Chung-wen Shih

Professor Emeritus of Chinese
Faculty: Emeriti

Chinese Literature, Chinese Drama, Filmmaking, Video Production


Post-doctoral Fellow, East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1960-61

Ph.D. in English Literature, Duke University, 1955

In Memoriam: Chung-wen Shih

Chung-wen Shih

Written by Dr. Young-Key Kim-Renaud

Dr. Chung-wen Shih, professor emeritus of Chinese with the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures (EALL) passed away on July 6, 2014. The cause of her death was an acute brain aneurysm. She was 91.

Dr. Shih came to GW in 1965 as an associate professor of Chinese, after teaching Chinese at Stanford University. She was named professor of Chinese and chair of EALL in 1972 and held the position until her retirement in 1993.

Dr. Shih was born in Anhui Province in China on October 8, 1922, the third of six children of a senior official of an international bank. Her parents strongly believed in the importance of education and encouraged their children’s intellectual curiosity. At a very young age, the Shih family moved to Shanghai. Throughout her life, Dr. Shih always proudly considered herself Shanghainese. She entered St. John’s University in Shanghai as chemistry major, but a chance encounter with Shakespeare sparked a love of literature and inspired her to graduate with a BA in English in 1945. Dr. Shih continued her studies in the U.S. where she received her MA (1949) and PhD (1955) in English literature from Duke University. Her plans to return to China as a teacher were thwarted by political developments at home. She was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University (1960-61) and a visiting scholar at Princeton University (1971-72).

Dr. Shih’s acclaimed books on classical Chinese drama are standard reference works. They include: Injustice to Tou 0: Tou 0 Yüan, a study and translation of a 13th-century play (Cambridge University Press, 1972) and The Golden Age of Chinese Drama: Yüan Tsa-chü (Princeton University Press, 1976), a critical study of 13th-century Chinese drama (translated into Chinese, Zhongguo xiju de huangjin shidai: Yüan zaju, by Xiao Shanyin, Shanxi: Shanxi Classics Press, 1992).

For many people, Dr. Shih is best known as a filmmaker—the writer, director and producer of documentaries on China's modern writers (Return from Silence: China's Revolutionary Writers, 1982) and on the ancient Tang culture (China's Cosmopolitan Age: The Tang," 1992). Her films have been broadcast nationally on PBS, and the national Central Television Station in China.

Dr. Shih was not only an accomplished scholar, teacher and administrator; she was also a generous and charming entertainer. At her cherished Watergate apartment, with its beautiful view of the Potomac River, she entertained well-known cultural and arts figures and ambassadors from China as well as important personages like former GW President Lloyd Elliott and former Secretary of Department of Labor Elaine Chao. Her apartment was adorned with classic Chinese paintings and elegant Ming Dynasty-style furniture that she brought from Hong Kong. And she often delighted her guests with her delicious home-cooked dishes. To many she was affectionately known as the “Watergate lady.” Through these gatherings, she connected and mentored many people in many different fields, particularly those in China studies. 

During her retirement, Dr. Shih never stopped working and enthusiastically tried new things. She returned to her passion of teaching languages, and she eagerly adopted new technology to develop an interactive multimedia CD for college students to learn Chinese with cultural context. This multimedia CD was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and published by Columbian University Press (Learn Chinese from Modern Writers).

Dr. Shih was integral in the launch of a Korean Language and Culture Program at GW in 1983. GW became the first university to offer such a program in the nation's capital, largely due to her foresight and that of the late Gaston Sigur. During that period, Korea’s economic progress was referred to as “the Miracle of the Han River,” but they were aware of the importance of Korean artistic and intellectual tradition in the study of East Asian culture and civilization. Dr. Shih often said how impressed she was by the exhibition titled “5000 Years of Korean Art” that began touring the world, beginning in May 1979 at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. She happily seized the opportunity of making the East Asian Languages Literatures Department more comprehensive by adding Korean component.

Dr. Shih loved the good life; she enjoyed traveling, reading, cooking and photography. She was also a generous benefactor and often said she saved her money so she could give more. In gratitude for her generosity, a room in the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at the Elliott School was named in her honor in 2003. In recent years, she became interested in Tai Chi and traditional Asian health practices, and she wanted to encourage American medical training to seriously consider alternative medicines such as traditional Asian treatments. With that in mind, she designated the GW Confucius Institute as beneficiary of $1 million in planned and outright gifts for the purpose of establishing a scholarship endowment. The endowment will award current or future GW medical students with interests in the study and integration of traditional Chinese medical practices with Western medicine.

Totally unassuming, Dr. Shih managed her work and life— including her more than 20years as the chair of the EALL Department and her great many memorable projects—with the boldness, confidence and astuteness of an Empress Dowager. The entire EALL Department owes Dr. Shih, its founder, a great debt of gratitude for its existence, its current strength and its can-do spirit.

Some pictures of Dr. Shih with colleagues and friends follow:

EALL Faculty 1984 at a Chinese restaurant in Vienna, VA: George Wang, Young-Key Kim-Renaud, Chung-wen Shih, Jonathan Chaves, Ming-jean Loh, Taeko Kimura, and Davis Lee

EALL Faculty 1984 at a Chinese restaurant in Vienna, VA: (starting from left) George Wang, Young-Key Kim-Renaud, Chung-wen Shih, Jonathan Chaves, Ming-jean Loh, Taeko Kimura, and Davis Lee


X, Chung-wen Shih, Young-Key Kim-Renaud, Robert Kenny, Naomi Kuo, Taeko Kimura, Jonathan Chaves, Davis Lee, and George Wang at an EALL Tea Party, 1988.11.16

(starting from second on the left) Chung-wen Shih, Young-Key Kim-Renaud, Robert Kenny, Naomi Kuo, Taeko Kimura, Jonathan Chaves, Davis Lee, and George Wang at an EALL Tea Party (November 16, 1988)


Young-Key Kim-Renaud, Chung-wen Shih, Rulan Chao Pian at GW, Ca 1988

Young-Key Kim-Renaud (left), Chung-wen Shih (middle), Rulan Chao Pian (right) at GW, Ca 1988


EALL Faculty 1994.04.19 Tea Party at Gelman Library: Ernestine Wang, Davis Lee, Chung-wen Shih, Molly Frost, and George Wang

EALL Faculty Tea Party at Gelman Library: (starting from left) Ernestine Wang, Davis Lee, Chung-wen Shih, Molly Frost, and George Wang. (April 9, 1994)


William Johnson, Henry Nau, Kyonggi University President SON Jong-Guk, X, Young-Key Kim-Renaud, Chung-wen Shih, at Elliott School Dean’s office, Ca 2001

(starting from left) William Johnson, Henry Nau, Kyonggi University President SON Jong-Guk, (2nd on right) Young-Key Kim-Renaud, Chung-wen Shih, at Elliott School Dean’s office, Ca 2001


Young-Key Kim-Renaud and Chung-wen Shih at Dr. Shih’s  retirement home in Gaithersburg, MD, 2013.06.23

Young-Key Kim-Renaud (left) and Chung-wen Shih at Dr. Shih’s  retirement home in Gaithersburg, MD (June 23, 2013)


Bertrand Renaud, Chung-wen Shih, and Young-Key Kim-Renaud at GW Making History Campaign party at Mount Vernon, 2014.06.20

Bertrand Renaud (left), Chung-wen Shih (middle), and Young-Key Kim-Renaud (right) at GW Making History Campaign party at Mount Vernon. (June 20, 2014)


Remembering Chung-wen Shih

"I knew Dr. Shih only for a brief time, but her vibrant, positive spirit was evident. Her donation to medical school scholarships is such a shining testament to her generosity. We are so grateful to have known her, and are thankful for her kindness. My deepest condolences go out to her friends and family."

Dr. Jeffrey Akman (GW's Vice President for Health Affairs and Dean of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences)

"We in the GW medical school have been touched by Dr. Shih’s generous spirit. We are so grateful for her contribution to the school in the form of an endowed scholarship. Her legacy will continue through the education of future healers."

Dennis Narango (GW's Associate Vice President for Medicine and Associate Dean for Development in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences)

"Mrs. French and I considered her [Chung-wen Shih] one of our most treasured, longstanding friends in the university community. Quite early on she began to include us in her circle of friends, colleagues and students. We regularly shared these associations at dinners in various restaurants that were her favorites at the time. As the years passed, the three of us became increasingly good friends. I became aware of her broader standing as a scholar through working with her on a major film project that had received some significant external funding. Within the university, she was one of key builders of the university in our generation. She was all in all a quite extraordinary combination of virtuous qualities."

—Roderick French (GW's Vice President for Academic Affairs, 1984-95)

"I was so shocked by Dr. Shih’s sudden departure.  We were just talking about going to Dewey Beach the night before she had brain aneurysm.  She truly lived life full to the last minute.  I feel honored to have such an outstanding mentor as my friend for two decades.  Many of the words she said to me were beyond me at the time, but now ring so true.  She has inspired me to focus, to achieve, to improve and upgrade, to be frugal, and most importantly to be happy always! 

—Dawn Li

"I am devastated to hear this. Chung-wen was a towering figure in my life; it was she who hired me initially in 1979, and helped me get a footing at GWU at a time when my academic-political skills were close to zero. Her support has always been unstinting. Of course she was the founder of our department, which would not exist without her initial conception and hard work. "

—Jonathan Chaves

"I was the last full-time faculty that Dr. Shi hired, even though I never had a chance to work with her. We all carry her legacy."

—Shoko Hamano

"I too am truly saddened to learn of Dr. Shih's passing. She was a superb and demanding teacher (she taught me Chinese lit in 1976), world renowned scholar, broad-gauged intellectual, mentor to others, program builder and academic administrator, and philanthropist. She made many contributions to GW, the community and China studies field, and to those around her. She definitely will be missed."

—David Shambaugh

"This is very sad news indeed. I had the great pleasure to go on an alumni tour of China with Chung-wen soon after I arrived at GW (but after her official retirement)--so had a chance to find out what a delightful woman she was; and we had many happy encounters after that.  I was glad that I had the chance to visit with her several times last summer at her new place, and continued to be amazed that although increasingly frail her mind was as strong and clear as ever.  She will be greatly missed."

—Edward McCord

"This really is a sad news! I met Chung-wen shortly after I joined GW and was impressed by her achievements, warmth, and generosity. She will be dearly missed."

—Phyllis Zhang

"Indeed, I am saddened to hear of her passing. She always seemed so healthy and vibrant that it is hard to believe. She will be missed."

—Leo Hanami

"I first learned of Dr. Chung-wen Shih's name when Prof. Wilt Idema introduced me to her wonderful work, the Golden Age of Chinese Drama. I was deeply saddened by Dr. Shih's passing. I wish I had a chance to meet her in person."

—Liana Chen

"I am saddened to learn the passing of a distinguished professor and the founder of our EALL. I met Dr. Shih at a seminar years ago and she left a deep impression on me."

—Chen Yang

"I am so sorry to hear about this sad news. My heartfelt and respectful condolences on the loss of Dr. Chung-wen Shih."

—Hang Zhang

"Please pass my deepest condolences on to Dr. Shih's family. Although I did not know her personally, I have heard about her from various people in our department. As the founder of the department, she made such tremendous contributions to our department, and she will be missed."

—Hongyuan Dong

"I'm very sorry to hear about the passing of our distinguished predecessor Dr. Shih.  Though I did not have the chance to meet her in person, I feel the utmost respect and gratitude to her efforts. I want to express my sincere thoughts and condolences. "

Anri Yasuda

"What a shock to hear that Dr. Shih is no longer with us! My heart is filled with profound sadness as Xiang Di and I considered her as our mentor and dear friend. Life in Washington isn’t the same without her, meaning of GW isn’t the same without her, our desire to see her in the future will never be satisfied. We miss her! Without her help, we could never have got where we are. We are deeply indebted to her, but there is no way we could ever pay her back. We are so heartbroken. . . . Her film recording of 20th century Chinese literature giants is very precious. Without her pioneering endeavor, we could have lost their images and voices forever. Her contribution was tremendous."

Yue Shu and Di Xiang (Former Students)