yingguo Bulisituo Laihan’, pp. 844.
[12] Western Daily Press, 8 September 1933; 25 October 1934, 28 September 1935.
[13] Western Daily Press, 18 December 1935.
[14] Yuan Tongli, ‘Doctoral Dissertations by Chinese Students in Great Britain
and Northern Ireland, 1916-1961’, Chinese Culture 4:4 (1963): 135.
[15] Stanley Smith & Chien Chang Yu, ‘A Revision of the Coral Genus Aulina Smith and Descriptions of New Species from Britain and China’, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 99 (1943): 37-61.
[16] Information provided by Jilin University.
[17] China Association for Science and Technology, Zhongguo Kexue Jishu Zhuanjia Luezhuan, pp. 238.