May 4th and Chinese history: Peking University

北京大学 (Peking or Beijing University) also commonly shortened to BeiDa is well-known for its status as one of China’s preeminent universities. Along with its competitor and neighbor Tsinghua University, Peking University is considered the #1 research institution in the county. I had the opportunity to study here as part of UCEAP while I learned more about  international studies and contemporary issues in China, as well as improved my Chinese language skills.

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The lake and pagoda in the north of BeiDa

Like any university with more than a century of existence, BeiDa has had a rich history and often been at the forefront of mass-movements and political discourse. Originally founded in 1898 as the Imperial University of Beijing, later renamed following the toppling of the Qing dynasty at the hands of revolutionaries and the rise of President Sun Yat-Sen in 1911. The tumultuous years of WW1 served to galvanized nationalist sentiment in China, especially the May 4th Movement which expressed mass discontent at the treaty of Versailles for handing over German lands in Shandong to the Japanese rather than China. From that point onward China began to reject the self-serving hypocrisy of Western Powers that clamored for equality and national determination while carving up the lands of defeated powers for their own empires.

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Marx and Engels highlight the continued presence of Marxism in the country

In terms of former alumni, well-renowned politicians , writers and artists have come from the ranks of students at BeiDa. Key characters like Mao Zedong, Chen Duxiu, and Li Dazhao, founding members of the Communist Party of China, either taught or held offices in the university. With the rise of anti-Western sentiment following the May 4th protests that later became the so-called New Culture Movement, an attempt to modernize China through alternative ways that deviated from traditional values seen as having kept China back, these key characters would be joined by countless intellectuals that turned to the model of the Soviet Union and its anti-imperialist sentiments for support. With the New Culture Movement came the acceptance of female students, self-evident and obvious by our standards but quite revolutionary and unprecedented in a country where girls would still have their feet bound in a deforming manner because it was harder to run away, a practice that only ended when the Communist Party banned it in 1949. Despite education becoming free under the new government, not everything was rainbows and sunshine; the Cultural Revolution and its disaster resulted in classes being disrupted from 1966 to 1970.

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The history faculty of Peking University

Peking University sits in the northwest corner of Beijing, in fact across the street from Tsinghua and only a short walk from both the Old and New Summer Palaces. Much of its traditional aesthetic remains with older buildings still reflecting the old style of grey buildings highlighted with red and green paint as well as European and American styles. A state of the art university is the centerpiece of the university though also built with Chinese motifs. Due to its large size there are several lakes and gardens in the north of the university where most of the older campus is located and even a water tower constructed in the shape of a pagoda, for a more aesthetic feel.

Peking University is a stunning place to visit and study at, it is a blend of modern with the ancient and is full of history that has shaped the course of China for better or worse.



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