Obituary: David Jen 1928-2002

by Michael Bates

David Jen, the Society’s hard-working volunteer for Chinese and East Asian material, died on September 7. His sudden death was a shock to his ANS colleagues and to all who knew him. David had been working at the ANS since 1997, and was named ANS Distinguished Volunteer for 2000. He was also a member of the Committee on East Asian Coins.

David, a native-born American, had a most interesting life. His father was a student of English literature, who graduated from Qingwha University and came to this country with a Boxer Indemnity fellowship. (After the foreign powers suppressed the so-called Boxer Rebellion in 1900, a heavy indemnity was imposed on the Chinese government. The U.S. returned its share of the indemnity to the Chinese people by setting up a program to bring students from Qingwha University to the United States.) David’s father was a student at Oberlin College in 1928, when David was born, and later received a M.A. in English poetry from Harvard. His final post in the U.S. was as Chinese secretary in the Orientalia department of the Library of Congress.

In 1936, however, David’s father returned to China. He became a professor of English literature and dean of Guizhou University. David himself began his university education there. But in 1949, when his father fled to Taiwan before the impending Communist revolution, leaving his family to be supported by his wife’s small teacher’s salary, David changed to Guiyang Teachers College, which was not only free but offered a small stipend to its students. Upon graduation, he went to Xichang, Sichuan, to teach high school. After the famine years 1959-61, David, along with many others, was exiled to the Sichuan countryside (this was before the Red Guards became active, but his exile continued during their regime). There he worked in the fields for a few cents a day, or went to the hills to cut firewood for extra money.

In 1975, when Deng Xiao-Ping took control of China, David was permitted to teach in the village school. In 1979 he was “rehabilitated” and began teaching at the Xichang Teachers College. From 1982 to 1990 he taught English at the Foreign Trade Institute in Guangzhou. When he retired, he began the process of obtaining an American passport. The first step was to find his brothers in Hong Kong, from whom he learned that his father had died. In 1993 he went to the U.S. Consulate General in Guangdong (Canton), and in three months he had his U.S. passport, for a fee of $65. He came to the U.S. in 1995.

David’s interest in numismatics started when he was twelve years old and in the hospital, where a friend of his mother brought him a few coins as a diversion. In the 1940s he built up a collection of stamps, and of Chinese silver dollars. His mother was paid in Guomintang paper money, which she immediately gave to David to take to the moneychangers to get silver dollars, which were then exchanged back into paper as needed for expenses. David’s silver dollar collection was built up by selecting from these coins. This collection became dormant when he entered the university, and was taken away in the Cultural Revolution. In the 1980s, David began collecting again, building his collection from purchases and exchanges in the Guangzhou gray market. He was able to bring this collection with him to the U.S. Among his special interests were Han wuzhu coins, Tang kaiyuan, and Silk Road coinage from Xinjiang.

In 1996, David presented himself at the American Numismatic Society to work as a volunteer. He stated that he wished to repay the U.S. for admitting him. Our immediate impression was favorable, but we could not have predicted how well he would turn out. In a little over a year, he completely re-arranged our collection of pre-20th century Chinese cast coinage, including knives, spades, the round coins with square holes, as well as sycee silver ingots, cowry shells, imitation cowry shells, ant money, and all the rest, as well as integrating several large gifts that had remained separate for years. Thanks to David, the entire Chinese cast coinage collection, from ancient times to the beginning of the 20th century, is in proper order by category, dynasty, and ruler, for the first time in the Society’s history. There remains a task for another volunteer, to update our computer catalogue with David’s attributions and to generate uniform labels for all the boxes. The other result of David’s work on our Chinese collection was a book, Chinese Cash Identification and Price Guide, published in 2000 by Krause Publications.

After finishing our Chinese cast coins, David re-attributed and re-arranged our Japanese collection, almost 4,500 coins, and our two Korean collections—our old main collection and the huge Mandel gift—another 7,700 coins. Just recently he got our 20th century Chinese coins in order, nearly 4,000 pieces, and he worked through our hundreds of Chinese charms, a series that has never been catalogued. He was preparing a book on charms that one hopes was practically ready for publication. In addition to his Krause catalogue, which is now well-known, David produced two articles for the Oriental Numismatic Society Newsletter on rare coins in the ANS collection.

Meanwhile he also took a large role in organizing our 1998 Chinese Cast Coinage Conference, and gave two lively and authoritative presentations, including one on the detection of forgeries. He selected the coins, drafted captions, and helped design the conference exhibit, which remained on display for some months afterward, drawing many visitors who came especially to see it. He has helped with the cataloging and arrangement of Chinese books in the ANS library. Courteous, cheerful, and friendly, he was always genuinely happy to respond to inquiries from staff or outsiders, and he made several important donations of rare material. Encouraged by his success at the Society, David began buying and selling Chinese and East Asian coins and had, at the time of his death, built up a profitable business.