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Tian

A Chinese Odyssey

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My colleague Cindy Tian is vice chairman and senior director of Public Affairs for Edelman Asia Pacific. I called her on Monday to console her on the loss of her father, who lived to the ripe age of 93. I told her that she would need to take a few weeks with her mother and siblings, to tell stories and remember the good times with her dad. Then she passed along her father’s story, which I will now share with you because it is, in fact, a microcosm of the tale of modern China.

71 Years in LoveYachuan Tian was born in 1920 into a poor farming family in Shandong Province, one of seven children. He went to work in the fields at a young age, only managing a partial education between harvests and planting. At age 18, he walked 1,500 kilometers to the nearest large city, Harbin, seeking a better life. Through distant relatives, he got a job at a retail establishment as a delivery man. Eventually, the owner of the store had the bright idea to fix him up with his daughter, Yuanzhen Chi. They married in 1942 and had seven children in the course of a 70-year marriage.

The Tian family lived through the war with Japan, then the revolution that brought forth the People’s Republic of China. In 1950, Mr. Tian was asked to manage the newly-established pencil factory in Harbin by the city government. He created the famous “Temple of Heaven” brand. He developed export markets; eventually he achieved distribution in over 60 nations. He worked at the company for 40 years. At age 90, he got a patent for a new design of a pencil.

Mr. Tian’s career was rudely interrupted for a decade by the Cultural Revolution in the mid-‘60s. He was sent to “confession room”, then was forced to labor as a cleaner in the same factory where he was general manager. He was accused of being a “Capitalist Roader.” He made a comeback in the ‘70s after the Cultural Revolution had run its course.

Kung fu

He was determined to stay in shape, practicing kung fu until his 90s. As Cindy told me, “He loved to show off to us from time to time.”

Mr. Tian was very interested in Cindy’s move from Burson-Marsteller to Edelman. He read the “Book of Dan.” He wanted to know whether Edelman China was profitable. He wanted to be sure that Cindy understood the basics of customer service.

The parallels between my father and Mr. Tian are so obvious. They lived to a ripe age because they were still engaged in work they loved. They had life partners who made sure that the family side was as important as the professional. They took the time to remain fit, whether through tennis (in my dad’s case) or through kung fu practice. They kept learning and remained curious about the world around them, loving the interaction with young staffers.

My dad would have turned 93 on July 3; that is exactly the age of Mr. Tian when he passed away on June 13. So raise a glass tonight to a Brooklyn boy and a Harbin boy. As Cindy wrote me, “His dedication to and passion for what he did, his love for life, his learning spirit and his generosity to people around him have made a huge impact on me.” I second that emotion.

Richard Edelman is president and CEO.

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