Peking University in the 17 Years after the Founding of New China

1949 - 1966

On October 1, 1949, the People’s Republic of China was founded and PKU entered a new era.

On January 31, 1949, Peking was peacefully liberated. On February 28, the Cultural Takeover Committee of Peking Military Commission officially took charge of PKU. On May 4, the university council was established and Tang Yongtong became its chairman. In June 1951, Ma Yinchu became the university’s first president after the founding of New China. In June 1956, the separate responsibility system featuring leadership of CPC committee was inaugurated and Jiang Longji became the first secretary of the committee. In October 1957, Lu Ping took office as the first secretary of the Party Committee, and, as of March 1960, he was also the president of PKU. In February 1962, the leadership of PKU was explicitly defined as a council responsibility system Headed by the school president under the leadership of the CPC committee.

CPC and the government cared about PKU. Within the short span of one year from April 1949 to April 1950, Chairman Mao Zedong wrote three letters to PKU “in celebration of the progress of PKU,” a university whose name was his inscription. From 1949 to 1961, Premier Zhou Enlai paid five visits to the university. Zhu De, Deng Xiaoping, and other CPC and state leaders also visited for inspection.

Soon after the liberation, the government adjusted the institutes of higher learning. The PKU School of Agriculture was merged with the agriculture schools of Tsinghua University and North China University to form Beijing Agricultural University. The PKU Medical School was placed under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health to become an independent college—Beijing Medical College. The PKU Engineering School was incorporated into Tsinghua University. The School of Liberal Arts, School of Sciences and School of Law of Tsinghua University were incorporated into PKU, together with their counterparts at Yenching University. (In actual implementation, the Department of Law and Department of Politics at PKU School of Law were incorporated into Beijing University of Politics and Law, and its Department of Geology was placed under Beijing Institute of Geology.) Yenching University was revoked and PKU relocated from Shatan in urban Peking to the former campus of Yenching University. After the faculty adjustment, PKU embraced a total of 12 departments, including Department of Mathematics and Mechanics, Department of Physics, Department of Chemistry, Department of Biology, Department of Geology and Geography, Department of Chinese Language and Literature, Department of History, Department of Philosophy, Department of Economics, Department of Oriental Languages and Literature, Department of Western Languages and Literature, and Department of Russian Language and Literature Department. The three-tier management system of university, schools, and departments was changed to a two-tiered system of university and departments. It was transformed from a university embracing the six schools of literature, science, law, medicine, engineering, and agriculture to a comprehensive university mainly specialized in the teaching and research of natural sciences, humanities and social sciences. The institutional adjustment brought a group of famous scholars to the university. By November 1952, the teaching staff of 546 at PKU included 170 professors and 48 associate professors, indicating that 40% of the faculty were senior title holders. Among the first 223 council members (Academicians) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) approved by the State Council in 1955, 28 were incumbent teachers (including 11 in liberal arts and 17 in sciences) at PKU. The number and percentage were unrivaled among universities in China. In order to meet the requirements of national construction and development, PKU reinstated and reconstructed the Department of Law in 1954 and Department of Library Science in 1956. In 1958, its Physical Research Laboratory was expanded into the first Department of Atomic Energy in China, and the Department of Physics was divided into the Department of Physics, Department of Geophysics, and Department of Radioelectronics. The Department of Political Science was reinstated in 1960. In addition, the university also established a number of research institutions, including the Institute of Foreign Philosophy, Asian-African Research Institute, Laboratory for Theoretical Physics, Laboratory for Semiconductor Physics, and Laboratory for Physical Chemistry and Colloid Chemistry.

In the first few years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, PKU launched a comprehensive reform to the education objectives, management system and teaching practices, following the principle of “resolute transformation and gradual implementation.” It abolished some of the old courses established during the KMT period, and added “New Democracy,” “Dialectical Materialism and Historical Materialism,” “Political Economics,” and other courses relevant to the new era. By March 1950, a total of 77 courses had been canceled and 100 new courses added. A new curriculum system was basically established. PKU also established and strengthened steering groups for teaching and research, and research offices on teaching. By 1956, the number such research offices had reached 83. From 1952 to 1957, PKU hired 36 Soviet experts who helped open 41 new courses. They also set up certain “specialties” and trained a group of graduate students and young teachers. The schooling system for undergraduates underwent several major changes during this period. After the institutional adjustment, each major would take four years to complete. Beginning with the freshmen of 1953, five-year programs were piloted for three majors: mathematics, physics and history. In the first semester of school year 1955-1956, all departments (except the Department of Oriental Languages and Culture) were shifted to a five-year system. In 1960, programs in sciences were extended to six years, starting with the Class of 1956.

According to the requirement that “comprehensive universities should be educational institutes, as well as research institutes” proposed at the National Conference on Comprehensive Universities held in 1953, PKU further strengthened scientific research. In August 1956, China formulated the Outline for the Long-term Development of Science and Technology in 1956-1967, which listed computing technology, radio technology, nuclear science, jet technology, semiconductors, and automation as the priority disciplines for development. The university made outstanding contributions in this regard. Back in 1955, the State Council approved the establishment of a physics research institute. Headed by Hu Jimin, the institute took the lead in assuming the responsibility of training talents of nuclear science for the country. Six of the first 100 graduates became academicians of CAS and Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). PKU was also the first institution to cultivate semiconductor talents in China. In 1956, the major of joint semiconductor physics was established at PKU under the sponsorship of five universities. The teachers and students led by Professor Huang Kun and Professor Xie Xide became the forerunner of China’s semiconductor science. No sooner had the study of computers begun in China than PKU offered computer literacy classes and arranged for young teachers and students to participate in computer research and development. These initiatives trained a group of young people, many of whom later became experts in computer science, including Wang Xuan, academician of CAS and Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE), and winner of Highest National Award of Science and Technology. In the 1960s, a number of world-renowned achievements were attained in the basic scientific research of PKU. Among them, artificial synthesis of bovine insulin crystals achieved in collaboration with CAS and other institutions marked the first successful attempt in synthesis of human protein, a reputed cornerstone of life.

Research in humanities and social sciences had always been a strength of PKU, but it could be greatly influenced by the political environment. Successive political campaigns and so-called “academic criticisms” during this period seriously hampered research in that field. However, PKU achieved significant results in many fields, among which Ma Changchu’s study on China’s population was particularly prominent, in particular an article titled “New Population Theory” carried in the People’s Daily of July 5, 1957. The article described the grave situation of dramatic increase in China’s population and systematically discussed the necessity and specific measures for its control. Ma provided a paragon of theoretical application for solving an actual problem of relevance to national interest and livelihood, which was falsely criticized after its publication. PKU had always cherished the compilation of textbooks, believing them to be reflective of both teaching needs and scientific research. In 1961, the four departments of the School of Liberal Arts alone undertook the compilation of 28 textbooks entrusted by the Ministry of Education. Thanks to the participation of many well-accomplished professors, a batch of high-quality college textbooks were soon published. Regarded as the paradigms for college textbooks in New China, they have had a profound influence on the higher education of liberal arts in China.

In the late 1950s, due to certain mistakes in the Party’s guidelines, PKU deviated from the right path like the rest of China. In the 1957 anti-rightist movement, over 700 teachers and students at the university were wrongly classified as rightists. Disproportional political activities and manual labor seriously interfered with its normal duties of teaching and research. In 1961, the CPC Central Committee put forward the principle of “adjustment, consolidation, enrichment, and improvement” for the national economy and strove to correct all sorts of mistakes. In the same year, the Temporary Working Conditions for Colleges and Universities Directly under the Ministry of Education (Draft) was issued. PKU implemented the regulation to rectify its work, practice the Party’s policy for intellectuals, and especially to curb the tendency to ignore teaching. The newly revised teaching plan emphasized on the idea of “teaching foremost” and the training of basic theories, knowledge and skills, significantly improving the quality of teaching. PKU graduates were praised for “solid foundation in knowledge and great stamina.” In 1966, nearly 9,000 students were currently enrolled at PKU, more than four times of the number in 1949. From 1949 to 1965, the university trained more than 30,000 undergraduates and over 2,000 graduates, who would become the backbone of national construction. Among them, more than 100 became CAS or CAE academicians. Yu Min and Zhou Guangzhao, winners of the “Two Bombs and One Satellite Meritorious Medal,” Qian Shaojun, a model worker in science and technology for national defense, and Jiang Zhuying, an outstanding representative of the intellectuals commended by the CPC Central Committee, are exemplary representatives.

In the autumn of 1964, the Publicity Department of the CPC Central Committee decided to launch a pilot program of socialist education movement at PKU and sent a task force there. In the movement, many Party members and officials were erroneously criticized. In March 1965, at a meeting of the Central Secretariat hosted by General Secretary Deng Xiaoping, the situation of PKU was specifically discussed. Deng clearly stated that “PKU is a good university,” and fixed the mistakes of the task force. However, the intellectual confusion in the wake of the campaign planted the seeds for PKU to be the first “target” of the “Cultural Revolution.”