Peking University during the Cultural Revolution

1966 - 1976

On May 16, 1966, the CPC Central Committee passed the “May 16th Notification,” which set in motion the “Cultural Revolution.” Under the collusion of Kang Sheng and his wife Cao Yi’ou, Nie Yuanzi from the PKU Department of Philosophy posted this “big-character poster” with a title to the effect “What on Earth Are Song Shuo, Lu Ping and Peng Peiyun Doing in the Cultural Revolution?” The poster was intended to frame and attack the CPC Committee at PKU and the CPC Beijing Municipal Committee. On June 1, the Central People’s Broadcasting Station had the poster read out word to word, per Chairman Mao Zedong’s instructions. In the evening, the working team dispatched by North China Bureau entered PKU. In the morning of June 4, the leader of the newly reshuffled CPC Beijing Municipal Committee came to the university and announced the removal of Party Secretary Lu Ping and Deputy Secretary Peng Peiyun. The leader reorganized CPC Committee at PKU and appointed the working group to take over its duties. On July 26, at the “debate” of ten thousand people held at the university, the CPC Beijing Municipal Committee announced the revocation of the working group to PKU. Jiang Qing ordered Nie Yuanzi to organize a Cultural Revolution Committee of PKU. On September 11, the committee (referred to as the “University Cultural Revolution”) was established and Nie became its director. After its establishment, various rebel groups emerged in PKU, gradually evolving into two major factions in serious confrontation. The increasingly fierce factional skirmish deteriorated into large-scale physical conflicts. The campus was in a chaos, taking its toll on the university properties. On September 18, 1968, a Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team consisting of 492 members from the PLA and workers in Beijing marched into PKU. Both the university and its departments were placed under its leadership. On September 27, 1969, the Revolutionary Committee of PKU was established with Yang Dezhong as the director. In May 1971, PKU convened its sixth CPC Congress, and Yang was appointed the secretary of CPC Committee at PKU. In February 1972, the CPC Beijing Municipal Committee announced the appointment of Wang Lianlong as the secretary of CPC Committee at PKU and director of the University Cultural Revolution Committee.

PKU was one of the hardest hit targets in the ten years of the “Cultural Revolution.” It was imposed various unwarranted charges such as a “stubborn anti-Party, anti-socialist bastion.” Many of the university’s officials and teachers were labeled as “gangsters,” “capitalist,” and “reactionary academic authority” and cruelly persecuted. During the period, more than 400 households had their properties confiscated, over 1,000 false cases heard, and more than 60 famous scholars including Rao Yutai, Jian Bozan and Yu Dayin died prematurely. In “cleaning up the class ranks” in 1968, most of the PKU faculty were rounded up and forced to eat and live together, with their freedom of movement deprived. In 1969, thousands of teachers were sent to Liyuzhou Farm in the schistosomiasis endemic area in Jiangxi Province for reform through labor and re-education. In the “Cultural Revolution,” the “Gang of Four” trumpeted that “education is useless.” PKU was forced to suspend classes and students admission for four years, incurring irreparable and massive losses in talent training.

By 1970, students admitted before the “Cultural Revolution” had all graduated. On June 27 of that year, the CPC Central Committee forwarded the Report of the Enrolment (Pilot) Requests for Beijing University and Tsinghua University. It was stipulated in the report that the entrance examination system for institutes of higher education should be abolished and “the method combining recommendation by the people, leadership approval, and school review shall be implemented.” Also, universities were supposed to enroll students from the workers, peasants, the PLA. From 1970 to 1976, PKU (then known as Beijing University) admitted more than 12,700 trainees from workers, peasants and the army. The great difference in education background upon enrolment proved a considerable challenge for teaching. The teachers made many new attempts to adapt teaching methods and contents for their students to acquire more scientific and cultural knowledge. With the joint efforts of teachers and students, the intellectual level of workers, peasants and PLA students was greatly improved, many of whom graduated to become the backbone of national construction in the new period.

In the first few years of the “Cultural Revolution,” scientific research at PKU was basically plunged into a standstill. From 1970 onwards, some of the application projects were gradually resumed, but research of basic sciences was still considered out of bound. Premier Zhou Enlai was fully aware of the situation, so much that he said to Zhou Peiyuan at a reception of the American-Chinese scientist delegation on July 14, 1972 that, “When you go back, work on the science disciplines and raise the basic theoretical level of PKU. This is my task for you. If anything gets in the way, just remove it.” Premier Zhou’s instructions encouraged teachers and students enthusiastic about science and education, and they actively planned to revive the basic theoretical research that had been seriously damaged. In order to implement the instructions of Premier Zhou, Zhou Peiyuan published an article titled “Opinions on Science Education Revolution in Comprehensive Universities” in Guangming Daily (issue on October 6). The president stressed that “adequate emphasis should be placed on the teaching and research of basic theories.” The article incurred the fierce attack of serial essays carried in Wen Wei Po under orders from Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan. By the end of 1973, the “Gang of Four” launched another “anti-rightist resurgence” campaign. Targeted at Premier Zhou, the campaign set back the somewhat reinstated work. In spite of this, faculty members loyal to the people’s education worked hard under extremely difficult conditions and managed to make achievements in some fields. The Department of Biology and the Department of Chemistry worked with their counterparts from CAS and elevated the measurement result of porcine insulin to world-leading level in crystal structure. In 1973, the Electronics Instrument Factory of Peking University successfully developed first million-integrated-circuit electronic computer in China through cooperation with relevant institutions. The device was soon put in use in sectors including petroleum. The semiconductor plant of the electronic instruments (the predecessor of the Institute of Microelectronics) successfully developed China’s first silicon gate P-channel with MOS1024-bit random access memory. The neodymium atomic clock developed by the Department of Wireless Services was among the best of its kind in the world. In cooperation with brother institutions, the Department of Geophysics built world’s most advance receiving stations for satellite image by the Weiming Lake, and trained the first 116 specialists for the technology in China. Over 20 teachers and students from the Department of Geology and Geography participated in the inspection of geothermal resources in Tibet, making important contributions to Tibet’s economic development and geo-science research. All of the above research results became award-winners at the 1978 National Science Conference. In 1975, PKU inaugurated its new library, which was not only the largest one of its kind in the history of the university, but also the university library with the largest floor area, the best equipment, and the most abundant collection of books in China.

In October 1969, PKU set up a branch in Hanzhong, Shaanxi. Ten majors were established under the Department of Radio, Department of Technical Physics and Department of Mechanics, including over 1,600 teachers and students. Under extremely difficult conditions, the faculty forged ahead, trained six classes of students who used to be workers, farmers or soldiers, and completed more than 20 national science and technology projects. In 1978, the Central Government approved the Hanzhong branch to relocate to Beijing.