Wen Weipo: Shiing-Shen Chern and Loo-keng Hua

WENWEIPOShiing-Shen Chern and Loo-keng Hua

Source: Wenweipo 27 November Page 12    Press Time: 2014-11-28 10:32

Shiing-Shen Chern and Loo-keng Hua are two grandmasters in Chinese modern mathematics history.

Nankai University students lit up candles in the evening to commemorate Shiing-Shen Chern in the winter of 2004. Twenty years before, Loo-keng Hua fell unconscious in the University of Tokyo. Loo-keng Hua was born in 1910 and was only one year older than Shiing-Shen Chern, but he passed away much earlier. Mr. Wang Yuan once claimed: “If cardiac stent implantation surgery could be performed easily in 1980s, Mr. Hua would never have left us so soon.”

The two masters were similar in age, but different in life paths. They both entered the Math Department in Tsinghua University in 1930s, and outperformed their math peers. Later on, Shiing-Shen Chern went to Hamburg and Paris to study geometry, while Loo-keng Hua went to Cambridge University with the reference of N.Wiener to research into analytic number theory. They were in a kind of competition for the purpose of developing Chinese modern mathematics, but they still kept a profound friendship all their lives.

When Loo-keng Hua passed by Berlin in 1936, he was invited by Shiing-Shen Chern to watch the Olympic games; and the next year, Chern visited Hua in Cambridge University on his way to France. After the breaking out of the Anti-Japanese War, they came back to work together in the National Southwestern Associated University for five years. Although life was hard, and they lived in one room, they made great academic achievements.

After 1943, Chern went to Princeton University to study differential geometry, whilst Hua finished Additive Theory of Prime Numbers, and began the innovative work on matrix geometry and automorphic function. Chern went back to China to become the acting director of the Institute of Mathematics of Academia Sinica in 1946, while Hua went to Princeton in October. After the new year of 1949, Chern took a teaching job in the University of Chicago and invited Hua, professor of the University of Illinois, to deliver a speech. In 1950, Chern was invited to give a one-hour report at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Cambridge, Boston, which showed his high position in the international mathematics field. Shortly afterwards, Chern and Hua waved goodbye at San Francisco, and they did not met for a long time.

The long-term separation provided the two masters totally different academic and living environment. Chern grew more effective in global geometry studies, while Hua acted as a Chinese national science idol. They both devoted themselves greatly to Chinese scientific restoration in the twentieth century.

As American-Chinese relationship became better in 1972, Shiing-Shen Chern went back to Beijing after the 23 years’ absence, and was treated to roast duck immediately by Loo-keng Hua. Chern later gave a speech concerning the content and meaning of mathematics at Tsinghua University, which was hosted by Hua, and they expressed admiration towards each other before the speech.

In order to strengthen the scientific connection between the US and China, a foreign mathematician of the National Academy of Sciences of America had to be elected. Felix Browder and Shiing-Shen Chern, along with some other academicians, elected Loo-keng Hua, and the most important academic introduction was written by Chern. It turned out that Hua was qualified to be a foreign academician, and he attended an academician conference held in America in 1984.

Loo-keng Hua was invited to pay a personal visit to America for half a year in 1980, and lived in Shiing-Shen Chern’s house (the whole first floor was made available for his group) when he was at Berkeley. And when Hua went to the California Institute of Technology in 1983, Chern drove over 400 kilometres from Berkeley to meet Hua for the last time.

Shiing-Shen Chern and Loo-keng Hua worked in the same area and worked together. People thought they might have conflicts in the aspects of social status, academic evaluation and opportunities, but it was lucky for the Chinese mathematics world that they didn’t have the tiniest misunderstanding.

Chinese mathematics will never forget the two giants, as the top math prizes are called Shiing-Shen Chern and Loo-keng Hua respectively: one for life achievement and another for young mathematician’s outstanding work.

World mathematics will also remember Shiing-Shen Chern, as the International Mathematical Union announced the issuing of the Chern Medal with CMF, in order to commemorate the late great mathematician Shiing-Shen Chern (1911, Jiaxing, China – 2004, Tianjin, China). The medal started to be issued since 2008 at three year intervals.

Although he took up US citizenship, Chern always had a strong emotional connection with China. He broke off contact with Japanese classmates after the Lugouqiao Incident, became angry with Japanese customs officers when asked to open up his luggage, and organized the advertisement donation of “saving Diaoyu Islands”. After Chinese reform and opening, he went back to Nankai University to host the Institute of Mathematics, and left San Francisco for Tianjin in 2000. His tomb was set next to the building of the Institute of Mathematics.

Shiing-Shen Chern is regarded as an American Chinese mathematician by many people, but to my mind, his devotion to Chinese mathematics should not be simply concluded as “American Chinese”. Thus, when editing his index for Cihai, I wrote: “Shiing-Shen Chern, Chinese mathematician with US citizenship.”


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