Photograph by Lívia Machado Costa
Photograph by Lívia Machado Costa

The chatter dialed up as the anniversary drew near. Peking University, crown jewel of China’s higher education system, was turning 120, and in the Chinese capital where stature is weighed by appearances, a subject measured by its ceremony, such a historic milestone demanded a big show.

On campus speculation became the popular pastime. The speaker would be big, the whispers promised, a name from the highest strata of the Chinese Communist Party. Some suggested it might be Xi Jinping himself; others Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier, among the university’s most illustrious alumni. Everyone understood that the brightest stars basked in each other’s light.

The university has always been more than just a school. Conceived as a vehicle for national resurgence, it was endowed from the beginning with an engine of liberalism, tasked with reforming an empire whose destiny had been called into question. The plan “bespoke tremendous intellectual ambition, a belief in possibility fueled by a sense of necessity,” writes Timothy B. Weston in The Power of Position, his rigorous account of the university’s early decades. Today, few surviving Chinese institutions have stood as witness—indeed, incubator—to more of the nation’s defining convulsions. “No university in the world shares as critical a relationship with its country and people,” wrote the Chinese dissident Guo Luoji. China Youth Daily, a state-run newspaper, described the university’s ethos as “twentieth-century China’s spirit in a nutshell.”

Preparations for the anniversary celebrations, scheduled for May 4, had been underway for months. At the university’s centennial twenty years earlier, the Communist Party had dominated the show. Broadcast across the country, President and General Secretary Jiang Zemin delivered the keynote from inside the Great Hall of the People. He credited Beida, as the university is affectionately known, for nurturing China’s influential early Marxists, and paid homage to the intellectual firebrands who, in the first decades of the twentieth century, transformed the campus into the center of the nation’s political and cultural activity. He quoted Lu Xun, modern China’s most influential writer: “Beida always fights for the new. It is the vanguard of the movement for progress.”

Backlash to the speech was stifled but sharp. Jiang’s telling was boxy and choreographed, a caricature in the style of the Communist Party. Some of the university’s most prominent early figures had defected with the Nationalists to Taiwan; others had been purged. Lu Xun himself had remained deeply skeptical of the Communist project until his death, and never became a Party member himself.

In cherry-picking historical moments, one critic wrote, “the organizers of the celebration demonstrated [they were] willing to misrepresent history by placing political considerations above truth.” Liu Junning, a Chinese editor, said that a true commemoration would be to “affirm what earlier Beida scholars had concluded, namely, that the Beida tradition is a tradition of liberalism.”

The legacy of Beida has always been more feeling than knowing, a stir in the heart more than a rendition of facts. Its legend recalls an era when the nation was in crisis and dreams for its salvation blew in the air. The university then was the launch site for a new kind of project, radical for its time and enduring in its impact: an institution devoted to the highest standards of learning, divorced from the summons of the state.

* * *

The end of the first Sino-Japanese War in 1895 forced Chinese officials to confront a bitter new reality. China’s humiliating defeat had exposed more than the Qing’s military weakness—it threatened the entire Chinese way of life. No one felt this foreboding more than the old system’s bureaucratic elite whose porcelain perch atop society, achieved by devotion to the Confucian classics, had shattered. A new school of intellectuals emerged under the banner of reform. When the Guangxu Emperor beseeched his advisors for counsel, it was the reformist camp that won his ear.

On June 11, 1898, the Emperor stood atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace and proclaimed a sweeping blueprint to reclaim China’s potency. The edicts of the Hundred Days Reform would be vast and severe, gutting old institutions and rewiring the legal system. Featured in the pronouncements was the order to begin construction on a new university, the capstone in a national network of schools dedicated to the tenets of modern education. “The Imperial University will be the model for the provinces to emulate,” the emperor directed. “It should be opened immediately.”

The Empress Dowager seized power three months later. The movement’s nascent reforms were smothered, its leaders crushed, but the Empress spared the plans to open Jingshi Daxuetang—the Imperial University—the only edict to survive. The first class arrived in December.

* * *

The students didn’t take long to announce their presence nationally. On April 30, 1903, dozens of them gathered in a closed room on university grounds, the site of an abandoned imperial mansion once belonging to the Qianlong Emperor’s fourth daughter. A few weeks earlier, Russian troops had missed a deadline to withdraw from Manchuria. Seen as a sign of Russian aggression, students across China were mobilizing in protest.

The committee at Imperial University deliberated on what to do. The government in Beijing had explicitly banned student involvement in politics; by proximity, no other university group in the country was as exposed to its central precincts. Eventually the students decided they would deliver a memorial to the throne. “It is as if a house is on fire and the father and brother are too exhausted to extinguish it,” they wrote. “The young and strong [are forced] to stand by and watch.” Seventy-three students signed the petition. They concluded: “Though one oversteps the bounds of his position to speak of [politics], it is intolerable to sit by idly and watch as tragedy unfolds.”

The government’s Manchu rulers were unmoved. A large poster appeared on campus forbidding further protests; informants disguised as lecturers slipped into university departments to root out political activity. All around the country, agents monitored the mail for revolutionary pamphlets. Undeterred, a student in Shanghai, finding inspiration from the resistance in Beijing, wrote in an open letter: “The great revolutionary tide [in Europe] began with students. You students [at the Imperial University] will follow that path. You will illuminate the history of the twentieth century.”

* * *

Within a decade, squeezed by domestic and diplomatic crises, the Qing court was rapidly dissolving. The child emperor Puyi abdicated the throne on February 12, 1912. Almost immediately, Sun Yat-sen, acting president of the newly established Republic of China, appointed Cai Yuanpei, a 35-year-old educator and leading proponent of Western learning, to be its first Education Minister.

The son of a local banker from the coastal province of Zhejiang, Cai was in many ways uniquely qualified for the post. At 22, he had passed the imperial examinations for China’s civil service and won membership in the exclusive Hanlin Academy, the highest honor conferred to a scholar in feudal times. Heavily influenced by his years studying at Leipzig University, Cai’s vision was to reproduce in China the German tradition of bildung, which framed education as a holistic endeavor, a lifelong cultivation of the person and spirit. In particular, he took inspiration from the Prussian dignitary Wilhelm von Humboldt, who had overhauled Prussia’s education system to acclaim a century earlier. Among his many legacies, Humboldt founded Berlin University upon his conviction that a true education must be independent from the state.

A few weeks into his ministry post, Cai released “Opinions Concerning the Direction of Education,” an article in which he channeled Humboldt and emphasized the need for an independent Chinese education system beyond the reach of government influence. He introduced “education for a worldview”—an approach to scholarship that extended beyond Confucian-bound texts and infused important Western philosophies. Under his guidance, the Ministry of Education quickly approved a name change to bring Imperial University into modern times. Jingshi Daxuetang became Beijing Daxue—Peking University. Cai’s vision for a new China would begin in the classrooms of Beida.

* * *

The mood didn’t last. Cai immediately clashed with the warlord Yuan Shikai, who by March 1912 had replaced Sun Yat-sen as leader of the nascent Chinese republic. First was the issue of appointing Peking University’s inaugural president. Cai held that the posting should be a joint decision between the Education Ministry and the university’s deans, but an obstinate Yuan Shikai filled the position himself. Then Cai cast attention on several of the university’s top administrators, holding concurrent posts in Yuan’s government. The conflict, Cai insisted, compromised their foremost duty to the university. Threatened by Cai’s open suspicion of his regime, Yuan plotted to remove him, but by the end of the summer, in solidarity with other departing cabinet officials, Cai resigned of his own accord.

Though Cai was gone, the seeds of change had been sown. A new faction of educators was emerging at Beida, defined in opposition to the university’s conservative scholars still pinned to the old imperial structure. The reformers shared more than an intellectual foil; many of them hailed from the same home province of Zhejiang, had formerly studied in Japan, and identified as disciples of the fiery revolutionary Zhang Taiyan.

One of the leading figures in the nationalist revolution, Zhang Taiyan had been an early and outspoken critic of Manchu rule. In 1900, he cut off his queue at a town gathering, one of the first to publicly defy Manchu norms. In 1906, after three years in prison for anti-imperial activity, he moved to Japan, where he began collaborating closely with Sun Yat-sen and oversaw the publication of Min Bao, the main newspaper of the anti-Manchu resistance. His polemic views and bullish character attracted a band of young admirers, who began to meet every Sunday morning around a low-lying table in his apartment.

Zhang had no apprehensions about mixing scholarship with politics; he urged his disciples never to shy from their convictions. In 1913, Hu Renyuan, himself a Zhejiangnese educator who had trained abroad, became the university’s president, and recruited many of Zhang’s followers to the humanities department. First to arrive was Shen Yinmo, a 31-year old Zhejiangese who specialized in Chinese history and literature. Within two years, he was joined on staff by, among others, Huang Kan, a brilliant scholar who had contributed to Zhang’s Min Bao, and Zhu Xizu, a historian whose provincial Zhejiang accent was so thick many of his students could hardly understand him.

Under Hu Renyuan, Beida embarked on a period of expansion. Its annual budget increased year over year and the number of students doubled in one 18-month stretch. But this period of relative stability on campus was brief, cut short by the political turmoil outside. By 1913, Zhang had returned to Beijing and turned his energy toward fighting corruption and overreach in Yuan Shikai’s regime. Yuan placed him under house arrest. The only people Zhang would allow to visit were his disciples, who left each time steeled by their mentor’s resolve.

Yuan Shikai was plotting China’s imperial restoration, intending to install himself as emperor. Determined to win over Peking University’s intellectuals, he launched a targeted campaign, conferring lofty honors upon kowtowing professors. He dispatched his eldest son to secure the president’s allegiance. Instead, Hu Renyuan submitted his resignation. In case after case, the beguiling efforts of the would-be emperor were thwarted by Zhang’s proteges, who finally had the stage to evince their teacher’s spirit. Zhu Xizu, since promoted to chairman of Peking University’s Literature Department, resigned from one of his posts. Spurning a handsome payout, Huang Kan said his loyalty could not be bought like the “services of a prostitute.” The philosopher Ma Xulun, another of Zhang’s devotees, packed his belongings and left Beijing in protest. Ma’s students were so inspired they composed poems in his honor. “My benevolence and righteousness are meager, but I have self-respect,” their professor wrote back. “Nowadays, when one is feeling depressed, he must fight hard to uphold the morality of the gentleman.”

Yuan Shikai died in June 1916, and Zhang was released from house arrest soon after. By then a network had taken root at Beida, its members nurturing the intellectual climate that a few years later would produce the May Fourth movement.

* * *

On January 4, 1917, a horse-drawn carriage pulled through Peking University’s main gate. Two rows of servants bowed their heads in greeting; the passenger swept off his top hat and returned the bow. The stunned spectators were unfamiliar with such gestures. Things under the new president would not be the same.

A few months earlier, Cai Yuanpei had received a cable in Paris from the reinstated republic’s new Education Minster. Hu Renyuan’s departure from Beida had launched the search for a replacement and a groundswell of support was calling for Cai’s appointment. The cable appealed to the distinguished educator’s sense of duty: “Presently the highest school in the capital needs the leadership of a worthy man who can set an example for the people to follow. [We] hope that you will return to the country at the earliest hour.”

Beijing had become a toxic nest of power struggles, and many colleagues advised Cai to keep his distance. But after much deliberation, Cai accepted, heeding the counsel of Sun Yat-sen, who pressed his friend not to pass on a rare opportunity for reform. A few days after arriving, Cai addressed the university community as its president. Beida, he insisted, was foremost a site of knowledge. Its students accepted both a privilege and a duty—to contribute, to lead lives of value, to help advance the cause of the nation. His implication was clear: those wishing simply to curry favor with the government, or enrich only themselves, should surrender their place and enroll elsewhere.

Soft in manner, resolute in everything else, Cai brandished a singular authority at the university’s helm. Decades of study and service had suffused him with the air of a statesman. He dressed simply and dined vegetarian. He could read in seven languages. His leadership “broke through the black pestilence that hung over Beijing,” one student wrote. He also benefitted from a capital in tumult, where republican officials, embroiled in daily disputes, had little attention left to scrutinize his programs on campus.

Largely free from oversight, Cai expressed unwavering commitment to jianrong bingbao, “broad-minded tolerance,” and sixiang ziyou, “freedom of thought.” He promoted the merits of intellectual pluralism and defended the rights of teachers and students to be heard—especially those whose views departed from his own. In 1916, he hired Chen Duxiu to be the university’s Dean of Humanities. The two had first met in Shanghai a decade earlier, young co-revolutionaries agitating against the Manchu state. But their positions, particularly on Confucian morality and the necessary strategies to strengthen China, had long since diverged; more than anything else, Chen’s appointment was a testament to Beida’s inclusive commitments under Cai.

Chen was soon joined on staff by a young activist named Li Dazhao. Born to poor farmers in Hebei province, Li had attained a modern education after his family sold their property to pay for his tuition, then gone on to study political economy in Japan. In the winter of 1918, he took over duties as the Beida library’s head curator. Among other accomplishments, he built the library’s foreign languages section, and added ten thousand books to its overall collection. The expanded, five-story building became the hub of campus life.

Beida was flourishing. Ideas cracked and kindled, the biggest questions of the nation burning in the university’s hungriest minds. Present in the university’s chambers, working so far under Li as to be virtually unnoticed, was an assistant librarian named Mao Zedong. Twenty-four, with chubby cheeks and a heavy Hunan drawl, Mao was grateful for the monthly $8 wage, but sensitive to his place in the pecking order. He observed at the time: “My office was so low that most people avoided me.”

* * *

In early October, 1918, a group of students submitted the forms to start a new journal. Chen approved their request for funding and Li Dazhao reserved a room for them to operate in the library. In its manifesto, New Tide fixed Beida as the source of China’s intellectual currents: “There will be no reason why the university’s thought tide will not be able to spread across China with great force,” its founders wrote. Meanwhile, Li Dazhao’s attention had been caught by the tide in Russia. By the end of the year, a dozen students and faculty were meeting regularly to discuss Bolshevik developments in his office and read Karl Marx’s Capital.

The informal gathering became known on campus as the Marxist Research Society. Li compiled a special issue of Chen’s New Youth journal devoted to Marxist ideas, which soon introduced many in the country to concepts like class struggle and capitalist exploitation. No one then could have predicted the group’s rise.

For some, the times were moving too fast. On March 18, Gongyan bao, a government-run newspaper, published a lashing critique accusing Beida’s president of harboring Confucian defilers and conspiring to usurp the Chinese Classics. Cai dismantled the attacks. Beida “follows the example of the great universities of the world, adopting the principle of the freedom of thought,” he maintained. “All theories that are reasonable and merit retention […] should be allowed to develop freely at the university.”

On March 26, Cai received a letter directly from the Education Minister calling for New Tide’s censure. The whole country by then was tuned in to the struggle at Beida. Pamphlets and magazines overwhelmingly voiced support for Cai, honoring his integrity and even comparing Beijing’s censorship to the book burning of Qin Shihuang. In Chengdu, a newspaper columnist called the progressive movement at Beida China’s “one and only source of morning light.”

* * *

The May Fourth movement was ignited a few weeks later. The student demonstrations on May 4 itself, fueled by despair after China’s betrayal in Versailles, loom large in national memory, but a lesser-known rally one month later drew an even sharper response from the state. In the “June 3 incident,” Beida students took to the streets once more, demanding the resignation of the government’s pro-Japanese ministers. This time, the authorities struck back without temperance. Soldiers marched through university gates and converted Beida’s social science and law building into a literal prison, sweeping up thousands of students and locking them inside. Protests ripped through the country in response. In Shanghai, students from Fudan University raged against the government’s actions with such fury that the school earned the nickname “the Beida of Shanghai.”

On June 8th, after five days of confinement, the captive students were released. Submitting to the national outrage, republican officials issued a formal apology. Out on the lawn, the students met an outpouring of support. Cheers erupted, music played, firecrackers crackled. Seized with emotion, the students began to chant. The crowd joined in.

“Long live the Republic of China!”

“Long live China’s students!”

“Long live Peking University!”

* * *

Ninety-nine years later, the university’s 120th anniversary approached. Organizers hummed along; rehearsals picked up pace. One morning in April, the signs appeared—big red and white blocks spelling “PKU”—a half dozen sets materializing across campus like gifts dropped from a giant claw. On WeChat, posts and photos from beaming teachers, students, and alumni were soon lined with comments—some as long as full-length articles. Many touted the same conclusion: “I love Beida.”

Not all were in a celebratory mode. In March, reports surfaced that Li Chenjian, the vice dean of Peking University’s Yuanpei College, had been removed from his position for writing a controversial article. In an online post, he had described a state that routinely practiced the “strangulation of outspoken peoples,” and called for his colleagues to “straighten their spines” in the face of the mounting challenge. His message stirred an immediate reaction, but was just as quickly muted by censors.

Censorship in all forms has escalated under President Xi, who has overseen contractions in every sphere of Chinese civic life. At the 19th Party Congress in 2017, he announced his signature doctrine: “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” Plans for new institutes, devoted to studying it, were quickly unveiled on campuses across the country. Speaking on a panel shortly after, Elizabeth Perry, a professor of government at Harvard University, called attention to the fine print. As state funding flows into many new university departments, video cameras are installed in their classrooms “to ensure that course content conforms to ideological guidelines.” New smartphone apps, she continued, are released for students to report their instructors who may “have crossed the ideological redline.”

On campus, the level of caution has risen and the bounds of inquiry have shrunk. One Beida professor, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, told me that many academics today shy away from certain subjects. The subsequent hurdles in funding and publishing simply aren’t worth it. Another said that scholars who proceed to investigate sensitive areas may be invited to a private presentation with Communist Party officials—the only audience their findings will ever get.

While Peking University maintains the rebellious aura of its storied past, it has settled into compliance. In 2015, senior officials from the country’s top schools were invited to a meeting with the Minister of Education, Yuan Guiren. A few weeks earlier, the Communist Party had explicitly called for the higher education system to promote Marxism and the thought of Xi Jinping. Yuan elaborated: Chinese universities must ensure that Xi’s ideas “enter classrooms and enter minds”; schools must “never allow statements that attack and slander party leaders and malign socialism to be heard in classrooms”; and, above all, institutions should “by no means allow teaching materials that disseminate Western values in our classrooms.” Zhu Shanlu, Peking University’s Communist Party secretary at the time, and other university officials quickly endorsed the measures. Party allegiance, they offered, need not impede their commitment to intellectual freedoms. A few days later, Peking University published a bulletin cautioning students not to be “led by the wrong values from the West.”

Would Xi come? Rumors begot rumors. Before Xi’s only previous visit as president, in 2014, the campus had seen a conspicuous influx of somber, suited men. Their dogs combed through the woods around Weiming Hu, the beautiful No Name Lake on the west side of campus, while divers plunged into the lake itself, securing its murky bottom. When the final days before the anniversary passed without fanfare, that seemed to be the answer: The chairman’s presence, perhaps, had been required elsewhere.

And then he arrived. On Wednesday, May 2, students finishing their lunch gaped as their phones lit up. Photos of the Chinese leader on campus were overwhelming everyone’s WeChat groups. A collective gasp rolled through the air.

His morning tour had been discreet: a few private gatherings, quick stops at exhibitions, and a visit to the university’s Marxism department to honor the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth. One picture of the chairman, standing with a nondescript document, instantly became a meme: “Student, you must work harder on your thesis.” Another, with his arm half-raised, made the rounds with the ominous caption: “You will not graduate.”

Before a van could whisk him away, a throng of students had gathered to glimpse the adoring patriarch.

The adoring patriarch turned toward them and smiled.

A chant broke out. “Unite together! Rejuvenate the nation!”

Xi stretched out an arm. The mass of students lurched forward.

“Unite together! Rejuvenate the nation!”

They strained to brush the exalted leader’s hand.

“Unite together! Rejuvenate the nation!”

Then the exalted leader stepped into the van, and the van was gone.

* * *

On the morning of May 4, hundreds streamed into Peking University’s indoor sports stadium for the anniversary’s main ceremony. Guests included Tung Chee-hwa, the former Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand, and former Prime Minister of Italy Romano Prodi. Peter Salovey, president of Yale University, grinned from the speaker’s section.

After several song and dance numbers and an enthused recording of the Chinese national anthem, Hao Ping, Beida’s Communist Party Secretary—formally the university’s highest-ranking official—took the stage. He read a short letter from Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier, who had studied at the university’s law school in the late 1970s and was notably absent. After Hao, an address was delivered by Lin Huiqing, the party’s Vice Minister of Education, who was followed by Lin Keqing, chairman of the Beijing Municipal Standing Committee. Fourth to come on stage was Beida’s then-president, Lin Jinhua. At the university’s most visible commemoration in decades, its leading representative lined up behind three Communist Party officials. The symbolism echoed through the hall.

Lin’s speech seemed to zig-zag between contending philosophies. “Collision of viewpoints, debates, doubts and even criticism are helpful,” he said at one point. “However, consensus and conviction of shared values are more indispensable.” A short while later, he stated, “Universities belong to the world. On the other hand, any excellent university must be rooted in its national traditions. In this sense, universities belong to the country and the nation.”

In three and a half hours of scripted segments, many moments nonetheless felt earnest. A video titled “Beida in Our Eyes” asked passersby for their thoughts about the university. An aproned grocery clerk said it was a “palace of knowledge”; a farmer from Yunan compared it to a “garden”; a teenager in a jean jacket said its existence was “miraculous.” The clips were followed by reverent testimonies from the region’s leading academies. The head of the University of Hong Kong paid his respects to “the incubator of the next generation of leaders,” while Fudan University’s president feted the “name card of the nation” and the “highland of national higher education.” Then Wei Shyy, acting president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, appeared on screen. “Beida to me,” he said, “as someone who has grown up in Taiwan, is an indicator of the social conscience of Chinese intellectuals.”

It was a particular phrasing, delicate enough to appease both groups in the audience: the state loyalists and the homegrown Beida community. Before Wei could finish, a roll of applause burst forth, the most spontaneous reaction of the day, purposeful and sustained. For a moment it seemed the conscience of Beida had been stirred, its present-day heirs reminded of their legacy. They clapped, and then the moment passed. The pageantry continued.

Dan Xin Huang

Dan Xin Huang is a writer living in Beijing. He previously worked as a Wall Street Journal reporter in New York.

At Guernica, we’ve spent the last 15 years producing uncompromising journalism.

More than 80% of our finances come from readers like you. And we’re constantly working to produce a magazine that deserves you—a magazine that is a platform for ideas fostering justice, equality, and civic action.

If you value Guernica’s role in this era of obfuscation, please donate.

Help us stay in the fight by giving here.