Charles Wan-Nian Bien (卞萬年 or 卞万年)

Charles Wan-Nian Bien (Chinese 卞萬年 or 卞万年, both of those options have the pinyin of Biàn Wànnián) is the last son of Z. S. Bien that I will be profiling in this blog; I’ll be profiling his daughter Edith Chu-Nian Bien next week. Before I get into Charles’ life, however, I thought I’d share an interesting thought that occurred to me on the drive in to work today. Put succinctly, the educational paths of the Bien family are a pretty good microcosm of the arc of the Boxer Indemnity Scholarships as a whole, and it’s really cool how this one family can illustrate the educational pressures that led to the development of the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship program in the first place, as well as the changing educational landscape in China that accounts for the changing nature of the program over the years.


Z. S. Bien and F. S. Bien came to America early, Z. S. Bien before the Boxer Indemnity program had even begun. Z. S. Bien studied at a French Catholic missionary college; missionary college preparation was a common pre-America educational choice for many Boxer Indemnity Scholars, especially the early ones. He then had to take a year of courses at Ithaca High School in America before continuing on to Brown University. This was also common for many Boxer Indemnity Scholars at the time. The truth is that even with foreign capital funding the missionary schools, the university movement was in its infancy in China at the turn of the 20th century, and many students arrived in the US unprepared for university coursework. It was common for Chinese students to re-take years at universities and even take high school or preparatory classes before entering a US college. Both Z. S. and F. S. Bien then received their undergraduate degrees in America and returned to China to help build the new republic; both entered banking, which was an essential field for the fledgling government. This was similar to other Chinese graduates at this time, such as W. K. Lam who entered governmental service, and H. K. Chow, who became a businessman. The drive to gain Western learning and then use it in the service of China was a strong theoretical underpinning of the entire Boxer Indemnity program.

However, the next generation of the Bien family had a slightly different US educational experience which mirrors the changes happening in the Boxer Indemnity program. As the Boxer Indemnity program continued into the 20s, students were coming to the United States much more prepared for a US university education. This was helped immensely by the efforts of Tsinghua University, created with Boxer Indemnity money, as well as the maturation of the original missionary schools. Therefore, the number of students retaking high school and college courses dropped significantly. Z. S. Bien’s first child, Richard, may have had educational preparation in China, but he entered Brown University immediately with no stops at preparatory courses first, and he took his entire bachelor’s degree at Brown. He even did a little graduate work before returning to China to teach. George and Paul had completed BSs in China at Shanghai College, an American Baptist missionary school which had an almost 20 year history by the time the twins graduated from it, as opposed to the 3 years of operation Aurora College had under its belt when Z. S. Bien left it in 1906. This meant that the standards of Chinese universities were starting to match up with those of American universities, such that Paul only had to take one year of undergraduate work before proceeding to his PhD, while George entered Brown as a doctoral student immediately. They also both returned to China and became teachers. This illustrates the changing needs of the Republic of China and of the desire for Western learning. The focus on post-university careers had shifted from those fields which were immediately helpful to the Republic, such as finance and government, to more long-term goals, such as teaching the next generation in China itself.

As the Boxer Indemnity program, and the Chinese educational system, moved into the 1930s, Chinese students were starting to elect NOT to travel abroad to receive a Western education, or to do so in very specific circumstances. Charles, the next-oldest child of Z. S. Bien and the subject of this post, graduated from medical school in China, and only came to America for a one-year program at Harvard. Z. S. Bien’s next two sons, Edward Mei Nian Bien and James Fung Nian Bien, did not study in America at all, although both had university educations. Edward attended Yenching University and became a noted paleontologist in China, while James went into banking like his father and uncle after graduating from Shanghai Fudan University.


The Boxer Indemnity program ended in 1937 when the Japanese invaded China, but by that point a Western university system was well in place in China, which has managed to survive World War II, the Chinese Civil War, and the bad old days of Communist China. It’s always hard to play historical “what-if”, but even if the invasion hadn’t happened I’m not sure the program would have been necessary for much longer, as the basic purpose of bringing the intellectual class of China more in line with the Western system had by and large been achieved. Of course, to this day many Chinese students still choose to study in America due to the prestige of the universities here, as well as for political and ideological concerns, but the overwhelming, almost philosophical drive to do so which underpinned the Boxer Indemnity movement is largely gone.

The children of the Boxer Indemnity Scholars themselves also have a different educational environment. Most of them were either born in America or were brought to the country at a young age, so they entered the American schooling system in primary school. George, Paul, Charles, Edward, and Edith Bien’s children all entered American schools as permanent residents or naturalized citizens of the United States, and most went on to college in the US as well. This reflects the flight from Communist China undertaken by many supporters of the Kuomintang regime, many of whom had studied in US universities at one time or another. So the children of former Boxer Indemnity Scholars are being raised in the American educational system and attending US universities by default.

Bien family picture.
Bien family picture

Anyway, back to Charles. Charles Wan Nian Bien was born on 16 October 1904, over a year after the twins Paul Bai Nian Bien and George Sung Nian Bien, and about two years after oldest son Richard Pang Nian Bien. Like his older brothers, between the ages of 1 and 8 he was raised in Yangzhou by family members while his parents were studying at Brown University in America.


Unlike his three older brothers, however, he did not study in America right away. He graduated from Peiping Union Medical College, another missionary-funded school in Peking (now Beijing), in 1931, according to Chinese sources. He specialized in internal medicine and cardiology (卞万年, original text: “1931年毕业于北平协和医学院,擅长内科、心脏科”). Sometime before 1936, he married, and he and his wife had three daughters: one born in Peking before his studies in America and two born in Tientsin (now Tianjin) after his return.

In 1938, he came to America to study, entering at Seattle on 12 February (US entry paperwork). He had been working at Peiping Union Medical College and came to the US to study at Harvard Medical School, taking a year’s leave of absence from the university hospital (Peiping Union College Medical Hospital, 7). Interestingly, he did not return to Peking after his year of study, but moved with his family to Tientsin. The hospital in Peking had closed in 1941 due to World War II, so Charles and several of his colleagues began working at Sunnyside Hospital in Tiantsin (卞万年, original text: “1941年协和医院因战争原因关闭后,卞万年联络金显宅、卞学鉴、施锡恩、林崧、林必锦、关颂凯等人,到天津加入了陈善理的恩光医院”).


The fun thing about researching Charles is the number of intriguing tidbits I’ve been able to find about his life. For instance, Charles was a Mason through Hykes Memorial lodge in Tientsin, accepted in October of 1947. This lodge was under the umbrella of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, which has chartered lodges all over the world. It’s possible that Charles’ other brothers were Masons as well – it was not a rare activity among Chinese students who studied in the US – but I have not found records of this, so if they were it must have been with lodges that were founded by Masons in other countries, such as an English Grand Lodge or a Philippine Grand Lodge. Another neat thing about Charles and his family is the house they lived in while living in Tientsin. At the time the area of Tientsin the house stands on was part of the British Concession on Dumbarton Road, which today is 57 Yun Nan Lu in Tientsin (Tianjin). It’s even marked on Google Maps as “The Former Residence of Bien Wannian” (Google Maps). It’s a notable home because it still survives from the 40s, and there are not a lot of foreign buildings that remain from that long ago in China. World War II damaged a lot of them, and the Chinese Civil War in the early 50s destroyed a lot more, especially in areas where the Communists took over and purged all foreign influences. The Cultural Revolution in the 60s and 70s continued this process. So the fact that this British-style building remains to this day is pretty spectacular. It’s also a stunning residence in and of itself, and it shows how well-off and prestigious Charles and his family were in 1940s China (Tianjin Historical Architecture Website).

However, while Charles’ house was preserved, his life in China was not. The family left Tientsin – hours before the Communists arrived, according to a newspaper interview with Charles’ oldest daughter – at the end of 1948. They headed first to New York (US entry paperwork) and eventually settled in Vallejo, California (Independent Press-Telegram, 17 Mar 1957). His parents were living in Bakersfield with his brother Edward, while George was in La Jolla. Charles worked at Kaiser Foundation Hospital, according to the previously-linked newspaper interview. He became a naturalized citizen in 1956 and worked as a doctor for many years. The family moved to Glendale, California, where both Charles and his wife died in 1992: Charles died on 13 February 1992, while his wife died on 27 February. I don’t have any death information other than the date, so I don’t know whether their deaths were related, but I do know they were buried together in Vallejo.

3 thoughts on “Charles Wan-Nian Bien (卞萬年 or 卞万年)

  1. I am the youngest son of Charles Wan-Nien Bien and just found your blog. I have sent the links to my sisters, cousins and my children so they can read as if I passed on some family history to them. Thank you very much for posting your research, it has filled in a couple of memory blanks that my parents didn’t mention.
    J.C. Bien


    1. Great to meet you! Was there anything I didn’t address in the blog post? I always want to make sure that I do justice to the people and the families I write about in this blog, as much as I did for my own great-great grandfather in my first post. 🙂


  2. Just that he also had a son (me) born 1947 in New York City when my mother accompanied my oldest sister while she studied for a year at Julliard.

    We went back to Tienstin but were only there for a short time before fleeing the Communist in 1948 as you have mentioned. Charles also treated General (Vinegar Joe) Stillwell, during WWII, and that connection also helped get us out of China on a military LST transport ship. My parents deaths were not related but just 10 days apart. Charles from pancreatic failure, Suzanne from heart failure, just short of their 60th wedding anniversary.

    A side note: I visited our Tientsin home with my parents and oldest sister in 1984. At that time it had 35 families living in the 35 rooms of the house.


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