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Alumnus Turns Problem-Solving Skills into Writing Book About Chinese City

Friday, January 22, 2016
Stephen Koss China Book Story

Stephen Koss

Steve Koss' career has taken as many twists and turns as a complicated mathematics formula.

The 1973 mathematics alumnus spent 20 years in management consulting and another seven as a high-school math teacher in New York City. Now, he's become an author, writing the first general-interest book about the culture and history of Suzhou, China, a city located 50 miles west of Shanghai.

Beautiful Su: A Social and Cultural History of Suzhou, China (China Books) examines a Chinese city widely regarded as a "Paradise on Earth" by the citizens of imperial China. Koss showcases how important Suzhou has been to the Chinese nation, its people, and its collective ethos.

From Suzhou's rise as a major cultural and trading center, Koss guides the reader on a journey through more than 2,500 years of Chinese history. He traces the city from its founding to its present-day rebirth as a center of hi-tech, pharmaceutical, and textile manufacturing characterized by explosive urban expansion, a fast-growing middle class, and modernization tempered by historical and cultural preservation.

Koss took an interest in Suzhou while living periodically in the city during his many travels to China, including a one-year stint teaching undergraduate business classes at Suzhou University. He searched, unsuccessfully, for a comprehensive, general-readership history of the city before finally decidingin 2007 to write the book he couldn't purchase.

It took near seven years for Koss to detail Suzhou's founding myths, its pivotal role in the Yuan-Ming transition and the military defeat of the Taiping Rebellion, its place in the rise of the literati-scholar class and the anti-opium struggles, and the advancement of university and women's education.

He introduces unique but lesser-known figures as well:

  • The impoverished, book-reading woodcutter who became an accomplished government official;
  • The commoner who risked execution and sacrificed a dozen years of his life in prison to save his colleagues from punishment over a workers' strike;
  • The young woman who suffered imprisonment and martyrdom rather than submit to the injustices of the Cultural Revolution;
  • The numerous Westerners who became part of the city's history, from horticulturists, missionaries, and mercenaries to the educators and doctors who founded schools, hospitals, and the city's major university.

"This is certainly not something I ever thought I'd be doing. Then again, I suppose most of my professional life has been a bit of an outlier for a Rose-Hulman graduate," says Koss, who resides with his native Suzhounese wife of 12 years in New York City along with having an apartment in Suzhou's New District. "I have more than a little enthusiasm for modern Chinese literature and cinema as well as its imperial history, and I always enjoy talking about it with others who share any curiosity or interest in China."

Those interests have Koss now researching materials for another literary project, a commissioned companion book on Hangzhou, the capital of China's Zhejiang province and Suzhou's partner city in a region that was once praised as "heaven on earth."