My father, Dr. Chien Chet Wenjen: His Life

My sister asked me to write up our father’s life history. Because she’s four years younger than me, she knew some of his life milestones, but not all. In writing this up, I realize that I don’t have all the information either. This will be a work in progress as I dig a little deeper.

Still, I was amazed to find my father on the internet. His research is available as a PDF though you might need an advanced degree in mathematics to understand it!

Dr. Chien Chet Wenjen: His LifeDr. Chien Chet Wenjen is to the right.

I remember my mother typing up his manuscripts when I was young. She needed a special set of typewriter keys for the mathematic symbols and often, she didn’t know what height to place the weird symbols. She would type it up and then my dad would correct it. Then, she would have to use those typing white out strips to make the changes. His manuscripts would be sent around the world to colleagues who would corroborate his research. Once it was verified by other experts, it could be submitted to math journals for publication. I’m not really sure how many papers he published in total, but I found three online which I have listed at the bottom.

Dr. Chien Chet Wenjen: His Life

My father was born in Jinhua, China. Jinhua is known for cured ham, much like Virginia ham. It’s a salty ham that can cost up to $1,200 and is used widely in cooking as a flavoring agent. My father’s family was in the silk business. I assume that they raised silkworms and spun the silk into fabric. It would not be a stretch to assume that they journeyed on the silk road to sell their wares.

His family, then, was that of successful merchants (and this will be significant later on during the Cultural Revolution). I know that my father came from a large family with something like 16 or 18 children. I know that he was towards the youngest. He might have been the youngest boy but I’m not sure.

In China, opportunities are determined by the National College Entrance Examination which makes the SAT or ACT seem like a walk in the park. The exams last about nine hours over a period of two or three days, depending on where you are from. The test included Chinese including Ancient Chinese, mathematics, and a foreign language. Candidates usually choose English. Test results to determine a student’s future has long been part of Chinese culture since the Tang dynasty in 700 AD.

Chinese imperial examinations were a civil service examination system in Imperial China for selecting candidates for the state bureaucracy. Although the exams had precedents from earlier times their implementation as a tool of recruitment selection only started in earnest during the mid-Tang dynasty. The system reached its apogee during the Song dynasty and lasted until the final years of the Qing dynasty in 1905. The exams served to ensure a common knowledge of writing, the classics, and literary style among state officials. This common culture helped to unify the empire and the ideal of achievement by merit gave legitimacy to imperial rule. The examination system played a significant role in tempering the power of hereditary aristocracy, military authority, and the rise of a gentry class of scholar-bureaucrats.

Attending college is wholely depending on your score. It’s also a major determinant of which college will accept you (and there is a pecking order). My father attended Tsinghua University, considered the best university in China, where he studied mathematics.

“The campus of Tsinghua University is situated on the site of the former imperial gardens of the Qing Dynasty and surrounded by a number of historical sites in northwest Beijing.

Established in 1911, Tsinghua University is a unique comprehensive university bridging China and the world, connecting ancient and modern, and encompassing the arts and sciences. As one of China’s most prestigious and influential universities, Tsinghua is committed to cultivating global citizens who will thrive in today’s world and become tomorrow’s leaders. Through the pursuit of education and research at the highest level of excellence, Tsinghua is developing innovative solutions that will help solve pressing problems in China and the world.” from World University Rankings

China’s universities did not have graduate programs back then. My father also attended Nanjing University (also known as National Central University, Nanking) and graduated with a B.S. in Mathematics in 1931. He went on to teach mathematics at Nanjing University

“Nanjing University, which traces its history back to 1902, is one of China’s leading public higher education institutions.

In total, Nanjing has 21 schools, running courses at undergraduate, postgraduate and research level. The university has one of China’s largest libraries, holding more than 4.5 million volumes.

The university claims to have played a central role in the development of Chinese politics and society.

A group of communists from Nanjing Higher Normal School, a forerunner of the modern institution, are credited with introducing the theory of Marxism to the Chinese general public in the early 1920s.

Scholars and students from the institution also played a key role in the country’s fight against Japanese occupation, and in the development of the modern Chinese state.

Nowadays the university has built links with higher education institutions around the world, and has set up several collaborative institutes, including the Centre for Chinese and American Studies, a partnership with Johns Hopkins University.” from World University Rankings

Rose and Chien Wenjen wedding

The Chinese government-sponsored students to pursue graduate degrees in the United States in STEM fields. The intention was for these students to gain knowledge and bring it back to China. I believe they were selected based on their test scores. My father attended UCLA where he received his Ph.D. in 1953. His dissertation was titled: A Generalization of Certain Properties of Banach Algebras.

Amazingly, I found my father’s UCLA roommate in this recent article:

Fox and Hounds

Professor Emeritus of History at Cal Poly Pomona

Wednesday, September 4th, 2019

Seventy years ago this September I began my junior year at UCLA, rooming with two graduate students from mainland China. Before the end of that academic year, both of my roommates were forced by the now in power communist government to make a choice: return to China now, or never. One returned to China. The other chose to remain in the United States permanently.

That order by the Chinese communists terminated, for several decades, a lengthy period of Chinese attendance at American colleges, particularly here in California. Although this state’s anti-Chinese attitude, written into law in the late nineteenth century, had attempted to block Chinese immigration to California, its institutions of higher education welcomed young Chinese who came to study but accepted the fact that when they earned their degrees they would have to go home.

Now the Trump Administration, prodded by Stephen Miller, an ultra-reactionary advisor from Southern California, is considering an order comparable to the one the communists issued seventy years ago. Under the proposal from Miller, who seems to have a fetish for supporting presidential executive orders that restrict non-whites from entering the country, all students from communistic mainland China would be barred from our colleges.

The justification? Those foreign students from China might have access to sensitive technological information currently forbidden to the Chinese. Allowing Chinese students to see or work with this protected material would endanger national security. Were that a legitimate concern, there would be no reason to bar undergraduates in any field since they would not be studying at a level that could place them in contact with restricted material. While that might be a convincing argument for banning Chinese graduate students in the sciences, it hardly justifies blocking entry of graduate students in social sciences, language arts, the performing arts or a variety of other fields.

The Red Scare argument against Chinese students has also been raised as a reason for denying them enrollment in our colleges. Visions of small cells of Chinese communist students, meeting secretly on or off campus to plot who knows what, have apparently wormed their way into the thinking of those on the far right who would block all Chinese students from coming here.

One theory as to why Trump and Miller are considering the ban on Chinese students is that sending home the 350,000 students already here would financially and intellectually punish colleges, which have been generally anti-Trump since his inauguration. With state and federal funds harder to come by under Trump, colleges enjoy the bounty of full tuition paid by foreign students, of which the Chinese are a major group. About 4,000 Chinese attend UCLA currently.

While Miller’s proposal may have been originally rejected in 2018, it has apparently resurfaced. A student ban now would serve as one more weapon in the escalating trade war with China.

The loss of Chinese students, however, would have more than a financial effect on our universities. They, like all foreign students, offer their American classmates a global education, both in and outside the classroom. In 1948 two of my roommates were an Israeli and a Palestinian!

I don’t know when Ho-Chow Chu or Chien Wenjen arrived in the U, S., or whether they already had undergraduate degrees before they entered UCLA. When I knew them, Chu was already well on his way to a Ph. D. in meteorology. Wenjen studied for a similar degree in mathematics.

As the deadline approached, Chu faced a dilemma unlike any that American students ever had to encounter. It was obvious that he was reluctant to leave UCLA, but he had family in China and would never see them again if he chose to stay here. Wenjen made his decision early. He would remain.

I came back to our room one day and Chu was gone. We recognized that any communication between us and him would jeopardize Chu and his family. None of us corresponded with him. Through the research by fellow Cal Poly Pomona history professor Zuoyue Wang, we now know how Chu fared in his homeland. He became a prominent meteorologist in China, although he apparently suffered during the Cultural Revolution.

Wenjen obtained his Ph. D. from UCLA and eventually joined the faculty in the mathematics department at what is now Cal State Long Beach, reaching the rank of full professor. He authored numerous technical papers in his field.

Seventy years ago, their communist government interrupted their academic progress. Today, the Trump Administration would like to be the culprit.

My father never spoke too much about his UCLA experience. I know that he hung out with other Chinese graduate students. I also remember that he worked in a canning factory to earn money. I am not even sure where that would be though in the 1950s, but I did find a Star-Kist canning factory in Terminal Island (Long Beach) at that time which was the largest in the world.

I know that my father got word from a friend in China that things were bad for intellectuals when the Cultural Revolution. His friend urged him not to come back. My father stayed and went to work in Tennessee at Knoxville College as a Professor of Mathematics. I’m not sure what his exact title was, but it would have been his first teaching job.

From Knoxville College, my father moved to Lubbock, Texas to become an assistant professor at Texas Tech.

From AMERICAN MATHEMATICAL SOCIETY Notices (ISSUE NO. 19 OCTOBER, 1956)

Dr. Chien Wenjen of Knoxville College has been appointed to an assistant professorship at Texas Technological College.

Texas Tech University is a public research university in Lubbock, Texas. Established on February 10, 1923, and called until 1969 Texas Technological College, it is the main institution of the four-institution Texas Tech University System.

He became a full professor at Long Beach State College which became Cal State University, Long Beach. He received an endowed position there. I took calculus at Cypress Junior College in high school and my math professor studied under my father. He told me that my father was the only one in the Mathematics department doing research at that time. He also told me that my father was a really tough professor. My dad would never have been accused of being a grade inflator LOL!

I remember hanging out at Cal State Long Beach, running through the campus and visiting my dad’s office with my mother and siblings. We took swimming lessons on campus and ate at the cafeteria. My father was friendly with his office mate, also a math professor. I think they were assigned alphabetically, as his name was Dr. Verdena. I remember that my parents invited each other over for dinner parties and that Dr. Verdena wrote math textbooks. Their office had these industrial metal desks and bookshelves. It was a spartan space.

My father also took a special interest in Chinese graduate students over the years. I remember some of them coming over for holiday dinners.

my mom and dad: Dr. Chien and Rose Wenjen

My father’s research was in number theory and topology.

Number theory is a branch of pure mathematics devoted primarily to the study of the integers and integer-valued functions. German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss said, “Mathematics is the queen of the sciences—and number theory is the queen of mathematics.

Topology is the mathematical study of the properties that are preserved through deformations, twistings, and stretchings of objects. Tearing, however, is not allowed. A circle is topologically equivalent to an ellipse (into which it can be deformed by stretching) and a sphere is equivalent to an ellipsoid. from Wikipedia

My father’s published research papers:

1. Pacific Journal of Mathematics

On semi-normed -algebras

Received: 19 July 1954
Revised: 1 September 1957

Published: 1 March 1958

2. Project Euclid
Concerning paracompact space

3. American Mathematical Society

Quasi-equicontinuous sets of functions

I know that my father also worked to solve Fermat’s Theorem. This was kind of the Holy Grail of an unsolved puzzle that vexed mathematicians for centuries. He announced that he had solved the theorem and there was a rush of mail at our house. At that time, my father’s health was in decline due to Parkinson’s Disease and he was in a wheelchair and couldn’t really talk. I do believe that he thought he solved it in his head but he was unable to articulate it onto paper. Mathematician Andrew Wiles is credited for solving Fermat’s Last Theorem. The proof is 129 pages long!

In number theory, Fermat’s Last Theorem states that no three positive integers a, b, and c satisfy the equation aⁿ + bⁿ = cⁿ for any integer value of n greater than 2. The cases n = 1 and n = 2 have been known since antiquity to have an infinite number of solutions.

Chien Chet Wenjen

Beloved Husband and Father

February 16, 1911* – January 7, 1986

* We know that he fudged his birthday in order to increase his chances of being selected to study abroad for his graduate degree. We think he is actually two or three years older than this date of birth. We think the birth day is accurate though.

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Dr. Chien and Rose Wenjen wedding

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p.s. Related posts:

My mother, Rose Wenjen, passed away today…

Rose Wenjen Eulogy by Noreen Wenjen

Japanese Internment Books for Kids & My Family’s Story

My Chinese Silk Road Heritage

China for Kids with Children’s Books, Culture and Design

p.p.s. Math related posts:

Our 10 Favorite Math Picture Books

Book Lists with Science and Math Concepts

Funny Science-y Math-y Chapter Books for ages 7 and up

Mastering Multiplication Math Facts

25 Math Skills Games for Kids

Subtraction and Adding to Ten Math Facts Games

My books:

Asian Pacific American Heroes Mia Wenjen

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