Woman Beats 'Torrents' in Life with Undefeatable Strength
Cong Yuhua March 14, 2017Comments(0) Post Your Comment E-mail Print Save

It is possible — perhaps even likely — few Chinese youths have heard of Li Pei, 99, wife of Guo Yonghuai (1909-1968), a famous scientist specialized in mechanics and applied mathematics. Most elderly Chinese, though, are familiar with Li, and many elderly Chinese refer to Li as "the most beautiful rose in the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS)." Li has left deep and shining "footprints" behind her. During the 1980s, Li and Tsung-Dao Lee, a well-known Chinese-American physicist, sent China's first self-funded students overseas to study.  Li established the English department at the Graduate University of Chinese Academy of Sciences (GUCAS, renamed University of Chinese Academy of Sciences [UCAS] in 2012), which became China's first graduate school, in Beijing in 1978. At that time, Li was nearly 60 years old. When she was 81, she established Zhongguancun (a technology hub in Beijing, often referred to as "China's Silicon Valley") Lecture Hall. From 1998-2011, she invited many Chinese celebrities, in various fields, to give lectures to Beijing residents, to help them improve their cultural and historical knowledge, and their ability to appreciate works of art. Despite all of her achievements, though, Li keeps a low profile.

In October 1956, Guo quit his job (as a professor) with Cornell University, in New York State, and returned to China with Li and Guo Qin, their daughter. Before that, Qian Xuesen (1911-2009, a brilliant rocket scientist who led China's space and rocketry programs) wrote several letters to Guo Yonghuai, to persuade him to return to China to work at the Institute of Mechanics, under CAS (in Beijing). At that time, Qian was the institute's president.

Shortly after Guo Yonghuai and Li returned to China, Guo Yonghuai was appointed vice-president of the institute. Li, on the other hand, was hired by the Bureau of Foreign Affairs, under CAS.

Guo Yonghuai was killed in a plane crash in October 1968, during his return flight from the nuclear test base, in Northwest China's Qinghai Province, to Beijing. The soldiers, who rushed to the scene to clean up the debris, saw two bodies hugging each other tightly. When the soldiers separated the bodies, they surprisingly discovered there was a briefcase between the bodies. The papers, which contained the missile's test data, had not been damaged. At the last moment of their lives, Guo Yonghuai and his guard, Mou Dongfang, used their bodies to protect the data.

Li remained calm when she heard the news. She stayed awake during the night, sighing softly in bed.

Li was caught in a greater "torrent" in her life, in 1997, when cancer claimed Guo Qin's life. Despite her grief, Li did not shed tears in front of others. A few days after Guo Qin's death, Li continued teaching at UCAS. Her voice was hoarse. 

Yan Jiyi, Li's colleague, says he admires Li for making constant, painstaking efforts to improve her work.

Li will never forget September 18, 1999. That was the day she attended the awards ceremony to recognize the 23 Chinese scientists who had scored outstanding achievements in promoting the development of China's first atomic bomb, missile and man-made satellite between 1964-1970. Guo Yonghuai was the only martyr among the award winners. The ceremony was held in the Great Hall of the People (in Beijing).

On that day, many of Guo Qin's friends visited her so they could see the gold medal, which weighed 515 grams. Four years later, Li donated the medal to the University of Science and Technology of China.

Kindhearted Woman

Li has offered a helping hand to those in need during the past few years, to repay society for the care and assistance she has received. She has donated money to mentally challenged children and victims of the magnitude-8 earthquake that razed large areas of Southwest China's Sichuan Province on May 12, 2008. 

Accompanied by Li Weige, a young man who is her friend, Li Pei went to the bank to donate 300,000 yuan (US $44,776) to the Institute of Mechanics and the University of Science and Technology of China a few years ago. Li Pei reportedly told Li Weige, "I just want to donate the money to the institute and the school. It's unnecessary to make a fuss about it by holding a ceremony." 

Li Pei leads a simple life. The tea table in her living room was part of the dowry offered by her parents to Guo more than 60 years ago. Several of Li Pei's descendants have compared her with Marie Curie, who never sought fame and fortune. 

On June 4, 2013, the 104th anniversary of Guo Yonghuai's birth, Li Pei donated her late husband's treasures, including a seal, a slide rule and a Longines watch, to the Institute of Mechanics. 

Li established the English department of UCAS in 1978, two years after the cultural revolution (1966-1976) had ended. At that time, she was nearly 60 years old. 

Li Pei encouraged her students to read the world's classic novels. She required her students to defend their graduate theses in English. Many of Li Pei's students were impressed by their smiling, but strict, English teacher.

Peng Gong, director of the English department of UCAS, says Li Pei is a kindhearted woman, who always acts swiftly and resolutely.

'Fair Lady'

A short time after China and the United States had established friendly ties, in 1979, Li Pei began encouraging her students to apply to postgraduate programs at US universities.

Li Pei and Tsung-Dao Lee in the 1980s implemented a program, under which excellent students from UCAS' Physics department were sent to universities in the United States to complete postgraduate studies.  As a member of the program's organizing committee, Li Pei wrote examination questions designed to gauge the English-language proficiency of her students. 

By the end of 1988, some 76 American universities had enrolled 915 Chinese students who had been recommended by Li Pei and/or Tsung-Dao Lee. 

Li Pei taught English at UCAS until she was an octogenarian. Ma Shizhuang, Deputy Secretary of the Party (Communist Party of China) Committee of UCAS, and a former student of Li Pei, says Li is the "greatest teacher." Adds Ma: "She not only taught us knowledge, but she also helped us cultivate good traits, such as tolerance, amiability and optimism."

Li Pei is a "fair lady," Ma says. "She has witnessed tremendous historical and social changes, experienced by people worldwide, during the past dozens of years. Despite the ups and downs in her life, she has remained concerned about China's education development, and about the well-being and the overall capacity building of our country … Ms. Li is an optimistic woman, who is always confident about China's future."

Organizing Forums

In 1998, Li Pei, then 81, established Zhongguancun Lecture Hall, in Beijing. From 1998-2011 she organized more than 600 forums, during which she invited many Chinese celebrities to give lectures to Beijing residents, to help them improve their cultural and historical knowledge, and their ability to appreciate artworks. The activities were well received. Many of the participants said the forums helped enrich their knowledge. 

Li Pei always stayed calm and patient when she handled trifling matters, such as discussing forums' themes with the speakers, and arranging the time for the activities. 

As Li Pei had little money to organize forums, she did not pay for the speakers' lecture fees. Many of the lecturers were her friends. When she was 94, Li Pei stopped organizing forums, because she lacked energy. 

During the past few years, she has met a dozen of her former students, most of whom are aged 80 years or better, each week in an office of the Institute of Mechanics. They have been discussing how to promote China's scientific development.

Li Pei, who enjoys listening to music and watching dramas, sometimes discusses the relationship between art and science with Tsung-Dao Lee. Li and Lee both believe art and science are like two sides of a coin, as they both stress profundity, universality and eternality.

Once, when someone asked Li Pei what beauty was, Li replied, "Beauty is an abstract concept. For example, mathematics represents beauty." Now, she thinks those people who do something to help improve residents' lives are beautiful.

"I never feel lonely, as I have too many things to attend to," says Li Pei. "All I want to do is try my best to help others, so they can live better lives." 

(Executive Editors: FAN WENJUN and GU WENTONG, Women of China English Monthly December 2016 Issue)

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