Tso-hsin Cheng

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Tso-hsin Cheng (郑作新 also transcribed as Zheng Zuoxin) (18 November 1906 – 27 June 1998) was a Chinese zoologist known for his seminal work on the ornithology of China and for developing research on birds within China. Educated in the United States he stayed in China after the Second World War when many of his academic colleagues moved to Taiwan. He was punished during the Cultural Revolution despite being a member of the Communist Party and having chosen to stay on in China.


Early life[edit]

Cheng was born in Fujian in 18 November 1906 and grew up with an interest in the local birds. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was very young and he was taken care of mostly by his grandmother. His father was one of the few Chinese with a higher education and knew English. His father taught him to speak English. As a young boy he was weak and his father encouraged the boy to take up sports. Cheng hiked in the mountains, played tennis and even became a champion 100 m sprinter. His early naturalist interests were in the nature of culinary objects. He collected fish, wild fruit and vegetables which his grandmother cooked. He went to the high school at Fuzhou and sought admission to the Fujian Christian University at the age of 15 which required him to undergo a special test. The English professor of biology there asked the applicants about which vegetable had the highest vitamins and he was the only one to come up with the answer as tomato. Tomatoes were then unheard of in China but Cheng had read about them, leading to his being admitted. He graduated in 1926 after seven semesters after which he wished to move to the United States.[1]


An uncle who was a doctor in Fuzhou funded Cheng's travel and he chose the University of Michigan as a cousin studied there. He studied under Peter Olas Okkelberg and received a doctorate in 1930 for his thesis on "The Germ Cell history of Rana cantabrigensis Baird". He also received a Sigma Xi golden Key award. While in the US he had visited the natural history of the museum and had wondered about a golden pheasant specimen. He wondered why all the species in China in recent times were described by non-Chinese. He also knew of 3000 year old classical Chinese literature which had described a 100 bird species. He chose to return to China and rejected offers to work in the United States.[1]


Returning to China in 1930 he joined the Fujian Christian University and later founded the China Zoological Society and headed the department of biology at Fuzhou. In 1938 his university moved to Shao-wu due to the threat of the Japanese invasion. He moved to the US in April 1945 to work on Chinese ornithology, examining specimens in museums and universities across America. He returned to Fuzhou in September 1946. In 1947 he was forced to move to Nanjing due to civil war between Maoists and the Kuomintang. In 1948 many university staff fled to Taiwan and Cheng also considered it. He however asked around and was told that the communist party needed scientists. He then remained and joined the Communist Party. In 1950 he moved to Beijing and became a curator of birds at the Academia Sinica and founded the Peking Natural History Museum in 1951. He was the first director of the scientific publications office. He translated Joachim Steinbacher's book on bird migration and ornithology into Chinese. From 1955 to 1957 he worked along with Soviet and East German ornithologists in expeditions and studies in southern Yunnan and northeastern China.[1]

Cultural Revolution[edit]

In 1955 Cheng's work in China was interrupted by a campaign to eradicate sparrows (along with mice, flies and mosquitoes). Cheng was against it from the start but it was only in 1959 that he could influence a decision against the killing of sparrows. By then they had been killed, canned and exported to Europe in the meantime. He travelled to East Germany in May 1957. Here he worked with Erwin Stresemann and examined specimens. He also met L A Portenko, Charles Vaurie, Gunther Niethammer which Stresemann called as the "Atlantic Pacific Conference". He however did not attend evening parties at Stresemann's home in West Berlin due to instructions from the Chinese embassy in East Germany. Cheng was made a foreign correspondent of the German Ornithologists' Society through the nomination of Stresemann. Cheng returned to China with stays in Leningrad and Moscow. Returning to China he was faced by Mao's Cultural Revolution.[1]

Scientific work came to a halt and a slogan was that "the more knowledge you possess, the more you are a revolutionary". Cheng was declared as a criminal as he had opposed Chairman Mao's campaign against sparrows. He was told that "birds are public animals of capitalism". He had to wear a badge saying "reactionary" and was made to undergo an examination and made to sweep the corridors and clean toilets. He was given a bird made up of parts from multiple species to identify. After failing the "test" his salary was reduced to a bare minimum. In August 1966 he was kept in isolation in a cowshed for six months and his house was searched by Red Guards who confiscated all his belongings including a typewriter that he valued the most. The Academia Sinica was occupied by the Red Guards from 1967 to 1968 when Mao ordered their removal. Peace returned only in the 1970s and his major work on the birds of China was again sent for publication after being rejected once earlier. It was published in 1978 but dated as 1976 and he was made to include a long quotation from Mao even though Mao had since died. After Mao's death, Cheng was invited to an international symposium of the World Pheasant Association in November 1978. He also spent two months in England during which time he met Sir Peter Scott and G.V.T.Matthews. He also served as a professor at the Beijing Normal University and in 1987 he and his colleagues published a Synopsis of the Avifauna of China. He also edited the Fauna Sinica, Aves volumes from 1970 to 1980. He worked on bird conservation and worked on international collaboration for the protection of migratory species.[2][3][1]

Personal life[edit]

He met Chen Jia-jang (Lydia) while playing tennis and married her in 1942. In 1992 the couple celebrated their golden anniversary with Cheng gifting the golden key from Michigan to his wife and receiving in turn a gift of a golden pencil.[1]


Cheng died from a heart attack in 1998. Several species have been named in his honour including Cheng's jird (Meriones chengi) Wang, 1964. Pamela Rasmussen named the Sichuan bush warbler (Locustella chengi) discovered in 2015 after Professor Cheng.[4][1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Nowak, Eugeniusz (2002). "Erinnerungen an Ornithologen, die ich kannte (4. Teil)" (PDF). Der Ornithologische Beobachter (in German). 99: 49–70.
  2. ^ "Obituary". Ibis. 141: 167. 2008. doi:10.1111/j.1474-919X.1999.tb04279.x.
  3. ^ Hsu, Weishu (1999). "In memoriam: Tso-Hsin Cheng, 1906-1998" (PDF). The Auk. 116 (2): 539–541.
  4. ^ Alström, Per; Xia, Canwei; Rasmussen, Pamela C; Olsson, Urban; Dai, Bo; Zhao, Jian; Leader, Paul J; Carey, Geoff J; Dong, Lu; Cai, Tianlong; Holt, Paul I; Le Manh, Hung; Song, Gang; Liu, Yang; Zhang, Yanyun; Lei, Fumin (2015). "Integrative taxonomy of the Russet Bush Warbler Locustella mandelli complex reveals a new species from central China". Avian Research. 6. doi:10.1186/s40657-015-0016-z.