Peking University as Part of the Southwest Union University

1937 - 1946

On July 7, 1937, the Lugou Bridge Incident broke out. By the end of the month, Peiping and Tianjin were lost in succession. In September, following an order of the Ministry of Education, PKU, Tsinghua University and Nankai University were relocated southward to Hunan Province, where they became one university called National Provisional University at Changsha. At the provisional university, President of PKU Jiang Menglin, President of Tsinghua University Mei Yiqi, and President of Nankai University Zhang Boling were appointed standing members of the preparatory committee to preside over the provisional university. Hastily established in the war and chaos, the university suffered from severe lack of funds, books, materials and equipment, while its buildings were either rented or borrowed. However, thanks to joint efforts of the teachers and students, difficulties were overcome and classes begun on November 1. The university boasted 17 departments and 148 teachers, including 55 from PKU. By November 20, the number of students registered reached 1,452 (including 1,120 original students, of which 342 were from PKU), together with the newly-enrolled and the transients.

On December 13, 1937, Nanjing fell. Japanese stepped up its airstrikes on Changsha. In January 1938, the Nationalist Government approved the relocation of the provisional university to Kunming, Yunnan. In February, the teachers and students of the university were divided into three teams for the journey. One of them, consisting of over 300 teachers and students, formed a Xiang-Qian-Dian Group and started the relocation trip on foot. Braving the natural elements and scaling mountains, the group carried out anti-Japanese campaigns, social surveys, learned folk customs, collected folk songs and poems, collected teaching and research specimens along the way. They also enjoyed the picturesque landscape of the motherland, and honed the physique and will of its members. The team was cordially received by the local people. Eventually, the group reached Kunming safely on April 28, 1938, after a journey of 1,600 kilometers (including 1,300 kilometers on foot) across three provinces—Hunan, Guizhou and Yunnan—over 68 days, creating a miracle in the history of higher education in China.

On April 2, 1938, National Provisional University at Changsha changed its name to National Southwestern Associated University (NSAU). After its relocation to Kunming, the first problem for the university was school building. With the help of all walks of life in Yunnan Province and Kunming City, the university was able to rent the buildings of Kunhua Agricultural School for the School of Sciences, and the three Guildhalls and Salt Warehouses at Tuodong Road for the School of Engineering. Due to the lack of school buildings at Kunming campus, the schools of liberal arts and law were based in Mengzi County. At the end of August, Mengzi Campus was cancelled and its staff and students returned to Kunming. Meanwhile, a Teacher’s School was newly added. The lack of school buildings became exacerbated, and the school buildings of Kunhua Normal School, Kunhua Industrial School, and Kunhua Middle School were rented. The new campus of NSAU was completed in April 1939. Located in Sanfensi Temple on the northwestern outskirts of Kunming City, the university occupied more than eight hectares. Except for the library and two canteens which were of brick-and-wood structure, the rest of the buildings were all iron-roofed or thatched adobe bungalows. In July 1940, the Japanese invaders captured Annan (Vietnam), pushing Yunnan to the frontline, and intensifying the situation. Following the contingent instruction of the Ministry of Education, NSAU set up a branch in Xuyong County, Sichuan Province, to offer courses to the freshmen and preparatory classes. The branch was inaugurated on January 6, 1941, and revoked in August after which they were moved back to Kunming. The five schools of NSAU were the School of Liberal Arts, School of Sciences, School of Law, School of Business, and School of Education, under which 26 departments, two specialized programs, and a preparatory class were established. In May 1939, the research institutes of the three original universities were successively reinstated in Kunming. The PKU Graduate School boated three branches, for liberal arts, science, and law.

It was extremely difficult to run a school in wartime. The library bookshelves were made of stacks of wooden crates and only a few dozen thousand books were kept. The seats in the library could only seat a few, so some students had to frequent nearby teahouses—not just for reading and discussions, but also a glass of water. The “NSAU Students Teahouse” became a unique sight in wartime Kunming. The teachers would have to make do with makeshift, handmade laboratory devices. The ever-increasing prices made the lives of teachers and students increasingly difficult. From the beginning of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression to 1943, prices in Kunming rose by 300 times, but the salaries of NSAU staff was up by fivefold only. To make ends meet, the teachers had to do part-time teaching at other schools or even sell their books and clothing at a low price. The students also had to take up part-time jobs between classes. The hardship never dampened the spirits of the students and teachers, who remained faith for the victory of the War of Resistance and held fast to their pursuit for scholarship.

In the face of an unprecedented national crisis, NSAU pooled resources and made concerted efforts to keep everything going, upholding the spirit of “fortitude and excellence.” It was blessed with an outstanding faculty comprised of renowned professors and scholars from the original three universities. Most professors of liberal arts were well versed in both Chinese and Western scholarship, while professors of science and engineering were all achieved in teaching and research, some of which were founders of basic disciplines and engineering technology, and young professors who had overseas study experience and came back to China around the War of Resistance. They were not only academically accomplished, but also dedicated to professionalism. Professors like Zhou Peiyuan and Wu Dayou living in the suburbs dozens of miles away from the university shunned the more convenient intensive teaching for a three-credit course. They chose several hours of shuttling between their homes and the university for three lectures each week, so as to guarantee the effectiveness of instruction. NSAU attached great importance to the basic training and experimental internships for students. Renowned professors would personally teach fundamental courses and required courses according to a stringent teaching management system. The university stipulated that no make-up examination should be allowed for failed courses, nor would any credit be granted. Failed compulsory courses must be taken for the second time in the next school year. No credit would be granted to those retaken even if they passed the second exam. The university also set great store by the cultivation of students' hands-on abilities. Take quantitative analysis experiment in the Department of Chemistry for example: In the event of the experimental data failing to satisfy set accuracy, the experiment must be redone overnight. The rigorous teaching style not only laid a solid foundation for the students’ scholastic pursuit, but also nurtured a favorable style of study. The teachers of NSAU attached equal importance to teaching and research. Cherishing scientific research, they wrote many high-level academic monographs despite the shortage in books, materials, instruments, and the poor publishing conditions. Many became award winners in the five academic review contests organized annually by the Ministry of Education between 1941 and 1945. First prize winners accounted for 40% of the total, including Additive Theory of Prime Numbers (Hua Luogeng), Turbulence Theory (Zhou Peiyuan), Polyatomic Molecular Vibration Spectroscopy and Structure (Wu Dayou), New Science (Feng Youlan), and History of Buddhism in the Han, Wei, Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties (Tang Yongtong) and Political History of Tang Dynasty Reviewed (Chen Yinke).

NSAU earned its reputation for training top talents in hardship. In the nine years from its founding, the university enrolled about 8,000 students, 3,882 of which graduated with bachelor’s degree, junior college diploma, or graduate degree. Among them, 90 were to become Academicians of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Chinese Academy of Engineering, and foreign academicians. Six of the 23 scientists awarded the “Meritorious Medal for Two Bombs and the Satellite” by the state were NSAU alumni. Three graduates were awarded the Highest National Award of Science and Technology, and two were given the Nobel Prize in Physics. They had made outstanding contributions to the development of China and the scientific cause of mankind. Complementing intense classroom learning, numerous community organizations carried out lively and diverse activities, helping improve the students’ cultural literacy and extracurricular abilities.

NSAU students vied with one another to join the army to resist Japanese aggression and save their country. Three large-scale enlisting activities were held. Over 1,100 students or 14% of the all enrolled put aside their education to become soldiers. Fifteen laid down their lives for the course of resistance against Japanese aggression, including He Maoxun (He Fang), Huang Wei, and Miu Hong. Later, 15 students martyred in China’s War of Liberation or the bid to consolidate the newly established People’s Republic of China, including Qi Liang, Liu Guozhi, and Rong Shizheng. They are the pride of our nation and the glory of NSAU.

After the victory of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, the long-awaited peace was finally around the corner. However, the Chiang Kai-shek government persisted in dictatorship and civil war. The Communist Party of China heard what the people wanted, and issued the call to “mobilize the entire country to stop the civil war by all means.” On November 25, 1945, the students’ self-government associations of NSAU and Yunnan University jointly organized an anti-Civil War party for discussing current affairs. They were threatened by gunshots fired by the KMT army. On December 1, armed soldiers and thugs stormed the new campus and the Teacher’s School, throwing stones and grenades. Female student Pan Yan and male student Li Lulian of the Teacher’s School were killed, together with Yu Zai, a teacher of Nan Jing Middle School and Zhang Huachang, a teacher of Kunhua Engineering School. In addition, more than 50 students were injured. The “December 1st” massacre staged by the Chiang Kai-shek government incited great anger among teachers and students, who held a protest conference and won the support of all walks of life from nearly 20 cities across China. Under the leadership of the CPC’s underground organization, Kunming students fought a well-targeted war against the reactionaries, which was the prelude to the second front of China’s Liberation War.

“After the recovery of the sacred capital, [we shall] return to our homeland.” After the victory of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, the three NSAU universities would have respectively returned to their original sites in Peking and Tianjin. However, due to traffic constraints and repairs in their original campuses, the association stayed in Kunming for another year. On May 4, 1946, it was officially terminated after the last graduation commencement. The Teacher’s School stayed behind, and became National Kunming Normal College (now Yunnan Normal University) in August 1946. NSAU completed its historical mission as a wartime university. “Exemplary for academic freedom at home and praiseworthy for being a democratic fortress worldwide,” it had written an indelible chapter in the history of Chinese education.