March 17, 2008
Iris Chang’s Thread of the Silkworm
An American Operatic Tragedy in Three Acts

John R. Guthrie
Thread of the Silkworm by Iris Chang
New York, Basic Books, 1995
ISBN 0465006787
This Review refers to the soft cover edition.
329 Pages  $18.95

John R. Guthrie is a former Marine infantry rifleman. He then garnered a formal education to include medical school and became the commanding officer of a U.S. Navy Reserve Shock Surgical Group before going into private practice in the Smoky Mountain foothills of Appalachia. He is the editor and publisher of the monthly webzine The Chickasaw Plum: Politics and the Arts Online. (Link)


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"…this is the stupidest thing this country ever did...he (Chinese-born Rocket Scientist Dr. Tsien Hsue-shen) he was no more a Communist than I was and we forced him to go."

                                                             --Undersecretary of the Navy Dan Kimball

Act I

China: December, 1911. All of China convulsed as death and disorder swept the land. The centuries-old Manchu Dynasty was swept away as the new constitutional democracy of physician/politico Dr. Sun Yat-sen was born. It was in the midst of such turmoil that the wife of a minor education official in the lovely and historic city of Hangzhou labored and brought forth her only child. Mr. and Mrs. Tsien promptly named him Hsue-shen,  “Study to be Wise”. 

Iris Chang, in her inimitable, richly detailed, novelistic style, recounts details that, like cardamom and thyme, add flavor and color to the momentous events of that era. One interesting bit of minutiae involves what the Tsiens typically had for breakfast. Their, to Western eyes, colorful and exotic mode of dress and daily routine are also recounted.

Hsue-shen’s family moved to Beijing, China’s capital for the last five hundred  years and the de facto political center for five thousand years (!). Chang describes the city as a place of towers, stupas, and gates, breathtaking in their bulk of marble and …imperial courtyards that stretched unbroken for miles within crenelated walls….” 

There Hsue-shen won admission through a series of exams to Beijing No. 2 Experimental School, an attached laboratory school for which was controlled by Beijing Normal University.

“As a student in Beijing no. 2, Hsue-shen was spared the rigidity and cruelty that marked much of Chinese education at the time. Beatings,” Chang tells us, “were rare…” His hobbies; Amateur taxidermy, rock and insect collections flourished with his father’s encouragement and approval.   

Act II

Hsue-shen won a prestigious “Boxer Rebellion Indemnity Scholarship” (China over paid indemnities for the ill-fated boxer rebellion Boxer Rebellion of 1900. Theodore Roosevelt used the excess to develop a Chinese scholarship fund. The entwined story of the Boxer Rebellion is a fascinating episode in American and U.S. Marine history, too complex to relate here.)

Funded by this prestigious scholarship, Hsue-shen traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1935 and began his studies of aeronautical engineering at MIT.  Though certainly a premier technological research center, MIT’s aeronautical engineering program was in a primitive stage then. Accordingly, he withdrew from MIT and went to Cal-Tech Berkeley, the then and now epicenter of aeronautics. Faculty there included such luminaries as Theodore von Kármán. A Jew of Hungarian origin, a "mischievous, rambunctious, irrepressible character whose short stature belied a powerful physical presence.” He sensed the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Germany where he taught, so accepted an invitation to CalTech where he become eventually a revered mentor to and valued collaborator with Hsue-shen. 

Hsue-shen was both revered and often feared by his aeronautical engineering students. He had the unfortunate habit of sarcastic rejoinder for what he considered to be “stupid” questions, and evidenced contempt for anyone he considered to be his intellectual inferior. 

He was a moving force in developing CalTech’s renowned Jet Propulsion lab. 

During WW II  Tsien Hsue-shen was appointed a colonel in the US army. In this capacity he traveled to Germany where he interrogated such legendary figures  Werner Von Braun to evaluate their potential as researchers for the U.S. military.

If Hsue-shen’s years a researcher for the U.S can be described as fruitful and rewarding, what followed beginning in the McCarthy era in 1950 and beyond can only be described as a living hell.

Just what was Joseph McCarthy, the drunken senator from Wisconsin who mercifully died of cirrhosis of the liver. McCarthy learned the Right wing despot’s lesson well; the way to control people is to scare the be-Jesus out them. He was assisted by homosexual lawyer Roy Cohn, who was instrumental and brutal in his homophobia against others, and who was outed in a public bathroom in D.C. and eventually died of Aids. J. Edgar Hoover was a prime player also. Law enforcement officials who worked around him confirmed to this writer that he was a carefully closeted homosexual—and a vicious homophobe. His input to McCarthyism including burglaries, smear tactics and innuendo.

There is no country, including the great and lovely one that is my own that doesn’t have its blunders. These mis-steps, in this reviewer’s perception are generally traceable to the arrogance and egomania, the narcissism and self-interest of a certain portion of the power elite who are de facto high functioning sociopaths.

Yet McCarthy has his defenders; Ann Coulter is a glowing example.

Essentially, Hsue-Shen, by then a prime mover in the US’s rocketry program, ended up brutalized, his family humiliated, his career ruined and he was placed on house arrest for five years. Iris Chang follows the twists and turns of his ostracism well, up until the day he was forced to leave the country on evidence that was shabby to non-existent.

China welcomed him like the prodigal returned. There this world-class scientist  developed the Silkworm Missile, among other “great leaps forward.”

To accentuate the tragedy, Hsue-shen was further, and probably more severely brutalized, by his native land than in the one he adopted during the cultural revolution of the 1970’s. In the denouement, the notable scientist who often demanded, "show me the evidence" became strange, developing an enthusiasm for such crackpot theories as ESP. He developed what might be described as a certain megalomania, speaking beyond his expertise in fields such as agriculture. Here one thinks of two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling who started spinning unscientific fantasies posing as science in his declining years. 

An informed populace is necessary to ward off such evils as that represented by Hsue-Shen’s deportation. Iris Chang’s Thread of the Silkworm is a powerful resource to that end.

Curtain Call
Iris Shun-Ru Chang

B. March 28, 1968 Princeton, New Jersey. Father: Shau-Jin Chang, a physics professor at the University of Illinois. Mother Ying-Ying Chang, microbiology professor, U. of Illinois. Brother Michael Chang. Grandparents fled from Nanking. Iris grew up in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. BS, journalism, U. of Illinois, 1989. MS, Science Writing, Johns Hopkins University, 1991. The Chinese in America 2003. Thread of the Silkworm 1995, The Rape of Nanking 1997. According to historian Stephen Ambrose, Chang was, "maybe the best historian we've got." Lived in Sunnyvale, California with husband Bretton Lee Douglas, a design engineer for Cisco Systems. One son, Christopher Douglas. Iris Chang Died by self-inflicted gunshot on a road south of San Francisco near Los Gatos, 11/09/2004.

Requiescat In Pace

(Biographical Information and Photo: Google Images)