Peking University


Peking University
(Beijing daxue)
Peking University, or Beida, was founded in 1898 during the Hundred Days Reform. It was then known as the Imperial University (Jingshi daxuetang), which clearly indicates that it was in the service of the Qing dynasty. Liang Qichao and the other reformers who designed the university envisioned it as a Western-style school, but it was a decidedly transitional institution. A mix of progressive thinking and old-style values and practices characterized the culture of the university during its first decade.
After the 1911 Revolution the school’s name was changed to National Beijing University. Yan Fu, the noted intellectual and translator, introduced important changes during his short tenure as chancellor, but it was only after Cai Yuanpei filled that office in 1917 that Beida evolved into a dynamic and nationally influential centre of political and cultural progressivism and serious scholarly research. During his administration Cai became China’s best-known champion of academic freedom and the university the leader of the New Culture and May Fourth Movements. The future Chinese Communist Party also got its start at Beida at this time in the form of an extra-curricular society dedicated to the academic study of Marxism. The university remained a vibrant centre of political activism and intellectual trailblazing into the 1930s. During the war with Japan Beida removed to Kunming in southern China, where its faculty and students joined with those from Qinghua and Nankai universities to form Southwest Associated University, or Lianda. Lianda helped keep Chinese intellectual life alive and gave substance to the idea that scholars had a vital contribution to make to the preservation and construction of the Chinese nation.
After the Communist Revolution, under the leadership of Chancellor Ma Yinchu, Beida continued to stand out as a centre of liberalism. In 1957 the university played a leading role in the Hundred Flowers movement. During the antirightist crackdown that followed over eight hundred people at Beida were labelled rightists, the highest number for any Chinese university. Instead of destroying Beida because of its ‘rightism’, however, Communist Party leaders learned to use the university’s symbolic power to further their own ends. In 1966 it was selected as the starting place for the Cultural Revolution; under Kang Sheng’s direction, Nie Yuanzi, a professor in the philosophy department, hung the big-character poster that marked the beginning of that decadelong ‘period of chaos’. In subsequent years revolutionary developments at Beida received extensive coverage in the national media and the university became an important pilgrimage site for Red Guards visiting the capital.
Following the Cultural Revolution Beida was restored as a working institution. The atmosphere once more became quite liberal, and by the middle of the 1980s the university was a leader of the new tendency towards political and cultural questioning then sweeping the country. Beida played host to a series of freethinking public discussions organized by students who belonged to ‘democracy salons’ (see salon culture), and in spring 1989 it played an important role in the massive demonstrations that rocked Beijing and the rest of China. After the government crushed those demonstrations it carried out a crackdown at Beida that succeeded in silencing its opponents. In the mid 1990s Beijing University was a relatively calm and increasingly apolitical place. Many students who felt stifled by life under the Communist Party bided their time until they could go abroad to study; others threw themselves headlong into the pursuit of lucrative and high status careers. By 1998, when Beida celebrated the one-hundredth anniversary of its founding, the extremely politicized atmosphere that obtained there in the preceding decades had dramatically receded, and life had become more normalized.
Israel, John (1999). Lianda: A Chinese University in War and Revolution. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Weston, Timothy (2003). The Power of Position: Beijing University, Intellectuals, and Chinese Political Culture, 1898–1929. Berkeley: University of California Press.
TIMOTHY WESTON

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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