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Updated: May 4, 2021

I thought I could change my master’s thesis into a book in a year. After working on “Patriots” or “Traitors"? for six years, I had an insight that certain Chinese who studied in the U.S. between 1900-1930 embodied the various chapters that I was writing.

This led to three more years of researching and writing short biographies of fourteen students, one Chinese-Dutch-American family and one elderly American man. I realized that the interests the students had when they were studying in the U.S. formed and informed the direction of their lives when they returned to China.

The short biographies allowed me to “escape” that 25-year “enclosure” of the Chinese Student Monthly, published from 1905-1931, to explore the lives of a scientist, a general, an ambassador, an international judge, two who improved peasants’ lives, and educators including a president of a university.

What should be in a short biography? Besides birth and death, grounding in place is also important. Which encounters set the direction of their lives? Even though it may be a short piece, we seek to present the essence of the person: motivations, hopes and life goals. Ideally, readers could gain insight into the age they lived in, how they and their compatriots both drove and reacted to events.

Giving readers a sense of the tensions that the person felt helps them appreciate the choices the person made. Hard or uncomfortable truth can be revealed by letting people speak for themselves with quotes.

Though it is difficult to capture a person’s life on paper, it feels like a great adventure, a mystery, and a treasure hunt!

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