Peking University around the May Fourth Movement

1916 - 1927

In December 1916, Cai Yuanpei became the president of PKU. As an educator, thinker and democratic revolutionary, Cai conducted fruitful reforms at the university. The revolution-minded figures and academic masters constellating at PKU advocated democracy and a scientific spirit, promoted patriotism and progressive thinking, fostered the dissemination of new thinking and academic prosperity. These legendary people turned the university into a center of the New Culture Movement, the birthplace of the May Fourth Movement, and the first base for the Communist Party of China (CPC) to spread Marxism in northern China. That glorious period in the development of PKU laid the foundation for its glorious revolutionary tradition and excellent academic legacy.

Cai held that “a university shall be an institute that embraces all schools of learning,” on the ground of which he proposed the policy of “freedom of thought and inclusiveness.” After taking office as the president, he adopted a flexible policy in staff employment in a bid to recruit noted scholars for the university. He appointed Chen Duxiu, an inspirational leader of the New Culture Movement, as dean of the liberal arts and Xia Yuanli who was the first scholar to introduce Einstein's relativism to China as the dean of sciences. Cai advocated democratic school running and professorial governance. He reformed the leadership system, and established corresponding administrative institutions. The academic senate was made the highest legislative and authoritative body of the university composed of the president, chiefs of all disciplines and professors. The executive conference became the highest executive agency, with a membership comprised of chairpersons of the special committees, the provosts, the director of general affairs and professors, under leadership of the president. Deans of the academic affairs conference and the academic affairs office would manage teaching affairs, while the provosts were selected by professors from various departments. The general affairs office was entrusted with the personnel and finance management of the entire university, and its director was appointed by the president.

Cai was committed to making PKU a comprehensive university with a focus on liberal arts. He started with the reform of liberal arts, expanded the programs in arts and sciences by adding historiography and geology, merged the business into law and incorporated engineering into Beiyang University. In 1919, he abolished the School of Liberal Arts, School of Science and School of Law, and began to “replace schools with departments.” At first, 14 departments were established, including mathematics, physics, chemistry, geology, philosophy, history, Chinese literature, English literature, French literature, German literature, Russian literature, economics, political science and law. Later, four more departments were added, including education, oriental studies, biology and psychology. New courses in journalism, political science, historical materialism, logic, aesthetics, and archeology were offered. The preparatory program was changed from three years to two years, and the undergraduate program from three years to four years. Students could choose to officially register at a course or to audit it. Aesthetic education was advocated and physical education emphasized to promote an all-round development in morality, intellect, physique, and aesthetic appreciation. In 1920, PKU began to enroll women, making it the first co-education national university in China.

Cai believed that universities should be institutes for advanced scholarship, which is why he adopted a series of measures to improve the scientific research at PKU. First, he established a research institute (graduate school) to train graduate students. (In Mandarin, the literal meaning of a yanjiu suo, or a graduate school, is “research institute.” Accordingly, a yanjiu sheng, or a graduate student, literally means “research student.” The aptly named yanjiu shengs, on the day they became a graduate student, focus on researches rather than getting an A in their exams.—translator’s note) By the end of 1917, PKU established such institutes in liberal arts, sciences and law. Those were the earliest academic research institutes established in Chinese universities at that time. In early 1918, these graduate school enrolled a total of 148 researchers (graduate students), aside from 32 corresponding researchers. In December 1921, the three research institutes became one very big institute and four programs were planned to be put in its stead, including natural sciences, social science, Chinese studies and foreign literature. However, due to financial constraints, by January 1922 only the Program of Chinese Studies was established with Shen Jianshi as the director. Under the program, the Song Society, Historical Data Society for the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the Archaeological Society, the Dialect Investigation Society and the Folk Customs Society were set up successively. Cai’s next move to promote academic research would be to found academic publications. In November 1917, Peking University Daily was born. It carried reports on important affairs of the university as well as literary and academic articles. In September 1918, Peking University Monthly was founded as the earliest academic journal to be published in a Chinese university. In addition, Natural Science Quarterly, Social Sciences Quarterly, Chinese Studies Quarterly and other well-known journals back then effectively promoted the academic research of teachers and students. Third, President Cai hired foreign scholars for academic exchanges. Lecturers recruited include John Dewey from the US, Bertrand Russell from the UK, Paul Painlevé from France, and Max Planck, the founder of quantum mechanics. Famous experts from the university and elsewhere were asked to give lectures to promote academic activities. Last but not least, Cai supported societies within the university to encourage academic emulation. Around the May 4th Movement, various societies were established, among which the influential ones were the Debate Society, Morality Advancement Society, New Trend Society, National Magazine Society, Marxist Research Society, Journalism Research Society, Socialist Research Society, Society for Civilian Literacy Lecture, Philosophy Society and Music Society. Most of those societies had their own publications. Some made considerable difference among the public, including New Trend, Nationals, Young China, News Weekly, National Heritage, Mathematical Journal and Music Magazine.

After the reforms, PKU saw a “revived academic zest and growing reputation,” and were able to bring in more teachers and students within a short period of time. According to statistics in 1918, there were 217 faculty members (90 professors), and 1,980 students (148 graduate students). In a favorable academic environment, a large number of outstanding talents came to the fore, putting forth their pioneering works in various disciplines. Outline of the History of Chinese Philosophy: Vol. 1 by Hu Shi was the first account of the history of ancient Chinese philosophy written with new academic ideas and methods. Sun Yunzhu’s Cambrian Animal Fossils in Northern China was the first paleontological monograph written by a Chinese scholar and On Journalism by Xu Baohuang was hailed by Cai Yuanpei as a “trail-blazing work.”

In 1915, Chen Duxiu founded the Youth Magazine in Shanghai (renamed New Youth the following year). His article “A Letter to Youth” in the inaugural issue explicitly put forward the slogan of “democracy and science,” which was the prelude to the New Culture Movement. Chen joined PKU in 1917 and moved New Youth to Beijing. Hu Shi, Qian Xuantong, Liu Bannong, Li Dazhao, Lu Xun, Shen Yinmo, Gao Yihan and other professors of liberal arts at PKU were editors to the magazine, around which they were able to establish a powerful innovation camp. In January 1917, Hu published “Attempting Discussion of Literary Reform” in New Youth. It was the first important article of the New Literature Movement. In February, Chen raised the banner of literary revolution by publishing “On Literary Revolution” in New Youth. In August 1918, Lu Xun published “The Madman's Diary,” the first vernacular short story in New Youth, which was received with an overwhelming response from the ideological and cultural communities. After that, Lu Xun published Kong Yiji, Drugs and other vernacular fiction works, laying the foundation for modern Chinese literature. The Weekly Review founded by Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, and New Trend, Nationals and other journals created by PKU students also played significant roles in criticizing obsolete thoughts and culture and advocating a reform to both. The New Culture Movement was an unprecedented enlightenment campaign and profound ideological liberation; it was an ideological preparation for the May 4th Movement. PKU became the center of the New Culture Movement.

When a post-WWI peace conference was held in Paris in 1919, China attended as a victorious country. However, the previous privileges in Shandong seized by the defeated Germany were transferred to Japan. The Beiyang government secretly ordered the Chinese delegation to sign the Treaty of Paris. The news filled PKU students with indignation who convened an ad hoc meeting of at Xizhai, an old dormitory compound in the west wing, to discuss countermeasures. In the evening of May 3, a student conference was held in the auditorium of the Law School. Also present at the conference were representatives from 12 colleges and universities including Beijing Normal University. The conference was chaired by Liao Shucang, a law student at PKU. Xie Shaomin bit his middle finger and wrote “Give Qingdao back to us” with his blood on a piece of cloth torn off his robe. The students gave speeches one after another amid indignant tears. It was decided at the meeting that the National Humiliation Day parade originally scheduled on May 7 should be held ahead of time. Under the initiation and organization of PKU students, over 3,000 students from colleges and universities in Beijing gathered on Tian’anmen Square for a massive demonstration on May 4, a day that would go down history as the beginning of the sensational May 4th Movement. Fu Sinian, then student of PKU, was the general conductor of the student parade. At the Tian’anmen rally, Declaration of Students in Beijing drafted by Xu Deheng, also a PKU student, was read out. During the parade, Declaration of Beijing Academia drafted by Luo Jialun, also a PKU student, was distributed. The declaration called out that “Japan is requesting the annexation of Qingdao at the Paris Peace Conference and take over all the rights in Shandong... China is faced with territorial deprivation and sovereignty loss... We hope that all industrial and commercial sectors in China could unite for a national convention, so as to strive for sovereignty in the international community and eliminate the domestic traitors. The survival of China hangs on this move.” At the parade, indignant students rushed to the Zhaojialou Hutong, set fire to the residence of traitor Cao Yulin and beat up his accomplice Zhang Zongxiang. The Beiyang government dispatched military police to suppress the demonstration and arrested 32 students. On May 5, PKU and other colleges went on a strike. Cai Yuanpei and other university presidents tried their best to rescue the arrested students. Two days later, the government released them. However, it ignored their political demands and forced Cai Yuanpei to resign for sympathizing with the patriotic students. On May 19, students in Beijing announced an all-out strike and began touring the city streets to publicize their demands. On June 1, the government banned all anti-imperialist activities. On June 3-4, thousands of students were taken into custody. The brutal suppression of patriotic activities of the students by the warlord government provoked a national outrage. Massive strikes were launched by workers, businessmen, and students in Shanghai and other major cities. Under the pressure of those strikes, the government removed Cao Yulin, Lu Zongyu and Zhang Zongxiang from their posts and refused to sign the Paris Peace Treaty. An immortal victory was achieved in the May 4th Movement. As a complete, uncompromising anti-imperialist and anti-feudal patriotic movement, the movement was of epoch-making significance to the transformation of China's old democratic revolution into new democratic revolution. As its birthplace, PK has written a glorious page in Chinese history.

The May 4th Movement promoted the extensive communication of Marxism. Professor Li Dazhao of PKU was the first to raise the banner of Marxism in China and systematically accept, disseminate, and practice Marxism. Following the publication of “The Victory of Bolshevism in 1918,” he published “How I Perceive Marxism” in the New Youth in 1919 and comprehensively expounded the Marxist theories. He formally included Marxism in his curriculum, organized and guided progressive societies like the Marxist Research Society. Under his influence, a group of young Marxists including Deng Zhongxia, Mao Zedong and Gao Junyu rose into influence, turning PKU into the center of Marxist study and dissemination. In August 1920, Chen Duxiu established the first group of the CPC in Shanghai. In October, the Communist Party Group of Beijing was established at Li Dazhao’s office in the Red Building. In November, it was changed to the Beijing Branch of Communist Party of China, and almost all members were PKU (then known as National Peking University) students. Prior to the first CPC National Assembly, CPC organizations were established in eight regions. Among them, six were headed by PKU students, teachers or alumni. PKUers also accounted for 21 of all the 53 Party members in China. Of all the 13 representatives at the first CPC National Assembly held in July 1921, five were from the university’s faculty or student body, or used to be a student. This shows that PKU has made important contributions to the CPC in its early days.

The Beijing government victimized education and deferred education funding and faculty, plunging various universities into predicament. On March 15, 1921, eight universities in Beijing organized a “Joint Council of Staff Delegates” and decided to launch a wage war. The struggle concerning the very sustenance of education and survival for the majority of faculties went on for many years.

On March 18, 1926, thousands of members of over 200 societies from PKU, Beijing Normal University and Yenching University gathered at Tiananmen Square for a national demonstration to protest the Japanese imperialists’ shelling of the Dagu Pass and the so-called “Ultimatum of Eight Countries.” After the meeting, a petition group of over 2,000 members went to the sitting government for petition. Out of their expectations, the group were shot at by guards of Duan Qirui’s government. The incident shocked China and the world, later known as the March 18th Massacre. PKUers have always been at the forefront of the struggle against imperialism and feudalism, just as Lu Xun had said in his article “My View of Peking University,” “It can be seen in the past seven or eight years that, first, PKU was always pioneering revolutions to promote the progress of China... and second, it was always ready to fight against the dark forces, even when it had to do it alone.”

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Copyright © Peking University All rights reserved | No.5 Yiheyuan Road Haidian District, Beijing, P.R.China 100871| 京ICP备05065075号-1| 京公网安备110402430047号
Copyright © Peking University All rights reserved 京ICP备05065075号-1
No.5 Yiheyuan Road Haidian District, Beijing, P.R.China 100871 京公网安备 110402430047 号