The Story of IM Pei’s Family: 15 Generations that Survived and Thrived

Eileen and I.M. Pei.

Eileen and I.M. Pei in Hong Kong, 1988. (Image: via Eileen and I.M. Pei Family Archive)

The unique family of I.M. Pei (Ieoh Ming Pei) has been sustained for the past 15 generations. It successfully escaped wars and political struggles in each dynasty, thus lasting for nearly 1,000 years. Although a Chinese saying states: “The good influence of men of virtue will not last more than five generations,” and “Wealth never survives three generations,” the Pei family far exceeded this.

I.M. Pei, the Chinese-born American architect and Pulitzer Prize winner noted for his large, elegantly designed urban buildings and complexes, is considered “The last master of modern architecture.”

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Currently, under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), wealth has been redistributed, so it is virtually impossible to pass on family wealth for a few generations as was the case when the Pei family lived and worked in China.

The glass and metal Louvre Pyramid.
The Louvre Pyramid (Pyramide du Louvre) is a large glass and metal structure designed by the Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei. (Image: Maurizio De Mattei via Dreamstime.com)

A Chinese family sustained for over 15 generations

I.M. Pei was born in 1917 in Guangzhou, China, and died on May 16, 2019, in New York City at the age of 102. In his legendary life, he won all acclaimed honors as an architect. It can be said he was a world-renowned architect.

He studied at St. Paul’s College in Hong Kong as a child. When he was 10, his father received a promotion and relocated with his family to Shanghai. He attended St. John’s Middle School, the secondary school of St. John’s University that was run by Anglican missionaries.

Academic discipline was rigorous; students were allowed only a half-day each month for leisure. He enjoyed playing billiards and watching Hollywood movies, especially those of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. He also learned rudimentary English skills by reading the Bible and novels by Charles Dickens.

I.M. Pei as a young man.
Considered one of the most significant and prolific architects of the 20th century, I.M. Pei left a legacy of notable buildings that span the globe. (Image: via Public Domain)

In 1935, he moved to the United States and enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania’s architecture school, but he quickly transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He was unhappy with the focus at both schools on Beaux-Arts architecture and spent his free time researching emerging architects.

After graduating, he enrolled at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) and became a friend of the Bauhaus architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. In 1955, he established I. M. Pei & Associates. He retired from full-time practice in 1990. In his retirement, he worked as an architectural consultant primarily from his sons’ architectural firm Pei Partnership Architects.

His most famous projects include The Louvre Pyramid in Paris, the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, among others.

To what extent was the Pei family successful?

I.M. Pei came from a distinguished family that has endured for over 15 generations. According to his biography, the Pei clan moved from northern China to Suzhou to escape the war in the late Yuan Dynasty. They made a fortune from practicing and selling medicine. In the Qianlong period of the Qing Dynasty, the family became the fourth richest in Suzhou.

His grandparents and parents embarked on a career in the financial sector and later turned to politics and held important posts.

Zaian Pei, his grandfather, a well-known financial tycoon, established the Shanghai Bank. He later assisted in launching the first modern travel agency in China aptly named China Travel Service.

Zuyi Pei, his father, inherited his grandfather’s business and eventually surpassed him by becoming the president of the Central Bank and a founder of the Bank of China.

I.M. Pei's grandparents, parents, and siblings.
I.M. Pei’s grandparents, parents, and siblings. (Image: via Public Domain)

Marrying into a prominent family made the family more influential. This ensured that they nurtured and maintained a better future for the next generation.

His mother died of cancer in 1930. Later, his father married Jiang Shiyun from a well-known family in the Jiangnan area.

Jiang Shiyun went to Beijing with her father at 12 and learned English in a British school. As an ambassador’s daughter, she traveled to Europe with her father at 16 and studied in Paris for one year. This enabled her to become proficient in English and French. His stepmother was also well educated in many fields.

Eileen Loo

As for I.M. Pei himself, he married Shuhua Loo, better known as Eileen Loo, a graceful girl of noble birth. Her father was an early Chinese graduate of MIT, earning his engineering degree in 1916. Her maternal grandfather was Yin Tang Chang, Ambassador from China to Washington beginning in 1909. Her granduncle was T’ang Shao-Yi, the first Prime Minister of the Republic of China (1911-1912).

Eileen Loo came to the United States in 1938 to attend Wellesley College, where she studied Art, was a Senior Wellesley College Scholar, and received her degree in 1942. Immediately after graduation, she married I.M. Pei. He followed her to Harvard and its Graduate School of Design, where she studied Landscape Architecture and where he received his Master’s Degree in Architecture in 1946. 

Lion Grove

Lion Grove is a villa and garden built in the Yuan Dynasty more than 600 years ago.  It is considered to be one of the top four gardens in Suzhou and is recognized globally. Whenever Emperor Qianlong traveled to the south of the Yangtze River, he always chose to stay at the  Lion Grove. The garden showcases a tablet, “True Delight,” that was personally inscribed and gifted by the Emperor. 

The garden house, often known as the Pei Villa, has long been mistaken for the home of I.M. Pei’s father, Zuyi Pei; however, it was a property of Pei Runsheng, a dye tycoon from another branch of the Pei family. He was the one who also purchased the renowned garden — Lion Grove Garden (Shizilin) in Suzhou in 1917. Almost one year after the purchase of Lion Grove Garden in Suzhou, He started investing in Shanghai’s real estate and his property gradually totaled some 160,000 square meters.

During his childhood, I.M. Pei spent many hours in this 14th-century garden built by the abbot of an adjacent Buddhist monastery, playing hide-and-seek with his cousins and studying the Chinese classics. The sanctuary that inspired monks, artists, and poets for centuries impacted his aesthetic attitude and architectural design.

After the death of Bei Runsheng in 1945, Lion Grove was managed by his grandson Bei Hwanzhang. According to official signs posted in the garden, the Bei family “donated” the garden to the Chinese government in 1949. These words on the signs seem curious because all private property was nationalized by the CCP in the same year.

The villa was used by the Shanghai Institute of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering in the 1950s and the dancing hall was converted to a dining hall and the bedrooms on the upper floors became a dormitory for young employees.

The garden was not opened to the public until 1956 and has since been designated as a key cultural relic and world cultural heritage site.

Lion_Grove
Inside the Lion Grove Gardens. (Image: via Wikipedia)

Be a cultured family and love helping others

The family’s prominence was due not only to their wealth, but more so to their humbleness, compassion, and generosity.  The Pei family upheld the family precept “Be a cultured family and love helping others.” 

Zaian Pei, I.M. Pei’s grandfather, made many contributions in the areas of economic development and public welfare in Suzhou. He was president of the Suzhou Chamber of Commerce for seven years,  served as the president of Wu County Fire Fighting Association, became the Director of Bo Xi Hospital, and was a board member of the Zhenhua Girls’ High School.  

These virtues all contribute to the Pei’s family wealth and survival for over 15 generations. 

The Cultural Revolution

After Zuyi Pei left for the United States, the rest of the family was nearly killed during the Cultural Revolution.

In the early years, they were “well informed and understood the changing times” and actively handed over most properties to the authorities, including the management rights of the bank, electricity, fuel, and dye. In addition, two houses, the garden house at 170 Nanyang Road, Shanghai, and the Lion Grove in Suzhou, were both handed over to the government.

Despite all their efforts, the family still couldn’t rid themselves of the oppressive doom that befell them. For instance, Chongwei Pei, I.M. Pei’s younger brother, was sentenced to 22 years in jail for a rightist conviction and was exiled to the remote border province Heilongjiang for re-education.

A group of people undergoing public humiliation during the Cultural Revolution.
After Pei Zuyi left for the United States, the rest of the Pei family was nearly killed during the Cultural Revolution. (Image: via Public Domain)

Yulin Pei, I.M. Peis’s sister, also faced many tribulations. Her husband, a banker, volunteered to cut his salary, but he was still labeled a Historical Counter-revolutionary. Thus, every time her husband returned home after attending the criticism meeting, she always encouraged him to stay strong and not to give up.

Even in the darkest of times, the Pei clan kept their noble disposition

Juanlin Pei, I.M. Pei’s ninth aunt, married Wu Tongwen, who was a dye tycoon. The couple also suffered greatly during this period.

At the time, the dowry of Juanlin Pei was a piece of land located in Shanghai. Her husband Wu built a house on it, the Green House, widely recognized as “the greatest mansion in the Far East.” The house was furnished with a spring floor and a modern Otis Elevator. The furniture was custom-made by an American furniture company. Its luxurious style was famous for a time.  

During the decade’s calamity, Wu was criticized and denounced. As a result, Wu and his concubine poisoned themselves hand in hand in the Green House. Juanlin Pei was also driven out of the house.

Later, the government decided to return the Green House to Juanlin Pei. She rejected the offer, stating: “No. Even if I take it back, the magnificence of its past cannot be restored.”

So the lofty and unyielding character of the family never changed even through tribulations.

I.M. Pei was the only family member that avoided the Cultural Revolution and when the CCP re-established order, he considered returning to China, but his father prevented him from leaving the United States. 

I_M_Pei
Thanks to his father I.M. Pei was able to continue the family line thus avoiding the demise of the 15 generations. (Image: via Eileen and I.M. Pei Family Archive)

Anyone among them could be me, and I could be anyone among them

I.M. Pei went back to his hometown in 1974. He was speechless at the sight of more than 100 relatives dressed in shabby blue and black clothes. He realized that he would have met the same fate if he had not remained in the United States.  

Afterward, he told his colleagues: “I had no sense of superiority at all in front of them, as anyone among them could be me, and I could be anyone among them.”

Thanks to his father, I.M. Pei was able to continue the family line, thus avoiding the demise of the 15 generations.

“Sometimes, emigration can safeguard and sustain Chinese civilization and even develop it” is a very poignant saying and reflective of the life of I.M. Pei.

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