Richard Pang-Nian Bien (卞彭年)

Richard Pang-Nian Bien (卞彭年, pinyin Biàn Péngnián) was the oldest child of Z. S. Bien and Kuo-Kin (Guojin) Li, two future students in American universities. He was born in about 1902 (January of 1901 according to Chinese sources), and in my previous post on the Bien brothers, I indicated that Z. S. Bien’s children were born in Shanghai, but most immigration documentation for their children, including Richard, state that the children were born in Yangzhou. It’s probable that Richard and his brothers grew up there in the care of relatives while his parents were pursuing degrees at Brown University beginning in 1906. As detailed in the previous post, Richard’s parents were in America from 1906 until 1913, when Richard was between the ages of 4 to 11 years old.

Richard Pang-Nian Bien teaching.
Richard Pang-Nian Bien teaching
Richard Pang-Nian Bien upon his graduation from Brown.
Richard Pang-Nian Bien upon his graduation from Brown

Richard P. N. Bien first arrived in the United States in 1920 and entered Brown University, just like his father and uncle before him. He originally entered the country with plans to begin a general study course and stay for six years, and he appears in the 1923 Brown Yearbook as a junior (Liber Brunnensis, pg. 198). His home address in that yearbook is listed as Tientsin due to his father moving there for his work with the Bank of China. Richard doesn’t appear in the 1921 Who’s Who of the Chinese Students in America – probably arrived too late to be included – but the 1922 CSA Handbook surprisingly lists his mailing address as being “care of Colorado College, Colorado Springs, CO” (Chinese Students’ Alliance, 1922). Possibly he knew a student or faculty member at Colorado College who was keeping his mail, or maybe he took summer classes there. However, I can’t find any documentation, apart from this mention, that he was connected with any school other than Brown at this time.


Speaking of Brown, Richard shows up in the Brown yearbook, the “Liber Brunnensis”, quite often. He was a member of several clubs and organizations. In my research I have found that university yearbooks are the fusty and offhandedly racist reflections of their times; in that vein the 1924 Brown University Yearbook has this to say about Richard P. N. Bien: “Four long cycles ago this lonely lad from the far off Orient arrived far-heralded and much sung on the Brown campus. Every one expected a triumphal procession with all the mandarins, Pung, Chows and Chicken Chow Meins in the land officiating; but not at all, Dick was regular and more thoroughly civilized than most of his frowsy classmates. Since then Dick has conquered the Engineering Lab., the Philosophy Department, and the Colgate Hoyt. And this he has done through sheer willpower and true personality. Dick leaves us in June for the native kith and kin; and he will be missed; but we know he will spread the right kind of Brown in China, and send to this country more men like himself” (Liber Brunnensis, pg. 102).


When he graduated Brown in 1924, Richard  was a James Manning Scholar. Despite the previous yearbook quotation, indicating that Richard was planning to return to China in June of 1924, he then shows up in the Cambridge, Massachusetts city directory as living at 15 Wendall Street in 1925, so he may have been taking classes or researching at Harvard. Chinese sources state that he began Masters work at Harvard, but had to return to China due to illness (Wuchang Government Website, original text: “1924年获美国布朗大学哲学学士学位,同年又进入哈佛大学攻读硕士学位,一年后因病回国”).

He then returned to China and lived on Derby Road in Tientsin, most likely with his father. There he met and married his wife, who went by the English name Elsie. The two of them returned to America in August of 1932 as students. They were headed to Boston: Richard was going to attend MIT and his wife was going to attend the New England Conservatory of Music. They both appear in the 1933 CSA Handbook: Richard as a science major and Elsie as a music major (CSA Handbook, 1933). Richard also appears in the 1933 MIT yearbook as a graduate student who had already earned his PhB (Bachelors of Philosophy). According to the alumni record, Richard was studying for his doctorate in electrical engineering and was the recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship (Brown Alumni Monthly, 1933). Richard and Elsie lived at 458 Huntington Avenue in 1933 and 54 Forsyth Street in 1934 and 1935  – both in Boston – and are listed as students. They returned to China not long after completing their graduate work.


When Richard returned to China, the Bien family had moved back to Shanghai, while Richard had taken a position at Huachung University. This university was originally Boone College/University, which had been founded by Christian missionaries and was the home institution of many a Boxer Indemnity Scholar. The school had had its ups and downs throughout the war and moved campuses several times; in fact, on the official letterhead of the university, you can see different names and addresses crossed out or added on as befit the current situation of the university. Richard and the Biens suffered several bombing raids at the school during the war (Brown Alumni Monthly, 1937). Richard served as the dean of the school of science at Huachung as well as the head of the department of physics. He and his wife had a son not long after returning to China (Brown Alumni Monthly, 1933).

In 1947, Richard was offered a one-year fellowship by his alma mater, Brown University (United Board, 1947). He took the opportunity to advance in his research, which is detailed in the previous link, concerns electrical physics, and which frankly I cannot understand at all – I’m a language and pedagogy academic here, not a scientist. However, several of the letters in the set linked previously not only detail the work he was doing, but take the other letter writers to task for not being more discreet with the discussion of such sensitive material! Apparently Richard’s research had military applications. He continued research in this vein (whatever it was) after returning to China in June of 1948 (Brown Alumni Monthly, 1948, Wuchang Government Website, original text: “至五十年代初,他先后在国内外有关刊物上发表了数十篇极具价值的科学论文.”)


Information about his life after the Communist Revolution is slim; Richard and his family remained in China and information about that time in history, especially on the personal level, is hard to come by. I seem to recall seeing that one of Richard’s nephews had written a dissertation for an American university sometime in the 80s, in which he thanked “my uncle, Richard Pang-Nian Bien”, but I can’t find that source now. According to the Chinese government, Richard passed away on 17 July 1990 in Beijing, China, after an illness (Wuchang Government Website, original text: “1990年7月17日,卞彭因病在北京逝世.”)

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