While imprisoned for being a “reactionary,” physicist and engineer Zhi Bingyi began devising a system to help computing machines read Chinese characters.

Jing Tsu:

It was 1968, two years into the Cultural Revolution. Shanghai was in the middle of an unseasonal heat wave, and its people cursed the “autumn tiger.” Zhi Bingyi had more to worry about than the heat. He had been branded a “reactionary academic authority,” one of the many damning allegations that sent millions of people to their deaths or to labor camps during the Cultural Revolution. Was it still appropriate for Zhi to think of himself as one of the people? Hadn’t he betrayed them, as he’d been told?

Just four years earlier, Zhi had gone to work every day as director of the newly established Shanghai Municipal Electric Instrument and Research Office under the government’s First Ministry of Machinery Industry. It was one of the most secure jobs one could have. First Ministry was in charge of building heavy industrial machines in the early period of New China, and later split off a Fourth Ministry to oversee electronic communications technology. Zhi’s specialty was electric metering—focusing on precision meters and electronic modeling by enhancing the performance of a device’s various parts.

Quiet, cautious, and insistent, Zhi was also highly qualified. He earned a PhD in physics from Leipzig University but declined a job offer in the United States in order to return to China. He taught at two Chinese universities and later helped to devise China’s landmark 12-year Plan for the Development of Science and Technology of 1956. It was a hopeful time for scientists and technicians who were deemed useful for their contributing roles in a state-guided socialist economy.

Since his arrest in July 1968 for being a “reactionary academic authority,” Zhi had been cut off from his research, the news, and his devoted German wife. He was used to working on equations and engineering problems with teams of colleagues. No longer. His only company was the eight characters on the wall of his cell reminding him that prisoners faced two options from their minders: “Leniency to those who confess, severity to those who refuse.”