Ssu-Yu Teng


Fulbright Award (1955)
Fulbright Award
Indiana University Bloomington


Ssu-yu Teng, University Professor of History Emeritus, died on April 5, 1988 at the Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. A few weeks earlier he had been struck by an automobile while hurrying back to his office at Indiana University's Ballantine Hall. He had lunched at home and was eager to return to his latest research project--a book on blood brotherhoods in the Ch'ing dynasty. He was 81 years old. Professor Teng was survived by his wife, Margaret Henriques Teng; three daughters, Elizabeth Smith, Dorothy Krug, and Patricia Cobb; and one grandchild.

Born in China's Hunan Province August 12, 1906, Ssu-yu Teng studied at Yenching, an American missionary school that maintained close ties with Harvard University. He was a member of a new generation of young Chinese intellectuals who built a bridge between their Confucian past and the modern, scientific culture of the United States and Europe. At Yenching he edited the university's Historical Annual and served as an instructor in history from 1935 to 1937, when he joined the staff of the Library of Congress in Washington as Assistant Compiler in the Orientalia Collection.

The following year he entered the Harvard University Graduate School with a Leighton Stuart fellowship and received his Ph.D. in history in 1942. He spent the years of World War II at the University of Chicago as Assistant Professor of Chinese History and Literature and as Acting Director of the Far East Library of the Oriental Institute. When in 1943 the United States Army established an area program at Chicago to teach languages to selected soldiers, he directed the Chinese Studies Section. He also collaborated with H.G. Creel to produce an innovative series of language textbooks for the military students. He spent the academic year 1949-1950 at Harvard and at the end of the year joined the Department of History at Indiana University.

During his first decade in Bloomington, Professor Teng laid the groundwork for the subsequent building of the East Asian Studies program with the courses he taught in history and in the Chinese language and with his perseverance in putting together a substantial research collection in the university library.

Ssu-yu Teng once reflected on his own life: "Just as lively fish without water would die, so a research scholar without access to books could perish." More than an accomplished historian, he was a consummate bibliographer whose range and depth of knowledge of Chinese writers and writings were extraordinary. A colleague once observed wryly that S. Y. Teng was a "walking bibliography." Only at great risk, he said, might one challenge him on Chinese sources.

During his long and illustrious career he wrote alone or collaborated on some twenty books, more than fifty articles in major journals, and countless reviews. At Indiana University he focused on Nineteenth Century rebellions in China, but his publications ranged from a study of the Chinese examination system, Confucian family rules, Chinese diplomacy at Nanking in 1842, and the historiography of the Ch'ing and Ning periods to items in a biographical dictionary of Republican China, the emergence of Japanese studies on Japan and the Far East, and Chinese secret societies in the Twentieth Century. He also found time to bring out in 1964 a textbook, Advanced Conversational Chinese, as a sequel to his World War II language manuals. Teng's magnum opus, The Taiping Rebellion and the Western Powers, appeared in 1971.

Teaching also played a large part in S. Y. Teng's busy life. A former student wrote on the occasion of Teng's retirement in 1976, citing The Analects of Confucius: "He never grew tired of learning, nor weary of teaching others." His lectures were authoritative and ably delivered. Moreover, he exhibited a histrionic bent that enabled him to give life to actors from Chinese history, some dead for more than two and a half millennia. Understandably he was at his best with graduate students. But he was always a strict taskmaster, expecting the same integrity, the same commitment that he brought to his own research. Like Confucius, Ssu-yu Teng believed that the researcher who "cherished comfort" was not fit to be deemed a scholar. A dedicated scholar would sacrifice his life, if need be, to preserve his virtue intact--perfect virtue, according to the ancient philosopher-reformer, being composed of gravity, generosity, soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness--all qualities prized by the Indiana University educator.

Professor Teng's office on the seventh floor of Ballantine Hall, unlike his well-ordered mind and his work habits, had become, through the years, a clutter of library books, papers, desks, files--and a much-used microfilm reader. Only he, of course, knew where everything was. Colleagues could pass the door of 718 almost any hour of the morning, afternoon, or evening, on almost any day of the week, confident that they would find his light burning. Confident too that S. Y. was engrossed in some project, pouring over a new book or the galleys or pageproofs of another book-to-be, or perhaps hard at work on his current piece of research. Nor were his trips out of town occasions for diversion. A colleague, commenting on Teng's preoccupation with scholarship, wrote, "To him holidays and vacations were just an extension of his long and indefatigable hours of work and study, year in and year out."

Even S. Y.'s retirement, at the mandatory age of 70, was never intended to be seen as closing the book on a distinguished career. Rather, it was the last paragraph of one more chapter in a long and action-filled life. A teacher who had instructed him at Yenching a half-century earlier predicted in 1976: "The best is yet to come." In 1981 Teng brought out another book, Protest and Crime in China. And at the time of his death he was deeply involved in his new and exciting research venture.

Few have achieved the international recognition accorded Ssu-yu Teng, but in Bloomington, among his students, friends, and colleagues he will be most fondly remembered, not for his numerous publications, but for his legendary culinary prowess. He brought to the art of cooking the same dedication, the same striving for perfection, that characterized his scholarship. To receive an invitation to dinner by Margaret and S. Y. was a privilege and an experience to be savored for a lifetime. If they rarely sat at the table with their guests, it was not for any want of hospitality. Rather, they delighted in the sheer artistry of preparing and bringing from the kitchen a seemingly endless succession of Chinese dishes--while S. Y. provided a running explication, each new course more delectable than those preceding. After such a sumptuous repast at 905 South Hawthorne Drive a friend was moved to comment, "To delight in good food, well prepared and properly served, is to create the perfect order in a microcosm--and therefore to realize heaven on earth." S. Y.'s style of living, he said, must have been nobly inspired. "Few in our time have pursued this ideal with the same zeal and devotion." Fine sentiments indeed with which to build memories of University Professor Emeritus S. Y. Teng.