Peking University – A Brief History of Beijing’s Top School

Peking University is one of the most prestigious universities in China, and probably the best-known Chinese university internationally. It is a dream school for many of the millions of students each year who participate in China’s college entrance examinations; however, only a small fraction of those who apply will be able to satisfy its extremely selective admission standards and actually get in. Although the university is universally renowned today as the standard of excellence in Chinese higher education, the process by which it arrived at its current status was not easy. The history of Peking University was a tumultuous one, full of moments of bold innovation and violent upheaval that mirrored the history of the Chinese nation.

The university was established in 1898 as part of the “Hundred Days’ Reform” spearheaded by Emperor Guangxu. Amidst foreign invasion and internal turmoil, the Qing Dynasty was on the verge of collapse, and the emperor, along with several reform-minded intellectuals and officials, initiated a series of reforms that aimed to strengthen China through modernization. As part of their efforts, they replaced the Guozijian, the imperial academy that had served as the highest-level institution of learning in China for thousands of years, with a modern university, which they named the Imperial University of Beijing. Although their reforms were quickly shut down by the regent Empress Dowager Cixi after just over a hundred days (hence the name), the university remained as a lasting legacy of the reforms. It continued to develop after the end of the reforms, and in 1910 branched out into seven departments, namely economics, humanities, law, business, sciences, engineering and agriculture.

Following the Xinhai Revolution in 1911 that ended dynastic rule in China, the university went through a period of turmoil. In 1912, it was renamed National Peking University, a change that reflected the recent transformation of the nature of Chinese government. In 1919, many of the university’s students participated in May Fourth Movement. Originally a protest against the Treaty of Versailles, which transferred German territories in China to Japan, the movement grew into an intellectual movement that introduced radical ideologies such as Marxism into China. It is often credited with laying the groundwork for the formation of the Chinese Communist Party. In 1937, following the outbreak of WWII, the university was relocated from Beijing (which in the same year fell under Japanese control) to the city of Changsha in southern China. There, it was combined with Tsinghua University and Nankai University to form the Changsha Temporary University. The three schools were relocated again to Kunming the following year, and renamed the National Southwestern Associated University.

After the Communist Party took over in 1949, its policies largely dictated the fate of the university, now renamed Peking University. In 1952, the government reorganized many Chinese universities in order to have each university focus on certain fields, following the Soviet model. Some of the humanities and sciences faculty from Tsinghua and other universities were relocated to Peking University, while Peking’s agriculture, engineering, medicine, geology and law departments became part of other universities specializing in these fields. Although many of the universities involved in the reorganization have since become more comprehensive, to an extent the effects of the project still persist today: Peking has a reputation for being strong in liberal arts and sciences fields, while Tsinghua, its major rival for the #1 spot in Chinese college rankings, is generally considered the best engineering school in the country. As part of the reorganization process, Yenching University in Beijing was closed, and Peking University was moved to Yenching’s campus, where it currently remains.

In 1966 Peking University, like all other schools in China, was affected by the Cultural Revolution. Many professors at the university were branded as counterrevolutionaries, and the university was briefly closed down. However, it reopened and began accepting students again just four years later, when much of the rest of the nation was still afflicted by the anti-educational sentiment of the revolution. Through the Cultural Revolution, the university continued to grow and achieve success despite the chaos that gripped the nation. In 1973 it developed the most advanced computer in China at the time, and in 1975 its library opened its doors to students and faculty.

Since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the university, once again supported by the government, has consistently been at the forefront of academic research and higher education in China. In recent years it has made its way into the upper echelon of all universities worldwide, and was ranked 41st in the world by U.S. News & World Report in 2014. It is no surprise that Peking University, with its rich, tumultuous history and academic excellence today, is the dream destination for many of the top students in China each year, and an increasingly popular study-abroad option for international students from all over the world.

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