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While in Philadelphia Jiang Zemin Will Visit A Man Both Sides Trust

【Philadelphia Inquirer, October 27,1997】 He has lived on the 22d floor of Center City's Academy House for a decade. A 94-year-old retired University of Pennsylvania professor, white-haired, frail, hunched over his cane as he shuffles down the hallway, he seemed unexceptional to his neighbors, and remains unknown to the people of Philadelphia. 

All that will change on Thursday, when the president of China, Jiang Zemin, will stop by for green tea and pastries with Professor Ku Yuhsiu. 

Ku taught Jiang operational calculus 50 years ago, when Jiang was a student in Shanghai. But that is not the chief reason for this astonishing visit. Ku has won a place in Chinese history books by spanning the chasm that has divided China and Taiwan since 1949. Although Ku fled China after the Communists took power, he has remained a friend to both the Communists and their Nationalist enemies. In his long and amazing lifetime, the still-sharp-minded Ku has been a teacher or adviser to the current and former presidents of China, the current and former presidents of Taiwan, the Dalai Lama's brother, and a host of other high-ranking officials. "Both the Communists and the Nationalists trust me, and they value my opinion,'' Ku said in an interview last week in his book-cluttered apartment. "Because they know I am totally objective. I am not on either side.'' 

Only a man of his experience and self-confidence could say, as he did last week, that he is not particularly surprised by Jiang's scheduled visit to his home. This is a man who earned his bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees at MIT in just 4 1/2 years. He has written 32 books, and is an accomplished playwright, historian, engineer, poet and composer. He is regarded in China as a national treasure. Indeed, when he first met Jiang in Shanghai, it was Ku who was the celebrity intellectual and Jiang who was the anonymous student. Ku can't even remember Jiang being in his class. "I had many students,'' he said with a smile and a shrug. 

Ku "used to be driven to our campus every Saturday,'' remembered Hun Sun, a Drexel professor who in the 1940s was a classmate of Jiang's and a student of Ku's. " He would barely get out of the car. He just lectured. And he wouldn't entertain any questions or grade any papers. He was too important. He was a high official.'' 

Ku has met Jiang or other government leaders each time he returns to China to see his brothers and children. He said with his trademark mischievous smile that he expected to speak about "world peace'' with Jiang during this week's visit. 

Chinese such as Ku, who can act as emissaries between China and Taiwan, are increasingly important as China seeks to woo Taiwan back, said University of Michigan China scholar Kenneth Lieberthal. "Mainland China is seeking a variety of ways to extend an olive branch to Taiwan,'' Lieberthal said. "To most Americans, this isn't visible. But China is working hard to develop intermediaries.'' Ku is the perfect go-between, said Antonio Chiang, publisher of the Taiwan Daily newspaper in Taipei, Taiwan. "He is one of the few remnants of a long-ago era in Chinese history when the Communists and the Nationalists worked together to defeat the Japanese,'' Chiang said in a telephone interview last week. "He is neutral, a nonpolitical Chinese diplomat and scholar.'' 

Ku is revered in both China and Taiwan for his patriotism and savvy. He gained fame in pre-civil-war China in 1933, when he volunteered his students at Tsing Hua University to make 8,000 gas masks for Chinese troops fighting the Japanese. According to Ku's autobiography, One Family - Two Worlds, extreme material shortages in wartime forced them to make the masks out of coconuts, tin foil and gauze. In 1937, his students made 10,000 more masks, and to dramatically demonstrate their love for "the motherland,'' he persuaded them to test each mask in a death chamber of sorts before they were passed on to the troops. 

He soon became Nationalist President Chiang Kai-shek's adviser. He was a wartime cabinet member and a Chinese National Assembly member after the war. He was president of two leading universities and taught in two of China's finest schools after the Sino-Japanese war. Then he fled China when the Communists took control in 1949, staying briefly with the Nationalists on Taiwan, then moving on to MIT and, finally, to Penn in 1952. Although Ku never formally joined the Nationalist Party, his history with its government and diplomatic ranks should have made him persona non grata in China. 

Instead, Communist leaders from Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping to Jiang have met with Ku. Ku's unusual relationship with generations of Chinese Communist leaders stems from his friendship with Zhou during the Sino-Japanese war, when they were members of China's wartime cabinet. Zhou, along with Mao Tse-tung, later would establish Communist rule over China. "From a Chinese point of view, if I am a friend of Zhou Enlai, then I am a friend of his successor Deng Xiaoping,'' Ku said. And likewise, because he was very close with Nationalist Chiang Kai-shek, he is also automatically considered a friend of Chiang's successors. Ku's three well-educated and accomplished brothers in China, and two more in Taiwan, also have helped him maintain relations with both sides." I speak with them both, the Communists and the Nationalists,'' Ku said, adding with a smile: "just not at the same time.'' 

Accordingly, in preparing for Jiang's visit, Ku took down from the wall in his one-bedroom apartment a poem written by Taiwan's president in celebration of Ku's 90th birthday. In its place, he hung a nonpolitical Chinese painting. And he moved his scroll of Jiang's calligraphy - also a gift - to the center of his cluttered living room between two huge bookcases full of books in Chinese and English. It is surrounded by photos of Ku with Chiang Kai-shek, Ku with Deng Xiaoping, Ku with Jiang. Ku, who is not one to downplay his accomplishments, described his connections to everyone who is anyone in China, his correspondence with presidents on both sides, as the rewards of a long life. "I'm just an old man who has lived a long time and knows many people,'' he said in an interview last week. "You live a long time, these things happen.''

By Rena Singer