Fred Engst: Growing up amidst Chinese revolution

An offspring of revolution

"My mother was from an intellectual background, unlike what some reports said," Dr. Engst stressed. "They were from the May flowers, WASP, if you will." His grandmother  Carmelita Hinton,  an educator, was the founder of the famous Putney School his mother Joan attended which was known for its stress on instilling in its students a healthy set of work ethics and a well-rounded and practical skill set. "My mother was taught to believe there is nothing she couldn't achieve in this world," Dr. Engst said in his presentation.

Joan Hinton during her college days at the University of Chicago. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Engst

During her college days at the University of Chicago, she was fascinated by Physics. Her classmates were Chen Ning Yang (杨振宁), Tsung-Dao Lee (李政道), and her advisor was Enrico Fermi, all Nobel Prize winners. "My mother had a bright future ahead of her," Dr. Engst quipped, "but if she did have that bright future she was going to have, what would happen to me?"

It was the World War Ⅱ that changed Joan's fate. A young and prospering researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, she was a member of the Manhattan project which she believed was to serve the purpose of preventing the Nazis to own the nuclear weapons rather than to actually use it. The US dropping the nuclear bomb on Japan in 1945 angered all the scientists at Los Alamos who lobbied for international control of the nuclear weapons. Joan later left the project and returned to the University of Chicago where she thought she could continue to do "pure science" until two years later she found out that her scholarship was funded by the US Navy.

The discovery was devastating to Joan. Realizing that her study and research were contributing to the development of the weapons of mass destruction, her conscience would not let her continue. She decided to leave. Where to? At the repeated request of Sid who she knew through her brother William Hinton, she decided to go to China.

Before Sid came to China, he went to visit Joan in Los Alamos where they spent some time together. For two years since then, they had been writing to each other, according to Dr. Engst. "My father always said 'come Jo, you can study physics anytime. But if you don’t come to China now, you are going to miss the boat.' I think the truth is my father was having a crush on my mum but my mum was not very much into romance at the time. She wanted to study science," Dr. Engst explained. "She went to China in search of a way out."

Sid and Joan with a Chinese friend in front of their cave dwelling in Shaan Bei, 1949. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Engst

In 1948, two years later than Sid, Joan arrived in China which was in the middle of a civil war. She went through a hard time getting to Yan'an to join Sid. When she finally arrived, everybody was saying to Sid in the local dialect, "Your wife is here!" As if all was planned out, the two young people soon got married in a Yan'an's traditional cave dwelling. In 1952, their first baby, Dr. Engst (Yang Heping), was born in Beijing. Heping, meaning peace, was the very reason Joan decided to forsake her scientific career in the US and came to China, the country where she lived for the rest of her life with her husband. “So that’s why I say without the Chinese revolution, there would not be me. That’s not an exaggeration. That’s the reality of it.” Dr. Engst said.

Family photo taken in 1953. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Engst


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