In 2011, China released a biopic movie “Dr. Qian Xuesen” (钱学森/DQX) about the father of its missile and space programs. The title character, better known in the West as Tsien Hsue-Shen (1911-2009), was an aeronautics professor at CalTech and cofounder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The different romanized spellings arise from transition from Wade-Giles phonetic transliteration from the late 19th century to Hanyu Pinyin adopted in the second half of the 20th century.
DQX opens at the Juiquan launch complex on 18 May 1980 with a Dong-Feng-5 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test, albeit shown with a single rocket nozzle, rather than four for the actual DF-5. Designed for silo launch, the DF-5 used hypergolic propellants (that spontaneously ignite on contact), as did the American Titan missile family. After a eulogy tribute, Tsien (played by Chen Kun) attends a musical performance in 1947 Shanghai and proposes marriage to the lovely opera singer Jiang Ying (1919-2012, played by Zhang Yuqi). He returns to the United States followed by his new wife Ying and resumes his research at CalTech in Pasadena under Hungarian immigrant Theodore von Kármán. As a historical side note, CalTech is in Los Angeles, and we are given a glimpse of the block letters for HOLLYWOODLAND in the background in one scene, although by then the last four letters had been removed.
After Mao Zedong had conquered the mainland in late 1949, the film reveals that China had kept in contact with Tsien. American immigration officials accuse Tsien of Communist party association and what follows throughout the movie constitutes a comedy of errors – or a tragedy, depending on one’s perspective, as the U.S. government revokes his security clearance and orders Tsien’s deportation. At the same time, he is accused of espionage (based on published technical papers in his collection), and so deemed a flight risk and prohibited from leaving the country. While under surveillance, he completes a servomechanism control textbook on Engineering Cybernetics, published in 1954 by McGraw Hill.
Eventually, China negotiates release of eleven American captured airmen for Tsien. Despite pleas from CalTech president Lee DuBridge to remain, Tsien departs Los Angeles aboard the SS President Cleveland with his wife and two children Yonggang and Yungjen on 17 September 1955. Three weeks later, Tsien arrives in Shenzhen, China (which is right across from Hong Kong). Thereafter, along with the exception of a few flashbacks to his American colleagues, we see Tsien working in developing Chinese ballistic missiles for testing in the Badan Jaran Desert. In the wake of a Sino-Soviet cooperation beginning in 1950 and which was later withdrawn, Soviet rocket technology was copied for China’s DF-1 in late 1960 with subsequent incremental modification. Other than the mention of “natural disasters” which happened during the Great Leap Forward, the rest of DQX focuses on Tsien’s teaching his students about rocketry and fawning recognition from soldiers and officials, coupled with confident predictions of future success.
Later in the film we see Tsien investigating the crash from a DF-2 missile launch in February 1962, of which he determined its likely causes, followed by a static fire test the following year. The climax centers around the first and only ballistic missile launch with an active nuclear warhead on 27 October 1966. Typical of virtually every film and contrary to Newtonian physics, the rocket engine powers the missile throughout the ballistic trajectory. The associated DF-2A flies westward six-hundred miles from Juiquan launch center in Gunsu (along the Ruo Shui river) to explode at Lop Nor, a dried-up salt lake in Xinjiang. The film concludes with Ying’s appreciation and Tsien’s funeral.
A Realistic Portrayal During the Cold War
American Conservative contributor Helen Andrews has commented on the film, suggesting that Tsien’s divided loyalties rendered America’s decision to invite him in 1935 for study at MIT and later conduct research for defense projects as unwise. Given America’s benefit from receiving talented immigrants such as Charles Proteus Steinmetz (Prussia), Nikola Tesla (Serbia), Leo Szilard, John von Neumann and Edward Teller (Hungary), Enrico Fermi (Italy), Wernher von Braun and Maria Göppert Mayer (Germany) and Chien-Shiun Wu (China) to advance our science and engineering, this seems quite unfair.
According to his son Yonggang, Tsien understandably resented his two-week imprisonment followed by five years of house arrest on false espionage charges. A proud and accomplished man, Tsien’s apparent vacillation may have resulted from profound confusion over arcane bureaucratic interference during his academic and military research, and the realization that his colleagues at CalTech could not relieve his predicament, despite their public intervention. Resigned to his circumstances, perhaps he decided to become the big fish in a small pond, since he couldn’t remain a medium fish in a large lake. After retirement in 1991, his seclusion restricted contact, so we’ll probably never know.
DQX is freely available to watch online in both Chinese and English subtitles. Although the film is clearly propaganda, anyone who enjoyed Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer will appreciate this film as a fairly accurate portrayal of an academician in a challenging technical field during the heights of the Cold War. Our historical knowledge of Tsien’s life benefits from extensive documentation, with biographies such as Thread of the Silkworm by the late Iris Chang and Return to China One Day by Chengdong Lv. Brief tributes from Nature and Aviation Week present condensed summaries. Born in 1911 in Shanghai and raised in Beijing, Tsien graduated from Jiaotong University in 1934. Arriving on American shores in 1935 on a three-year Boxer Rebellion scholarship to study at MIT, he transferred the following year to CalTech under Professor von Kármán, who devoted a chapter to Tsien in his posthumous memoirs The Wind and Beyond.
In 1939, Tsien completed his doctorate from CalTech and four years later accepted assistant professorship there while conducting research for (and effectively co-founding) Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). In the meantime, Nationalist China tacitly permitted Tsien to extend his stay in the US. After Germany’s surrender, he consulted for the Army on the V2 rocket, and then returned to MIT in 1946. Despite receiving an offer to become president of his alma mater Jiaotong in 1947, he applied for permanent residency, which necessitated exit and reentry. This provided the opportunity to court Ying before his return that year.
After deportation in 1955, Tsien began organizing the Chinese missile program in a country with minimal industry. The Soviets had provided specialized assistance, but political differences constrained further progress, so his extensive knowledge filled that void. One of Tsien’s assistants suggests his mentor’s technical and managerial advanced China’s missile program by two decades. Meanwhile, Tsien participated in political activity to survive the famine during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) and mayhem of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
After Mao’s death, Tsien’s denouncement of Deng Xiaoping diminished his political standing to a sidelined figurehead. Instead, he devolved into a dilettante, extolling both socialism and the paranormal. Perhaps had Tsien instead been naturalized, his life might have been less tumultuous and more productive, while he would have continued to teach aeronautics in leading institutions. But then most of us wouldn’t have learned about him. Pity that today Chinese missiles threaten our fleets and homeland thanks to paranoid midwits from three-quarters of a century ago. But then, history is full of ironies.
Photo Credit- DramaFocal- Dramas