Remembering Fu-Shiang Chia

(Edmonton) The University of Alberta is mourning the loss of one of its all-time great biologists, administrators and people, who lived a life so rich and full it is hard to believe he was just one man. Fu-Shiang Chia died Aug. 22 after an extended illness. He was 80.

Born in Shandong, China, in 1931, Chia was born into a desperately poor family whose only literate member was his grandfather, an itinerant countryside judge and fung shui master, who, when Chia was seven years old, began to give the future scholar rigorous lessons in Chinese classical literature. Though illiterate, the boy’s mother was a natural, gifted storyteller who recognized in her fourth son an unusual intelligence and an extraordinarily curious nature. When he was 15 she urged him to “go far away,” wanting him to procure an education somehow and to develop his mind to its full potential. For the next three years he wandered about eastern China amidst the dangers of the vestiges of the Japanese invasion and occupation and the armies of the advancing civil war. As a vagrant vagabond, he was often reduced to begging or to petty commerce such as selling single cigarettes or pieces of candy scrounged from ubiquitous war dead in order to earn enough for a meal.

Chia’s family, though very poor, actually owned the plot of land from which they drew subsistence, and therefore were under threat from the advancing communists in 1949. An uncle assisted him to gain safe passage to Taiwan, where he was briefly imprisoned as a suspected communist spy. Upon release, he was given the rank of lieutenant in the KMT Nationalist army.

After two years, he was decommissioned and began to study for his bachelor of science degree in biology at the National Normal University of Taiwan. In 1961, his academic excellence gained him a scholarship to the University of Washington in Seattle, where he earned a master’s of science and a PhD in marine invertebrates.

Chia moved from the West Coast in 1969 to the join the U of A’s Department of Zoology. Although he maintained an active research presence at the Friday Harbor Laboratories of the University of Washington and at the U of A-shared Bamfield Marine Station on Vancouver Island, Chia says he was often questioned about a landlocked university’s interest in ocean animals.

"Many people ask us, `Why is Alberta, a prairie university, interested in marine studies?' My answer is that, because we are a prairie university, we must be. We must educate our students to that fantastic system, otherwise we deprive them of exposure to a very large quantity of knowledge," he said in 1987.

Chia, a devoted family man, established a world-wide reputation for his academic work, publishing more than 200 refereed scientific articles and four books on his specialization on intertidal invertebrate marine animals, but it was his work as a mentor that set him apart.

"[Dr. Chia] showed me how to be compassionate, how to be a good mentor and teacher, and how to basically handle people," said former long-time zoology lab co-ordinator Ron Koss in 2007. "Only in the last few years have I really come to appreciate how much I learned from him."

From 1978 to 1983, Chia was chair of the Department of Biology, and from 1983 to 1993 he was the dean of the university’s Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research, where he led by example to instil his own virtues of devotion to academic excellence, fairness, innovation and integrity.

Chia was recruited in the mid-1990s by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology as a professor to help that university in its ambitious program to become the MIT or Cal Tech of Asia. After four years there he enjoyed a brief stint as the director of the Taiwan National Aquarium before returning to Edmonton.

This story of scientific and administrative achievements relates only half of Chia’s professional life. During his mature years his mind returned to his tutelage by his grandfather in the 1930s. He quickly gained a vast readership in Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China and in the Chinese diaspora, prolifically publishing books of poetry, philosophical essays and popularly accessible, yet scholarly translations of Chinese classics. Probably his greatest scholarly contribution to the world—and certainly his favourite work—was his 2008 publication of a tri-lingual translation of the Shi Jing, the oldest extant collection of lyric poetry in the patrimony of world literature, translating the Classical Chinese text into modern Chinese and on into contemporary English.

Although his pure marine research days were behind him by the time his translation of the Shi Jing, entitled Airs to the State, was published, Chia’s search for answers continued on through his art.

“There is almost no art which can be divorced from the natural world,” he wrote in Airs to the State. “We need biodiversity. Nature’s creatures are necessary for humanity’s survival, and birds, beasts, grasses and trees are our soul.”