A Life of No Regrets— An Exclusive Interview with Zhang Sumin, One of the First Batch of Engineering Survey and Design Masters

Release time:2019-12-23 Article source: Reading times: A+AA-

Zhang Sumin, a famous expert in geotechnical engineering and one of the first batch of engineering survey and design masters in China, has served as the Chief engineer in the Survey Institute of the former First Ministry of Machine Industry (currently, China Jikan Research Institute of Engineering Investigations and Design Co., Ltd., hereinafter referred to as "JK Institute") since 1981. He has cultivated a large number of excellent talents for JK Institute and the survey and design industry in China. Over the six decades, he has written more than 50 works, translated English and Russian technical materials of more than 300,000 words, compiled and participated in the compilation of a number of national specifications and manuals, and obtained more than 90 national-, provincial- and ministerial-level science and technology advancement awards and excellent project awards. When he was 85, Zhang Sumin accepted an interview from the reporter of China Machinery Engineering Corporation (CMEC) and talked freely about his life of no regrets.

Studying Hard in Troubled Times

Zhang Sumin was born in Jiashan, Zhejiang in December 1933. In order to escape the Japanese invasion, he led a homeless life and wandered between Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou in his childhood.Though he was born in the trouble times, his father, a science teacher, attached great importance to his education. Every time when they settled down in a place, his father would contact a local school for him. Zhang Sumin studied very hard. Even though he had to keep transferring from a school to another one in those hard times, he was always the one who was the youngest and smallest, but learned the fastest in his class. He completed his elementary and secondary education by grade skipping. In 1948, Zhang Sumin was 15 years old. He was enrolled into the major of Civil Engineering in Shanghai Jiao Tong University that year. In 1952, he graduated with excellent results. At that time, he was only 19 years old. Because of his excellence in character and learning, he was retained to work in the structural mechanics research group of the university. Later, the Civil Engineering Department of Jiao Tong University was merged into the Civil Engineering Division of Tongji University during the national adjustment for university colleges and departments. After that, he worked as a teacher in Tongji University.

"Hard work is always more important than talent". This is how Zhang Sumin summed up his educational experience. When people got used to using an abacus, he first learned the use of slide rule. After the emergence of computers, he mastered the new technology quickly and applied it into scientific research projects. In his eyes, we need not only keep pace with the times, but also stand in the forefront, with the rapid development of science and technology today.

Seeking the Truth, Rejecting Blind Obedience

In 1953, a design cadre school was set up by the Ministry of Heavy Industry in Shenyang for talent training, which, later, cultivated a number of national masters in geotechnical investigation and survey and was hailed as the "Huangpu Military Academy" for the engineering survey development in new China. The organization arranged Zhang Sumin who was engaged in structural design then to study in this school. Since then, his career has been connected with survey.

In 1956, Zhang Sumin became one of the first batch of engineers in new China. He was only 23 years old then. In 1963, Zhang Sumin was transferred to Chengdu. As a technician in the Survey Institute of the First Ministry of Machine Industry, he worked on scientific research together with some Soviet experts. He stood out soon because of his solid foundation and hard study.

Zhang Sumin found the loosen sandy soil at the underground water level in Deyang during a drilling job, so he put forward that corresponding measures must be taken in order to build a heavy machines plant here。 However, the Soviet experts were unhappy with the questioning from a young man。 They said, "Either the sand or gravel is very compacted。 There is no need to take any measure。 We did it this way on the Volga River!"

Soviet experts represented the absolute authority then. The leaders of the organization asked its staff to obey the opinions of those experts repeatedly. Whoever opposed them would be punished. But Zhang Sumin argued bravely that "We should respect facts and science! It is China, not the Volga River. I'm afraid it may not work by rule of thumb. Let's do some research!"

Therefore, Zhang Suming and his team carried out a series of scientific research, including the research of test methods and improvement of testing equipment. Finally, he made some achievements in scientific research which have made him proud all his life: coarse-grained soil and dynamic sounding. Since then, penetration sounding has been used in the field of investigation and survey as a unique new technology in China.

Facts speak louder than words。 With the research results, Zhang Sumin not only obtained a thumbs-up from the Soviet experts, but also won the Major Scientific and Technological Achievement Award in Sichuan Province。 With corresponding measures taken, no accident has occurred in Deyang No。2 Heavy Machinary Manufacturing Works。

"We need to keep independent thinking even in front of authority", Zhang Sumin said. Respecting facts and believing in himself has become his beliefs about work in the following decades after that.

Never Giving Up Studying Even As a Blacksmith

Anything unexpected may happen. In 1957, Zhang Sumin never expected that he was seen as a "bourgeois intellectual" who "was professionally proficient but not socialist-minded" for his "assiduous study". A well-respected scholar began to be treated with disdain everywhere, and was asked to work as a blacksmith. Overnight, he became "Blacksmith Zhang".

"Fortunately, my wife didn't leave me, or I would not be who I am today", Zhang Sumin said. Though great changes took place in his life, he faced it actively with the support of his wife. After he went home from work, he took a shower, and then threw himself into the research of techniques just like before. Zhang Sumin completed the most important research in his life in those years, including the Collected Works on Sounding, Static Sounding and Sandy Soil, Cobble and Gravel Density Measurement with Dynamic Sounding. These research results have played an important role in China's in-situ testing techniques in geotechnical engineering later, and laid a solid foundation for him to be an expert in the industry of geotechnical engineering.

"I think there will be a chance or possibility for me to contribute my techniques to our country." Zhang Sumin spent the 22 hard and fulfilling years with such a belief. Then he continued to be dedicated to the cause of building the motherland with his survey techniques which could not be seized.

Concerned about People's Livelihood in the Earthquake Shelter

In 1976, the world-shocking Tangshan Earthquake hit the city of Tangshan. Influenced by the aftershocks, the family of Zhang Sumin who lived in Chengdu then was relocated to an earthquake shelter. Zhang Sumin was asked to go to Tangshan immediately to study the problem of sandy soil liquefaction in different formations and put forward some countermeasures.

Zhang Sumin said goodbye to his wife and children in the earthquake shelter which was totally in a mess. In that case, he had no choice but to leave for the country and hundreds of millions of people. In the end, Zhang Sumin didn't live up to the expectations of the state, and made great achievements in scientific research together with a number of experts.

Solving Difficulties with Creative Ways

In 1979, Zhang Sumin was transferred to be deputy chief engineer of the Survey Institute of former First Ministry of Machine Industry ("JK Institute" now). As high-rise buildings sprung up like bamboo shoots after a spring rain, television towers began to be built in various provinces. The provincial leader of Shaanxi wanted to build a 200-meter-high television tower in Xi'an. Though the funds were very limited, the safety of such a high-rise building must be guaranteed. Can the project be undertaken? How should the foundation be laid? These urgent problems were hard to solve for Zhang Sumin.

"Undertaking this project really requires courage", Zhang Sumin said. After repeated investigations and testing, Zhang Sumin's team finally submitted a construction plan with no need of pile driving. They pioneered the way of laying a huge base plate underground, ensuring the safety of the tower and saving a large amount of funds. This project set an example for high-rise buildings later, and won the National Scientific and Technological Achievement Award.

After that, high-rise building survey became the core competitiveness of JK Institute gradually."At that time, when people spoke of high-rise buildings, they would mention JK Institute," said by Zhang Sumin proudly. Zhang Sumin participated in the compilation of high-rise buildings related specifications according to his experience, making great contributions to development of the industry.

Even if the difficulty of high-rise buildings was solved, there were a lot of other problems. For example, why is the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda leaning? Why is the ancient city wall cracked? Will the buildings above ground be broken by the shock of metro? …… No matter what kind of difficulties the technical team led by Zhang Sumin met, they could always solve them. Zhang Sumin was committed to the cause of engineering survey in this way.

Taking Talents Construction as Top Priorit

In 1981, the then Party Committee Secretary of JK Institute Wang Yun told Zhang Sumin that the company decided to appoint him as the chief engineer. "I didn't dare to say what I thought at first. A few days later, Secretary Wang Yun asked me about my thoughts. I told him that I want to have the right of personnel appointment if I serve as chief engineer." Speaking of it, Zhang Sumin laughed. He said, it felt like a rebellion, because the chief engineer had always had no voice in personnel appointment in JK Institute. Secretary Wang said, he had to discuss it with other leaders. Surprisingly, the proposal was approved at the meeting several days later. "It was incredible!" Zhang Sumin said.

JK Institute adopted the policy of "internal recruitment" before Zhang Sumin served as the chief engineer. Technical personnel only accounted for 23% of the whole institute. In the eyes of Zhang Sumin, talents were the most important for JK Institute as a technical unit. If I didn't conduct the talent revolution, I couldn't give play to my role of chief engineer well. If you want to do it, do it well. Or you may as well keep working on scientific research.

Out of trust in Zhang Sumin, Secretary Wang prevailed over all dissenting views and strived for the right of personnel appointment for Zhang Sumin. Since then, JK Institute has shown a new situation of great development.

Zhang Sumin withstood huge pressure, and transferred those who were not suitable for technical posts to other posts. He conducted interviews in universities in person, and recruited a large number of undergraduate and graduate students who had received professional training. Over the 20 years after that, he has been committed to the selection and cultivation of young technical personnel. He assigned responsibilities to them, created conditions for them, guided them, encouraged them to go ahead and helped them grow up fast. Zhang Wei and Zheng Jianguo who were rated as the National Engineering Survey and Design Master later were selected and cultivated by Zhang Sumin in person. With the efforts of Zhang Sumin, JK Institute has a batch of technical talents of each age group, with no temporary shortage of talents in other companies.

"Though I launched an overall renewal of staff in JK Institute, I believe that nobody hates me, because I didn't do it for myself. All what I did is for the company", Zhang Sumin said.

In order to commend Zhang Sumin's outstanding contributions to China's engineering survey industry, the Ministry of Construction granted him the title of the First Batch of Engineering Survey and Design Masters in 1989. But it was not the end which Zhang Sumin assiduously strove after.

Building JK Institute into a Leader in China

Through comprehensive analysis and investigation, Zhang Sumin thought SGIDI and BGI were at the forefront of the industry among the engineering survey and design institutes in China。 He vowed silently that he will strive to help JK Institute in Xi'an form a situation of tripartite confrontation with them。 Looking back on the several decades of trials and hardships, he said, "I have realized my original intention and completed my mission。"

Zhang Sumin continued to act as the consultant chief engineer of JK Institute after he retired, and kept making contributions to the cause of geological survey in China by writing books and participating in all kinds of industry events: He edited the Handbook of Engineering Geology as the chief editor which almost everyone in the industry has; He initiated the convening of the first chief engineer conference for survey units in China to promote collaborative exchanges in the industry; He gave lectures in provinces and cities across the country, served as a master and doctoral supervisor in universities …… he never considered stopping making efforts。

It's a pity that he suffered from eye problems when he was 83. He can't see things clearly. He may dial the wrong number when he makes a phone call. He has solved a large number of difficulties in major projects, but now nobody can cure his eyes. "Maybe, I overused my eyes before." Zhang Sumin said regretfully, "My half-written books have to be put aside now."

Looking back the tortuous but glorious road of being a master, Zhang Sumin said, "In spite of setbacks, I believe that everything will be better tomorrow. If I can choose again, I will still take this road firmly. If I sum up my life with two words, they must be no regrets."

A Life of No Regrets

Zhang Sumin

With decades of pursuit and exploration,

The loyalty and love for the motherland have never changed;

Through a journey of thousands of miles, with countless trials and hardships,

The zeal and persistence for the cause will never fade away。

Even in miserable conditions,

There were faith and hope in the struggle;

Even in front of misfortunes or nightmares,

We never backed down。

Rough roads in the mountains could testify,

The laboratory light that was on all night could testify,

Setbacks and success embody painstaking efforts and wisdom;

It is a world full of love,

History will judge the good and ill correctly.

Despite the presence of pities and imperfections,

We did nothing wrong, with no need to regret or blame others;

It is a life of no regrets,

We witnessed the passing era with our motherland.

Time will heal the pain, eliminate the sadness,

May our exhaustion fade away along with fleeting clouds;

If it is too late to sigh, there is no need to wait,

The green pine in the sunset is the greatest comfort.

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