Born in China's Hunan Province August 12, 1906, Ssu-yu Teng studied at Yenching, an American missionary school that maintained close ties with Harvard University. He was a member of a new generation of young Chinese intellectuals who built a bridge between their Confucian past and the modern, scientific culture of the United States and Europe. At Yenching he edited the university's Historical Annual and served as an instructor in history from 1935 to 1937, when he joined the staff of the Library of Congress in Washington as Assistant Compiler in the Orientalia Collection.
The following year he entered the Harvard University Graduate School with a Leighton Stuart fellowship and received his Ph.D. in history in 1942. He spent the years of World War II at the University of Chicago as Assistant Professor of Chinese History and Literature and as Acting Director of the Far East Library of the Oriental Institute. When in 1943 the United States Army established an area program at Chicago to teach languages to selected soldiers, he directed the Chinese Studies Section. He also collaborated with H.G. Creel to produce an innovative series of language textbooks for the military students. He spent the academic year 1949-1950 at Harvard and at the end of the year joined the Department of History at Indiana University.
During his first decade in Bloomington, Professor Teng laid the groundwork for the subsequent building of the East Asian Studies program with the courses he taught in history and in the Chinese language and with his perseverance in putting together a substantial research collection in the university library.
During his long and illustrious career he wrote alone or collaborated on some twenty books, more than fifty articles in major journals, and countless reviews. At Indiana University he focused on Nineteenth Century rebellions in China, but his publications ranged from a study of the Chinese examination system, Confucian family rules, Chinese diplomacy at Nanking in 1842, and the historiography of the Ch'ing and Ning periods to items in a biographical dictionary of Republican China, the emergence of Japanese studies on Japan and the Far East, and Chinese secret societies in the Twentieth Century. He also found time to bring out in 1964 a textbook, Advanced Conversational Chinese, as a sequel to his World War II language manuals. Teng's magnum opus, The Taiping Rebellion and the Western Powers, appeared in 1971.
Professor Teng died on April 5, 1988 at the Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. A few weeks earlier he had been struck by an automobile while hurrying back to his office at Indiana University's Ballantine Hall. He had lunched at home and was eager to return to his latest research project--a book on blood brotherhoods in the Ch'ing dynasty. He was 81 years old.