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Wang Xuan: Modern Bi Sheng

With the invention of a computerized laser photocomposition system for Chinese character typesetting, he proved to the world that Chinese people could independently realize the historic change from letterpress printing to electronic publishing.


His invention is also described as the "second invention of the printing system for Chinese character after Bi Sheng's invention of movable clay type in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), which ushered in a revolution in the history of printing. He had been often dubbed the "Modern Bi Sheng".


Despite his achievements in computer sciences and his glorious titles as the academician with both the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese Academy of Engineering, Wang Xuan, who died of illness Monday in Beijing at the age of 69, is more remembered by his former peers and students as a person with an enterprising and hard-working spirit and one who is easy-going and amicable.


"Modern Bi Sheng" Revolutionized Chinese Character Printing


"His invention marked an 'industrial revolution' in the history of printing and a great leap forward in the press industry of China," said Kang Baoshan, head of the typesetting workshop of the printery attached to the Xinhua News Agency. Kang used to work together with Wang for five years.


Born in February of 1937 in the city of Wuxi, east China's Jiangsu Province, Wang was admitted to elite Peking University, majoring in mathematics and mechanics, in 1954. After graduation, he taught at the Mathematics and Mechanics Department and then at the Wireless Electronics Department of Peking University for about 20 years, researching computer applications, particularly the digitalization of words, graphics and images.


In August 1974, China launched the "748" project to focus on the development of Chinese character processing. Wang was in charge of the research and development of a precision photo-typesetting system for Chinese characters.


Due to backward computer technologies and poor research conditions at that time, Wang and his colleagues faced many difficulties in developing the photo-typesetting system.


"Many workers with the program felt frustrated by the many failures, but Wang often encouraged us to continue. And he often worked all nightlong for days," said Kang, with the Xinhua News Agency printery.


"Wang also tried every means to guarantee that we would have a good rest after work and he often worried about our safety, especially female workers, going back home in the night," Kang recalled.


Wang had been in poor health, but he was extremely diligent and devoted whole-heartedly to the photo-typesetting system for Chinese characters, Kang said.


Xinhua News Agency became the first beneficiary of the laser photo typesetting by computer in 1985, and the Economic Daily became the first newspaper on the Chinese mainland to adopt the technology in 1987.


Wang also helped create a Chinese-language newspaper editing and publishing system using large computer terminals, a Chinese-language laser typesetting system for color printing and a management system for news collection and editing, among others.



An "Ordinary Person"


Due to his outstanding achievements, Wang won numerous awards: appraised the top ten science and technology achievements in China in 1985; was named one of middle and young experts who made eminent contributions to national science and technology in 1986; awarded Tan Kah-kee Science and Technology Prize in 1990; and awarded 1995 prize for advancement in science and technology by the Ho Leung Ho Lee Foundation.


But Wang had lived a very simple life, said Xiao Jianjun, a student of Wang and a member of the board of directors of the Founder Group of the Peking University.


Given his outstanding achievements and contributions to China's printing industry, Wang was entitled to live in a larger apartment, but he and his wife persisted to live in their old 80-sq m apartment. Wang often said, "I am satisfied with my living conditions."


Wang usually wore casual suits and only put on Western-style clothes when he was interviewed or met with foreign guests, said Xiao.


He rode a bicycle to work and never rode a car specially arranged for him by the Founder Group, when he worked at the company, Xiao said.


"Wang was unassuming and amicable, and helped and cultivated young people with a noble heart," said Liu Qiuyun, deputy head of the computer institute of Peking University.


Liu said, Wang Xuan often used his bonuses to award and inspire young people who made marked progress and outstanding contributions in research.


In 2002, Wang used his 9 million yuan (more than US$1 million) bonus to establish the "Wang Xuan Science Research Fund" to support the research work of the computer institute of the Peking University.


He invented the laser photo typesetting system for Chinese characters, but he did not name system with his own name.


(Xinhua News Agency February 17, 2006)

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