By Prof. Zheng-Kang Shen 08/25/23
From left to right: An Yin, Zhengkang Shen, and Shaozhuo Liu. 6/30/2022.
I’ve had the privilege to know An for the past four decades, since we both graduated from the same university (albeit from different departments) and went to the US for graduate study in 1983. However, it wasn’t until the last two and a half decades that I truly came to know him. In the mid-1990s, while he was a professor and I was a research scientist at UCLA, he invited me to collaborate on an NSF proposal studying tectonic deformation of the Altyn Tagh fault, situated at the northern boundary of the Tibetan plateau. This marked the beginning of our friendship and collaboration, which lasted until the day of his fatal departure.
During our initial project discussions, I confessed to An that I knew little about Tibetan tectonics. He responded, “No worries, just count on me. I’m the living encyclopedia for that!” Indeed, his extensive knowledge became invaluable, and his personal lectures opened the door of Tibetan tectonics for me. Besides, his comprehensive collection of books and papers, many acquired from Chinese academic bookstores, proved very useful for me. Some of his meticulously gathered maps (in an era prior to google map!) played a pivotal role in planning and executing our field surveys. Our collaboration turned out to be a perfect match: while my Chinese colleagues and I began using GPS to decipher crustal deformation in China and yielding preliminary findings, An’s insights and interpretations helped fostering our understanding of related tectonic processes and mechanisms. Our collaboration extended into the 2010s, with one project identifying a fault with a concealed seismic gap in North China. An mastered geological, seismological, and geodetic data to formulate a coherent model, and incorporating our GPS deformation data helped reveal changes in the deformation pattern over an earthquake cycle.
During a discussion about conducting tectonic research in Tibet, I was struck by one of An’s remarks: “People often get frustrated due to the difficulty and challenges of fieldwork, but I tell them: all of that also makes it exciting!” This spirit echoed JFK’s view about the Apollo mission to the moon: “We do it not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard!” Beyond scientific discoveries, An embraced challenges and relished in the process. The harsh natural terrain and climate of Tibetan wilderness also offered a chance to appreciate its breathtaking beauty. Navigating bureaucratic hurdles while working in the region honed his social and negotiation skills. An shared an anecdote with me about a field trip he took to Tibet, during which a rental car driver unexpectedly halted the car in the middle of nowhere, demanding a substantial pay raise. An adeptly negotiated with the driver, ensuring the fieldwork proceeded as planned. At the end of the trip he resolved the issue with the driver’s company, settling it with adhering to the original contract agreement. It became one of An’s cool tales.
For the past two decades, both An and I collaborated extensively with Chinese scientists on research projects involving China, traveling frequently between the US and China. However, during the summer of 2019, at the climax of Trump administration’s “China Initiative,” An was detained for hours at the airport upon returning from a trip to China. The FBI questioned him about his ties and activities in China. Upon his return to UCLA, he immediately shared his encounter with me. Learning that I had scheduled a trip to China for collaboration work in the following month, he strongly urged me not to go. Witnessing how deeply he was perturbed and considering the unknown risks, I took his advice and canceled the trip. An later reached out to the UCLA chancellor’s office to report the occurrence. The school initially did not support him but questioned his activities in China. Undeterred, he wrote an open letter to the chancellor’s office, asserting that he had done nothing wrong but dedicated all his works for the benefit of science and education in both countries, which deserved recognition, not investigation. Fortunately, the school quickly recognized their mistake, apologized to him, and declared its intolerance for unfair treatment of Chinese scholars. Once again, An’s courage, persistence, and integrity prevailed.
My bond with An extended to our families as well. Prior to the pandemic we occasionally had parties together, and enjoyed food, conversations, An’s anecdotes, jokes, and remarkable photo collections from field trips. Our children found joy in playing video games together. After An’s departure I searched for his photos for remembrance, and found one taken by An during Shaozhuo Liu’s visit last year. Shaozhuo is a former student of mine, his trip to southern California led him to UCLA for a day, and he hoped to consult An about research issues during his visit. An rearranged his schedule, chauffeuring the three of us to a restaurant in Westwood. Sitting outdoors under the sun of southern California, we chatted freely for hours. An’s insightful and unreserved responses, life experiences, and abundant humor will forever resonate in our memories.
An departed this world while leading a summer field trip for students, an activity he always enjoyed to do. He fell while engaging in two things he loved the most: conducting geological field survey in nature and educating students. He truly “fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.” He will be remembered, for his accomplishments, his compassion for those around him, his resilient and positive spirit for life, and the joyful moments he shared with us. He will be forever in my heart.