Chun-Jo "CJ" Liu, a longtime professor at the University of Minnesota who spent much of her life building bridges between China and the United States, died of congestive heart failure Sept. 24 at a Minneapolis care facility. She was 90, and had lived in Minneapolis for decades.

"CJ spent her lifetime building relationships -- she lived and breathed to connect cultures," said Joan Brzezinski, executive director of the U's China Center, which Liu helped found in 1979, the year that communications between her beloved native and adoptive countries officially reopened.

"She was a pioneer in leading those efforts in Minnesota," Brzezinski said. "She was so modest -- she never would have stepped forward and accepted that credit -- but she leaves a legacy of wonderful connections."

Liu was born in Beijing and earned her bachelor's degree at Tsinghua University in that city, said longtime friend Ivy Chang, who first met her in Taiwan decades ago. Liu came to the United States in the 1950s, earning her master's degree from Occidental College in Los Angeles and her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Chang said.

After teaching stints at several colleges, including Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Stanford University in California and the University of British Columbia-Vancouver, she joined the University of Minnesota in 1963 as an associate professor of Chinese languages and literature. She taught here for 30 years, most of it as a full professor.

At first, Liu hadn't expected to stay in Minnesota, Chang said. She was filling in for her mentor, Richard Mather, the celebrated founder of many of the U's Asian programs, who was taking a year off. But when he returned, they worked together to create and nurture new programs, so she stayed on, making Minnesota her home. "She loved the opportunities and the people here," Chang said. "She found old friends, many of whom she'd met elsewhere who'd also come here, and lots of new ones, too."

Chang said Liu was "very independent and intelligent," a strong-minded teacher and leader.

Liu was a key figure in creating the U's East Asian Languages and Literature Library and the China Center, which supports scholarly and cultural exchanges between the two countries.

She helped the U become one of the first U.S. universities to reach out to China in 1979 and beyond, leading trips of professors and students, setting up exchange programs and working to improve curriculums in both countries. "Helping people understand each other, both as cultures and individuals, was a passion of hers," Brzezinski said.

In addition to her Minnesota career, she also traveled back to Beijing to serve as a visiting professor at Tsinghua University and at the Beijing Foreign Language Institute, and taught Chinese in summer language programs at Middlebury (Conn.) College and Indiana University.

Liu retired in 1993 and maintained a lively social life with friends and former students. She was active in her book club, played the cello and piano, and sang in the choir at her church.

Liu is survived by two sisters, Faye Chun-Hwei Liu Chang and Chun-Chuan Liu Wang, both of California, and two brothers, Chun-Mai Liu of Taiwan and Ted Chun-Peng Liu of San Francisco. Services will be held at 1 p.m. Friday at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral, 519 Oak Grove St., Minneapolis.

Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290