Jianzhang Yu 俞建章 (1898-1980)

Distinguished Chinese palaeontologist who was the first Chinese citizen to receive a PhD from the University of Bristol

In December 1935, Jianzhang Yu was the first Chinese student to receive a PhD from the University of Bristol. In the style of transliteration at the time, his name was given as Chien Chang Yü, or C.C. Yü. Yu grew up in a poor family in Anhui Province in China, but studied hard and gained admittance to Peking University in 1920. He studied geology and was a star student, visiting Japan in 1924. He taught at Zhongzhou University in Kaifeng (1924-1928) and then became an assistant researcher at the Institute of Geology in Shanghai.

He began researching the Lower Carboniferous and its corals in South China, describing the stratigraphy of the Fenginian (Yu 1931), and publishing a substantial monograph on the Lower Carboniferous corals of China (Yu 1933), which received a very favourable review in an American geological journal by Groves (1933), who wrote, “Mr. Yü’s paper is destined to occupy a key position in future attempts to link the Carboniferous faunas and strata of the Occident with those of the Orient. One wonders that such an orderly work of high scientific quality can be produced amid the present chaos in China; one is even more impressed by the still masterly hand of the now invalided Amadeus Grabau, which continues to reveal itself in the pages of this and similar works of the Chinese Geological Survey.”

Jianzhang studied under Professor Siguang Li who had earned his PhD at the University of Birmingham. Following in Li’s footsteps, Yu was sponsored by the Institute to study for his PhD in Bristol in 1933. He brought specimens of Lower Carboniferous corals to Bristol, and completed his PhD on these over the course of two years, supervised by Dr Stanley Smith. Why Bristol, and why Smith?

Li’s aim in encouraging his student Yu to travel was because there was no expert on Palaeozoic corals in China at that time, and Yu was to become that expert. He became aware of Stanley Smith’s wide range of publications and his expertise made him the ideal mentor. Yu explained that ‘in comparison with Woods and Elles who taught in the University of Cambridge, it seems that studying with Dr. Smith was the best choice in terms of my research field’. Moreover, ‘compared with spending more than 300 pounds a year for living in Cambridge, the relative low-cost of living in Bristol’ was another attraction. How times change!

In later accounts of his time in Bristol, Yu reported that he found no Chinese compatriots in the city. He spent time in London and Cambridge, attending lectures and visiting museum collections. In Bristol, it is likely he attended meetings of the university’s Geological Society, and of the Geological Section of the Bristol Naturalists’ Society. Remarkably, he published a short paper on local Jurassic ammonites in their journal (Yu 1937a). The paper was read in March, 1937, and he was evidently still in Bristol two years after receiving his PhD. His PhD, on “The Fenginian (Lower Carboniferous) Corals of South China” was completed in winter 1935, and his degree was awarded in December 1935 (Yuan 1963). Yu was quick to publish his thesis when he returned to China (Yu 1937b).

Yu returned to the Institute of Geology before the Second World War, but kept his Bristol contacts and published a paper on fossil corals from the UK and China with his PhD supervisor (Smith and Yu 1943).

The People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, and in 1951, he established the Geological Junior College of Northeast China, recruiting young scholars to study for their doctorates. In 1955, Yu was elected a Member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Academician), the highest honour for a scientist in China. Yu later became Vice President of the Changchun College of Geology, in 1964 (photographs above).

Yu engaged in a wide range of research fields, mainly focusing on Paleozoic corals. He established details of China’s early Carboniferous coral belts and the characteristics of coral groups, laying a solid foundation for China’s early Carboniferous stratigraphic research. He worked on the systematics of heterocorals and rugose corals. He published the monograph Carboniferous-Permian Corals with his students in 1983 (Yu et al. 1983). He had earlier worked on Ordovician cephalopods (Yu 1930), and made several studies on regional geology in China.

After a long career of service to geology and palaeontology, Jianhang Yu died in Jilin in 1980, honoured and respected as one of the founders of the science in his native land. He continued to publish on Palaeozoic corals, and one of his books was published posthumously (Yu et al. 1983).

Read more

Grove, B. 1933. Lower Carboniferous Corals of China. By C. C. Y. “Palaeontologica Sinica,” Series B, Vol. XII, Fascicle 3. Peiping: The Geological Survey of China, 1933. Pp. 135; pls. 24. Journal of Geology 43, 330-331.

Smith, S. & Yu, C.C. 1943. A revision of the coral genus Aulina Smith and descriptions of new species from Britain and China. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 99, 37-61.

Xiao, L. 2020. A Chinese geologist at Bristol. Read this study here.

Yü, C.C. (= Yu, J.Z.) 1930 Ordovician Cephalopoda of Central China. Palæontologia Sinica, Ser. B 1(2), 1-101.

Yü, C.C. 1931. The correlation of the Fengninian system, the Chinese Lower Carboniferous as based on the coral zones. Bulletin of the Geological Society of China 10, 1-30.

Yü, C.C. 1933. Lower Carboniferous corals of China. Palaeontologica Sinica, Series B 12(3), 1-211, 24 pls.

Yü, C.C. 1937a. Notes on the development of some Upper Lias Ammonites. Proceedings of the Bristol Naturalists’ Society, Series 4 8, 210-216.

Yü, C.C. 1937b. The Fenginian corals of south ChinaMemoirs of the National Research Institute of Geology (Nanking) 16, 1-111, 12pls.

Yu, J.Z. 1995. Huiyi Lisiguang Laoxiansheng 回忆李四光老先生[Memories of Li Siguang]’, in Tong Zongsheng, ed., Daxue Xiaozhang Yi Laoshi Sanwen Xuan 大学校长忆老师散文选, Hunan Wenyi Chubanshe, Hunan.

Yu, C.C., Lin, Y.T., Shi, Y., Huang, Z.X. and Yu, X.G. 1983. Carboniferous and Permian Corals. Jilin People’s Publishing, Nanjing, 357 pp (in Chinese).

Yuan, T.L. 1963. Doctoral dissertations by Chinese students in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 1916-1961. Chinese Culture 4, 107-137. Read this report.