Most reports about centenarians focus on their longevity: what they did or didn't eat, drink or smoke; what words of advice they have to offer for readers who wish to blow out 100 candles one day. The sheer fact of having reached a century's worth of existence is deemed fascinating, possibly even educational, in and of itself. But when recounting Tsuen-Hsuin Tsien's life, there is an even more remarkable figure than his 105 years: 30,000, the number of rare Chinese books he risked his life to rescue from obliteration during World War II.
T.H. Tsien, a librarian and renowned scholar of Chinese writing and printing, was tasked with finding a safe haven for around 60,000 rare volumes during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. Had these cultural artifacts been discovered, they would have been destroyed. Had his plans been discovered, he would have suffered a similar fate. However, he saw the work as his duty, and never looked back.
The Library of Congress in Washington had agreed to take around half of the precious inventory, but customs was under Japanese control, and it took Tsien several years to work out how to get the books across the border. Upon the advice of a sympathetic customs agent, he crated the goods and labeled them as new books purchased by the Library of Congress, posing as a bookseller and including bogus invoices. The treasures were shipped out throughout 1941, a few crates at a time, until all 102 had reached their destination. In Washington, they were copied onto microfilm and made available to scholars around the world.
When Tsien was sent to bring the books back home in 1947, a civil war in China left him unable to return. He joined the University of Chicago, earning two degrees there and becoming a professor emeritus of Chinese Studies and curator emeritus of the university's East Asian Library. He died at his home in Chicago on April 9th.
Thousands of books from T.H. Tsien's personal collection are held in a library bearing his name in Nanjing University. Tsien's own writing includes Written on Bamboo and Silk: The Beginnings of Chinese Books and Inscriptions, and Paper and Printing.