George Sung-Nian Bien (卞松年) and Paul Bai-Nian Bien (卞柏年)

Today’s post is about the twin sons of Z. S. Bien and his wife Guojin Li: George Sung-Nian Bien (卞松年, pinyin Biàn Sōngnián) and Paul Bai-Nian Bien (卞柏年, pinyin Biǎn Bǎinián). Before I get into that, however, this seems like a good time to get into traditional naming conventions in Chinese and the way I write the students’ names in this blog.


Since I am writing (mostly) in English and discussing students in an American context, in this blog I write out the students’ names in Western fashion: given names (first and middle) first, and family name second. You may have noticed that I often refer to students by their first initials and family names, which was the media style of the time used in newspapers and primary sources. Around the turn of the 20th century it was common practice in these sources to refer to men by the initials of their given names, followed by their family name. Unmarried women were referred to as “Miss”, followed by their full given names and family names, or “Mrs.”, followed by the full given names or initials of their husbands and then their husbands’ family names.

Chinese names are, of course, written “backwards” from the Western perspective, with the family name coming first and the given names second. However, because most Chinese given names are two characters long, this means that their names are easily adaptable to the early 20th century Western media style of naming. Z. S. Bien is a great example of this: his given name was “Zue Sun” (currently romanized to Shou Sun), and in Chinese his name was written 卞夀孫, or Biàn Shòusūn. However, since the given name was two characters, it stood in quite well for the American first name-middle name system of given names, making 卞夀孫’s name in America “Z. S. Bien”.

You may have also noticed that the three of Z. S. Bien’s children that I have mentioned  so far have the name “Nian” (年 in Chinese) as the second character of their given names: Richard Peng-Nian Bien (卞彭年), George Sung-Nian Bien (卞松年), and Paul Bai-Nian Bien (卞柏年). As a matter of fact, Z. S. Bien also shares a bit of his name with his brother, F. S. or Fu Sun (福孫) Bien, the second character of their given names being 孫. This shared character is what is known as a generational name, which is shared by all the members of a current generation in a family, siblings and cousins alike. Since 年 is the generational name of Richard, Paul, and George’s generation, all of Z. S. Bien’s children have it as the second character of their given names, as do F. S. Bien’s daughters, although I have only been able to find documentation of one of them using it: his oldest daughter, whose Chinese given name was Li-Nian.

Paul Bai-Nian Bien on his graduation from Brown, 1928
Paul Bai-Nian Bien on his graduation from Brown, 1928

Anyway, back to the twins. Both George and Paul were born on 2 July 1903, more than a year after oldest brother Richard. Chinese sources seem to indicate that Paul was the older, followed by George (blog post, original text: 卞白眉二子卞柏年、三子卞松年均是留美化学博士). Like Richard, they were born either in Shanghai or Yangzhou, and they lived with family from the ages of 3 to 10, when their parents returned from studying in America. At the age of 24, Paul B. N. Bien headed to America to study at Brown, like his father, uncle, and brother before him, entering San Francisco on 8 September 1927. Unlike his family members before him, however, Paul entered Brown as a senior. According to the Brown Alumni Monthly, Paul had earned a B.S. at Shanghai College in 1925 before going to Brown, so it’s probable that most of his credits transferred from there (Brown Alumni Monthly, Dec 1930). Richard had graduated from Brown and returned home to China three years earlier, so Paul was in America on his own. The 1928 Liber Brunensis has this to say about him: “Paul is from the chaotic China. In spite of the unrest of his country, he joined us last fall in the pursuit of knowledge. Before he came here, he was an employee of the Golden Sea Chemical Industry Research Institute, connected with the Pacific Alkali Company and the Jiu-Ta Salt Refinery at Tanku, North China, for two years. He hopes to remain here for further training after his graduation. Let us watch his future” (Liber Brunensis, 1928, pg. 31). He did in fact stay in the country after graduation, living in a boarding house at 94 Croyden Street in Providence, Rhode Island in 1930. He received his doctorate in chemistry from Brown in 1932 (Brown Alumni Monthly, Jul-Aug-Sept 1932).

Meanwhile, George had also made the trip to Rhode Island. He arrived in San Francisco on 13 August 1930 at the age of 27. He entered Brown as a graduate student; like his twin, he had received his B. S. from Shanghai College in 1925 (Brown Alumni Monthly, Dec 1930). Also like his twin, George studied chemistry and received his PhD in 1933 (Brown and the World). He also boarded at the house on 94 Croyden Street. Neither he nor Paul appear in any CSA Handbooks of this time, and the brothers both returned to China in or around 1932 or 1933, passing Richard on his way back to America to do graduate work at MIT.


Upon returning to China, Paul got married in Tientsin on 11 December 1937, according to his naturalization petition, and he and his wife had three daughters born in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Paul taught for a time at the Hopei Institute of Technology (Brown Alumni Monthly, Jun 1936). The family returned to America in 1955, headed for Indiana University in Bloomington (US entry paperwork), but they moved around from school to school as befitted Paul’s research. According to the Brown Alumni Monthly, Paul was a research assistant in the Chemistry department of IU in 1956, but soon left to take an assistant professorship at Youngstown University in Ohio, teaching Physical and General Chemistry (Nov 1956). Not long after that they moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. This is where Paul was living and working as a research chemist when he applied for citizenship in 1961 (naturalization paperwork). Oak Ridge, incidentally, was key in the Manhattan Project and the development of the nuclear bomb in 1942-46, and is still the largest science and energy laboratory in the US Department of Energy system. In addition to whatever probably classified work he was doing there, he continued to teach; he left Oak Ridge in 1968 to join the faculty at Furman University (Brown Alumni Monthly, Sept 1978). He retired from his associate professorship at Furman in 1973 (Brown Alumni Monthly, Mar 1973). Paul died in a car accident on 23 July 1977 in Greenville, South Carolina (Greenville Index Journal, 4 Jan 1978), so the family must have stayed in the area after Paul’s retirement from Furman. However, the Biens must also have put down strong roots with the scientific community in Tennessee, because he is buried in Oak Ridge with his wife, who outlived him by 20 years. Two of his daughters ended up attending Pembroke College, the women’s arm of Brown University (Brown Alumni Monthly, Sept 1978).


George also married upon returning to China, in July of 1938 in Kowloon (a suburb of Hong Kong) to an American-born Chinese woman, with his twin Paul serving as best man (Brown Alumni Monthly, Nov 1938). George and his wife had three daughters and one son while living in China; George was teaching chemistry at Kwangsi University.  The family returned to America in 1950 – George’s wife and children came to San Francisco by boat in May of 1950 (US entry paperwork), while George flew over in September (US entry paperwork). George became a citizen on 4 March 1953, claiming an address in San Diego. The family eventually settled in La Jolla, where George continued his research. He worked as an assistant research chemist for the oceanography department of the University of California in 1960 (Circular of Information, 1959-60). He passed away on 5 September 1975 in San Diego; like his twin, he predeceased his wife by 23 years.

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