Z. S. Bien (卞夀孫, pinyin Biàn Shòusūn) and his brother F. S. Bien (卞福孫, pinyin Biàn Fúsūn) were born to a well-known and politically-connected family in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province. Z. S. Bien was the older brother – he was born on 13 September 1884 – while the younger brother F. S. Bien was born on 11 June 1886. In fact, Z. S. Bien was the oldest of six children.
In 1900, at the age of just 16 years old, Z. S. Bien married Li Guojin (李國錦, pinyin Lǐ Guójǐn), who was the daughter of another well-known Yangzhou family. It was a political marriage, which is why it happened at such a young age. This was actually the second generation of marriages between the Li and Bien families (Sheehan, 23). Z. S. Bien and his wife moved to Shanghai where Z. S. Bien studied at Aurora College, a French Catholic missionary institution (24). They had five children while living in Shanghai, all sons, two of them twins. They left their children there in the care of family in 1906 and went to America via British Columbia and Malone, New York (US entry paperwork, via ancestry.com).
Z. S. Bien spent a year at Ithaca High School, then enrolled in Brown University to study Political Science and Economics. He chose Brown specifically because there was not a large Chinese population in the area: “I believed that if I could not have any Chinese to talk to I would become more quickly acquainted with the English language”, he commented in a Providence, Rhode Island newspaper article (cited in Sheehan, 24). In 1908 and 1909, he and his wife lived at 41 Angell Street in Providence, Rhode Island, and then from 1910-1912 at 81 Barnes Street. Both Z. S. and his wife, going by the English name Eleanor, show up in the 1911 and 1912 Directories with the same address information. While in America, the Biens had another son, who was just two years old at the 1910 Census. Z. S. Bien graduated from Brown in 1912 and the family returned to China in December of that year, where he was appointed assistant secretary of state to the then-brand-new Republic of China (Stevens Point Gazette, 25 June 1913, link to ancestry.com copy). In addition to their six sons, they had a daughter in 1915.
The summer after Z. S. Bien returned to China, F. S. Bien followed in his older brother’s footsteps and traveled to America to attend Brown. He arrived in California in June of 1913 and made his way to Rhode Island from there (US entry paperwork). He entered Brown as a special student in 1913 (Catalogue of Brown University, 1913) and lived at Hope Hall, room 17 (Brown Yearbook, 1914). Possibly because of this special student status, he does not show up in any of the Chinese Students’ Association directories, even though he was in the United States and at Brown for the 1914 and 1915 Directories. He graduated in 1917 and returned to China where he married a woman named Pan Wai Cheun/Vee King, sometime between 1917 and 1920. They had two daughters.
F. S. Bien again followed in his older brother’s footsteps upon his return to China. After serving in the government, Z. S. Bien went into banking, a career his brother F. S. Bien then promptly entered. The brothers had slightly different career focuses, however. For example, F. S. Bien traveled internationally for his work, visiting the Bank of London in 1929 (UK entry paperwork). Z. S. Bien, on the other hand, stayed in China and worked closer to home. He became the manager of the Tientsin Office of the Bank of China in 1920 and in 1922 added the position of manager of the Peking Office. The Biens, both Z. S. and F. S. – when he was in town – lived on Derby Road in the British Concession of Tientsin. Z. S. Bien specifically was integral in maintaining stability at the bank in Tientsin; a good source for this part of his life is the book Trust in Troubled Times, by Brett Sheehan, cited earlier.
Brown University kept up with the Bien brothers for many years, not only because Z. S. Bien was the first Chinese student to attend Brown, but also because the brothers were the first in a long line of Biens to attend Brown. Three of Z. S. Bien’s sons attended Brown: the oldest son Richard Pang-Nien graduated from Brown in 1924, his son Paul Bai-Nian (one of the twins) in 1928, and his son George Sung-Nian (the other twin) in 1934. His daughter, Edith Chu-Nian attended Pembroke College, the women’s college for Brown, and graduated in 1938 (Encyclopedia Brunoniana, “Asians”). The other Bien children who did not attend Brown did attend universities. Z. S. Bien’s son Charles Wan-Nian attended Harvard Medical School in 1938, while Edward Mei-Nian attended Yenching University (Bakersfield Californian, 24 Oct 2002) and became a famous paleontologist with a dinosaur named after him: The Bienosaurus. I can’t find any schooling information for F. S. Bien’s oldest daughter, but she and her husband later moved to W. Lafayette, Indiana, where her husband worked at Purdue. Several of these children and their experiences will be addressed in future posts of their own.
Z. S. Bien and his wife arrived back in America in 1949 and headed to New York so he could work at the Bank of China branch there (US entry paperwork), but unlike their previous trips, they never returned to China. He retired in 1951 and the Biens eventually moved to California, where most of the family joined them in the 50s (Bakersfield City Directory, 1964). They lived with Edward and his wife in Bakersfield in the 60s while Edward was working as a geologist for the Richfield Oil Company (Bakersfield City Directory, 1965). F. S. Bien, on the other hand, returned to America in 1952 with his wife and went to W. Lafayette, Indiana, presumably to live with his daughter and her husband (US entry paperwork).
Z. S. Bien lived a long life and predeceased his wife when he died on 6 November 1968 of a heart attack (Chicago Tribune, 1968). He is buried in Vallejo with much of the rest of his branch of the family (Brown Alumni Mag, Feb 1969). Probably the neatest thing about Z. S. Bien is his diaries. He kept a diary almost every single day from 1914 to 1968, which is both amazing and fascinating; it’s always great to have a person’s own words when telling their story. The diaries have been published in simplified characters and can be gotten via InterLibrary Loan pretty easily. F. S. Bien, on the other hand, is a bit more of an enigma. For example, I don’t have any death information about him, but I know he predeceased his daughter, who passed away in 2010. Nevertheless, the two brothers made their mark both on China and America due to their participation in the Boxer Indemnity Scholar movement.