Sunday, July 13, 2008

Place of 1989: Peking University

When the Peking Metropolitan University (京师大学堂) opened its door in December, 1898, it was located near the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, the center of Peking/Beijing. The school was decreed by the reformist emperor Guang Xu (光绪), who wanted the school to "take the traditional Chinese as the foundation, take the western knowledge as the practical, organically combine the two skills to achieve lasting impact" (中学为体,西学为用,中西并用,观其会通). Led by American missionary W. A. P. Martin (丁韪良), it was the very first school in China that offered courses in modern science. Classes for geometry, physics, and chemistry were held along side those of traditional Chinese literature. After the Revolution of 1911, the school changed its name to Peking University, which has been in use to this day.

Thus, when the students of Peking University launched the great May Fourth Movement in 1919, They only had a very short distance to march into the Tiananmen Square. That movement, regarded as the beginning of the modern China, also firmly established the school's reputation as THE school for student movements. This is a tradition that has lasted for almost a century long, with various student movements in every critical junction of the Chinese history. Indeed, the school is so proud of such a tradition that it adopted May 4 as its anniversary date, never minded that the school had been founded decades before that historical date.

In more modern time, however, the campus of Peking University is located in the northwest suburb of the city, along with thirty or so universities and colleges. It was the site of the old Yenching University.

In the summer of 1920, Dr. John Leighton Stuart (司徒雷登), a son of American missionaries and the president of the private, Methodist-supported Yenching University, was looking for a new site for his school in Beijing. Following the ancient Chinese tradition of garden-style school, he chose to purchase the country estate of a former Imperial Minister northwest of the city. The site was conveniently located near the Yuanmingyuan and the (new) Summer Palace, both former Imperial gardens that were magnificent. By 1926, he secured 200 acres of land for the development of a new campus to be designed, by the American architect Henry Killam Murphy, as a beautiful garden.

All office and classroom buildings were finished in the traditional Chinese palace style, with raised wings on roofs and sculptured and colorfully decorated beams and eaves. Near the main building group, surrounded by hills and willow trees, was a man-made lake, artfully called the “Unnamed Lake.” In the middle of the lake there was an island that could be reached by an arched walking bridge. And, on a hill in the southeast border of the lake there was a majestic 13-story pagoda, a replica of the ancient Tungchow Pagoda, which also served the very practical purpose of supplying water for the campus. Scattered around the campus were many antique artifacts that had been “rescued” from the nearby Yuanmingyuan ruin. These gave the campus even more a feel of an Imperial garden itself.

In 1952, the new Communist government embarked a wide-ranged reorganization of the nation's universities in order to mold them into a system similar to that in Soviet Union. The old Yenching University was dismantled, with its engineering departments moving to Tsinghua University and its science and liberal arts departments absorbed by Peking University. The latter also moved into the campus designed by John Leighton Stuart and Henry Murphy.

It is from this campus, about 10 miles northwest of Tiananmen Square, that students launched many of their marches into the heart of the city in 1989.

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