From the back of an envelope…



I recently assisted an author in her negotiations with a Chinese publisher to publish her novel as a Chinese ebook. As I am the translator, it is necessary for me to get involved. However, all credits go to this incredible self-published author who has managed to enter the Chinese market all by herself.

While we are waiting for the novel to be assessed and approved for publishing, the Chinese publisher sent me a copy of the publishing contract. (Note: This is because I would be acting as some sort of “agent” for this author, receiving royalties from China and then sending the author’s good share to her in Europe.) It is not the first time I received mail from China, but this envelope from Beijing is really unique.

On the front of the A4-size envelope (21cmx29.7cm or 8.27inx11.69in) are the usual sender’s and receiver’s addresses. On the back, however, are 17 Chinese stamps. I have never seen so many stamps on one envelope before! As you can see from the image above, 16 of the stamps feature the same person. Only the last stamp on the left shows a different person.

This is fascinating to me because, you see, I have never been a true collector of stamps. I gather the stamps and keep them in a big jar — that is all. Even so, each of the images showcased on the stamps tells a unique story, including how they ended up being chosen for use by their country’s post office. It is these STORIES that attract my attention, not the stamps themselves.

So I did a search on the two people whose images are printed on these Chinese stamps that ended up here in Melbourne, Australia, all the way across the world from Beijing. It turned out that the 16-stamp guy (on the right in the image below) is Wang Ganchang (1907-1998), a nuclear physicist, while the 1-stamp guy (on the left) is Guo Yonghuai (1909-1968), an expert in aerodynamics.


I read Wikipedia’s introductions of these two scientists, in both English and Chinese. In Wang’s case, both the English and Chinese versions are quite detailed, with the former being much longer than the latter. In comparison, Guo’s introduction is rather brief in both English and Chinese.

What really grabs me is the way in which these two scientists are introduced. As a translator, I particularly pay attention to the subtle differences between the English and Chinese versions. Listed in full are the titles and awards they received, the important positions they occupied in numerous institutions, the prominent academic and scientific achievements they made, etc. But there is hardly anything about them as PEOPLE – real individuals who had lived and loved, who had wondered and wandered, who had succeeded and failed, who had dreamed.

No wonder most people show no interest in science. Whether it is intentional or not, the really important individuals in science are often hidden behind their achievements. There is no human interest left to be seen.

Which is why I pay particular attention to a tiny detail provided by the Chinese introduction of Guo in Wikipedia. While this is neither verified with a reliable source nor included in the English introduction, it shows Guo as a PERSON and makes me want to know more about him as a Chinese scientist.

The English introduction says: “Guo died of a plane crash on December 5, 1968, when traveling from Qinghai to Beijing.” Now, Qinghai is a province in China’s remote northwest region. What was an expert in aerodynamics doing there?

Guo graduated from Peking University (today’s Beijing University) and went on to study in the University of Toronto and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He later became a professor in Cornell University, but returned to China in 1956 to become the vice director of the Institute of Mechanics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The person inviting Guo to go back to China is Qian Xuesen (1911-2009), who was better known in the United States as Hsue-Shen Tsien or H.S. Tsien. As explained by Iris Chang (author of the renowned The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II [1997]) in her book Thread of the Silkworm (1996), Qian was one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech in the 1940s, but was accused by the U.S. Government of having “communist sympathies”. He was under virtual house arrest for five years, and finally released back to China in 1955, in exchange for the repatriation of American pilots captured during the Korean War. Today, Qian is known in China as the “Father of Chinese Rocketry”. According to Wikipedia, Asteroid 3763 Qianxuesen and the ill-fated space ship Tsien in Arther C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two (1982) are both named after him.

So, let us go back to the question – What was Guo, a renowned expert in aerodynamics, doing in remote northwest China in 1968? The aforementioned extra detail in Wikipedia’s Chinese introduction explains:

(My translation) On December 5, 1968, while returning to Beijing from a mission in Qinghai, Guo’s plane suddenly suffered mechanical failure and dropped to the ground from a height of approximately 400 meters. Both Guo and his bodyguard Mou Fangdong died. As people sifted through the wreckage at the crash site, they discovered Guo and Mou in a tight embrace, and well protected between their bodies were data collected from their recently conducted hydrogen bomb test. Their ashes were buried under the statue of Guo in the Institute of Mechanics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In 1999, Guo was posthumously awarded the famous “Two Bombs and One Satellite” Meritorious Medal by the Chinese Government, which was specially designed to honor those scientists who had made considerable contributions to China’s development of nuclear bombs, missiles and satellites. Guo was the only one, out of the 23 Chinese scientists awarded such a medal, that was referred to as a “martyr”.

So, there you go – my simple curiosity about a stamp on the back of an envelope has led to such discovery of a great story!

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. cindyfazzi
    Nov 30, 2014 @ 01:04:30

    China is mystifying. Thanks for sharing your story!


    • Christine Sun
      Nov 30, 2014 @ 10:44:49

      Hello Cindy, As they say in the musical “Jekyll & Hyde”: “The only thing constant is change.” Looking at it from this point of view, China is not hard to understand. Cheers, Christine.


  2. Jane Bryony Rawson
    Nov 30, 2014 @ 08:54:55

    What a great story: thank you for sharing it.


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