Shiing-Shen Chern: The Best Years

Shiing-Shen Chern: The Best Years


Many people have a question – why did Shiing-Shen Chern chose to settle down at Nankai University rather than his birthplace in Zhejiang or Tsinghua University. He had studied both at Tsinghua University and Nankai University. Chern gave us his specific answer: “I spent my best years at Nankai University.”

Nestled at the southwest corner of the central park of Nankai University, the main part of Ning Yuan is a pale yellow two-story apartment. Hidden among trees and plants, Ning Yuan is always far away from the hustle and bustle. In 1987, Nankai University built Ning Yuan, a well-designed residence catering to Chern’s needs. It is his home in China. Since 2000 – the year Chern decided to settle down at Nankai University, he has lived at Ning Yuan.


Ning Yuan

Chern named it Ning Yuan because he pursued a tranquil and serene lifestyle. In this attitude, he was deeply influenced by Einstein. He said: “in 1943, when I first met Einstein in the States, he was the professor of an advanced research institute. We would often see each other. He asked me to visit his home. There were not too many books on his bookshelf, but one of them attracted me. It was a German version of The Classic Virtue of the Tao by Laocius. Many scientists in the western world like the philosophy of Laocius, which is to follow nature. He told me that he seldom met people, including journalists, because he thought that there was not enough time for him. He needed peace. When I named this small building, I remembered this.”

When Shiing-Shen Chern started to study at Nankai University in 1926, he was only 15. At that time, he thought physics was practical so he was willing to study at the Department of Physics. After one year, his attitude towards study and life changed greatly. In that year, the director of the Department of Mathematical Sciences – Jiang Lifu came back after giving lectures at Xiamen University. Chern transferred into the Department of Mathematical Sciences because he hated experiments and he became Jiang’s student.

Chern spent his best times at Nankai University

Shiing-Shen Chern has a natural interest in mathematics. He was the youngest in the class but was one of the top students. Jiang thought highly of this student. In 1929, Chern was nominated as the member of Nankai University Science Committee, and at the same time, he was the key member of the Nankai Weekly academic group. In 1930, Chern entered Tsinghua University through examination and left the campus he had lived in for four years. When the Lugouqiao Incident broke out in 1937, Chern had just obtained his Doctor of Mathematics. He did not hesitate to go back to his homeland which was suffering from the fire of war. He taught at Southwest Associated University. In 1948, as the youngest academician of Academia Sinica (he is also one of the first nominated people), Chern was invited to go to the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies with his family. When he was in America, he was the pride of all Chinese-Americans. Due to his extraordinary contribution to global differential geometry, he won the Wolf Prize in Mathematics, which is comparable with the Nobel Prize. Chern was the only Chinese who had won this highest award in the world of mathematics.

In 1979, Shiing-Shen Chern retired from the University of California , Berkeley at the age of 68. He believed that he could do something in later life. Chern thought his origin is in China, so he claimed naturally that ‘my last undertaking is in China’. As his academic life started at Nankai University, he decided to regard Nankai as the foundation of his last undertaking. He made a wish to contribute the last of his wisdom and effort to his motherland and to his old school.

The interior of Ning Yuan

Although Ning Yuan is tiny, it is acatually ‘a home of geometry’. Scientists like Yang Zhenning, Lin Jiaqiao, Peng Huanwu, Yang Le, Wang Yuan, Wu Wenjun were invited to Ning Yuan. They exchanged ideas and talked about math. But there is no sofa in the sitting room of Ning Yuan, there are only several hard chairs. Staff of Ning Yuan explained that it was Chern’s idea. He said, “If you sit on a soft sofa, you are likely to waste time on useless topics.”

You will find that there is a tiny blackboard in the sitting room, on which Chern always performed ‘magic’ for his students – a multitude of disorganized numbers cancelled each other out under Chern’s chalk, at last only a tidy and simple answer was left on the blackboard. At this moment, Chern would turn around and look at his students, pleased with his ‘magic’. Then they would smile together with understanding.


Ning Yuan in Spring

“My best years were spent at Nankai University.” Although Shiing-Shen Chern is no longer with us, his sincere words are like paper cranes which fly through the School of Mathematical Sciences and wander through the candlelight upon the Xinkai Lake, lingering over everyone’s heart.











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