From Imperial University of Peking to Peking University in the Early Years of Republic of China

1898 - 1916

Peking University (PKU) was founded in 1898. Back then it was called the Imperial University of Peking (IUP). It was the first comprehensive national university in modern Chinese history.

IUP was born amidst the ill-fated Reform Movement from June 11 to September 22 in 1898. In 1894, the Qing (1636-1912) court was forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Shimonoseki in the wake of its defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, which shocked the entire country. China was a pigeon caught up in a pack of very hungry cats—the western powers. Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, Yan Fu and other advanced intellectuals vehemently called for self-strengthening to save their homeland from danger by setting in motion a reform campaign. “The orientation of this reform is talent training, which in turn rests with inauguration of schools.” In due course, reforming the old education system and establishing new schools became their top priority. In June 1896, Deputy Minister of Crimes and Penalties Li Duanfen submitted a bill titled Request for School Promotion to the throne, proposing the establishment of a university in the capital. On June 11, 1898, Emperor Guangxu promulgated the decree of Clear Instructions for Important Affairs of State and formally announced the launch of reform. According to the decree, “priority should be given to establishment of the Imperial University of Peking, because it will be an example for all provinces.” On July 3, Emperor Guangxu approved the Prime Minister's bill Preparations for the Imperial University of Peking and Draft Charter for Its Operation according to Your Majesty’s Instructions. Drafted by Liang Qichao, the charter encapsulated the educational reform ideal of the reformists, stipulating that “all provincial schools shall be under the jurisdiction of the Imperial University.” It also defined the aim of the university as “training outstanding talents” and proposed a syllabus with “equal emphasis on Chinese and Western learning.” It was the first charter of IUP, as well as the earliest outline of school system in modern Chinese higher education. Emperor Guangxu approved the charter, and placed Sun Jianai, minister of officials, in charge of its implementation. The first comprehensive university under direct sponsorship of the central government in modern China was formally established. Back then, it shouldered dual functions as both the highest institute of learning in China and the highest educational authority. On September 21, the conservatives headed by the Empress Dowager Cixi staged the victorious “Coup of 1898,” after which almost all of the reform measures were abolished. The university was retained “as the venue for cultivating talents,” but with considerable compromise in the original policy and scale of the school. On December 31, the university was inaugurated. However, only 160 students were enrolled, in comparison to the planned 500. They were divided into the Official School for successful candidates of the imperial examinations at state and provincials and the Elementary and Middle School. The curriculum included Book of Songs, Book of History, Book of Changes and Book of Rites for the former and Spring and Autumn Annals for the latter. In the second year, the university would enroll over 200 students and offer courses in Western disciplines as well as the Chinese ones. Aside from Chinese classics and history, general courses in mathematics, physics, chemistry, English, German, French, Russian and Japanese were offered, together with special lectures on history, geography and politics. The inauguration of the university marked the dawn of national university education in modern China.

The newborn university was presently plunged into calamity, when the Boxer Movement reached its climax in May 1900 and the university was involved. In August, when the Eight-Power Allied Forces invaded Beijing, the university was seized by Russian and German troops who seriously damaged the campus. The university was forced to suspend regular operations. In January 1902, the Qing court ordered a reinstatement and appointed Zhang Baixi, the minister of officials, as its president. Zhang devoted himself to the undertaking and made outstanding achievements in its restoration and development. On December 17, 1902, a grand opening ceremony was held at its Normal School and Officials School under the Fast-Track Department. In the same year, the book-keeping building was established, which is the earliest university library in modern China. Zhang presided over the development of a series of school charters from elementary school to university. In August 1902, they were enacted for all provinces under the name of Authoritative Constitutions for Schools. It was the first school system officially promulgated by the government in the history of modern China. Among them, the Authoritative Constitutions for the Imperial University was the second school charter of IUP. It clearly stipulated that the purpose of the university was “to stimulate loyalty and patriotism, reveal wisdom, and pursue industrial revitalization,” “rectify directions and train generalists.” In January 1904, the Qing court promulgated the School Charters as per Memorials to the Throne. Among them, Constitutions for the Imperial University was the third school charter in the history of IUP. At the same time, the Qing government appointed a minister of schooling affairs who would manage the educational affairs throughout the country. Zhang Hengjia was appointed general supervisor of IUP and became the first to hold the office. In December 1905, the Qing court established an Imperial Education Ministry as the central administration on education. And IUP was placed under its jurisdiction.

After the reinstatement of the university, a series of academic halls were established for various disciplines, which laid the foundation for discipline-based ramification in modern Chinese higher education. The Normal School opened in 1902 was the earliest training institute for teachers in China. It was changed to Higher Teacher's Department in 1904, then to Higher Teacher’s School in 1908. The Officials School opened in 1902 was intended for “cultivating talents for public offices.” In the following year, the Qing court set up a Jinshi (literally “a successful candidate of the imperial examinations”) School, and admitted over 100 jinshis. In 1904, the Officials School was incorporated into the Jinshi School. When the imperial examinations were abolished in 1905, Jinshi School lost its standing ground and was changed to the Law School in 1907. In 1902, the School of Combined Learning was incorporated into the university, and turned into the School of Translation the following year. Linguistic majors were offered in English, French, Russian, German and Japanese for the training of translators and diplomats. The school was suspended in 1911. In 1903, the School of Medical Practice was established, and two years later renamed the School of Medicine. The school was structured in two sections—medical science and medical treatment. It was renamed again in 1906 to the Specialized Medical School of the Capital. The Preparatory Department set up in 1904 enrolled students for the future disciplines of the university. In 1907, the Department of Natural Practicum was set up with three majors—specimen preparation, modeling and painting. From 1905 to 1907, IUP held three sessions of sports events, which showed an emphasis on physical education that would be followed by modern higher education institutions. In 1903, 47 students were selected from the university to study in Japan, Europe and the United States. Those were the first international students dispatched by IUP. On March 31, 1910, the opening ceremony was held for a discipline-based IUP. A total of seven departments were established for economics, law and politics, liberal arts, physics, agriculture, engineering, and business. A modern comprehensive university began to take shape.

IUP was established against the historical background of an unprecedented crisis for the Chinese nation. It has been closely related to the destiny of the country and its people from birth. On April 30, 1903, the IUP students organized an assembly to protest against the Russian occupation of northeastern China, condemn the appeasement policy on the part of the Qing court, and demand renunciation of the treaty and resist Russia. After the assembly, the Letter in Condemnation of Russia and Petition for Vying with Russia were drafted. The anti-Russian movement constituted the first anti-imperialist patriotic student movement by institutes of higher learning in modern China.

The outbreak of the 1911 Revolution overthrew the rule of the Qing Dynasty and ended the feudal autocracy system of more than 2,000 years. On January 1, 1912, the Republic of China was founded. On May 3, the government of the Republic of China issued an order that renamed IUP to Government University of Peking and its “general supervisor” to “president.” Yan Fu, a renowned scholar, was appointed the first president of the new university. Yan made a conscious effort to rectify the curriculum in accordance with the modern academic system and popular models of the world's higher education, and merged “Department of Economics” into “Department of Liberal Arts,” changed “Department of Physics” to “Department of Sciences,” actively increased courses to introduce new western branches and launched a re-employment program for the faculty, stipulating that all faculty members must be full-time teachers. Just as the university began to assume signs of recovery, the Ministry of Education proposed to suspend the university on the ground of insufficient funding in July. Yan wrote two petitions—Argument against Suspending Peking University and Measures for Improving Discipline-based Universities—to the Ministry of Education. In stating his reasons against the suspension of the university, he emphasized that the university was entrusted with “preservation of all noble academics for carrying forward national culture” and was thus supposed “to be tolerant and inclusive so as to be worthy of its mission.” In the face of vehement opposition from the faculty and students as well as all walks of life, the authorities eventually dropped the idea. In October of that year, Yan resigned from his position as president of PKU (then known as Government University of Peking). Later, Zhang Shizhao (who did not take office and was temporarily replaced by Ma Liang), He Yushi, and Hu Renyuan were successively assigned to the post. In September 1913, the Ministry of Education ordered the merge of PKU with Tianjin Beiyang University. Then president He Yushi submitted an objection. The PKU Alumni Association also wrote a letter of complaint to the president of Republic of China. Eventually, the authorities were forced to rescind the order.

In the spring of 1913, PKU admitted the first 200-odd preparatory students after the founding of the Republic of China. In November, 226 students graduated from the original discipline-based schools. Those were the first batch of graduates in the history of the university. In 1914, President Hu Renyuan formulated a Planning of Peking University and proposed measures such as enrolling more students, improving teaching methods, developing teaching materials and outlines, purchasing teaching equipment, and sorting through the books. The scale of the university expanded and a group of well-known professors took their talent there. Professors of liberal arts were represented by Chen Fuchen, Huang Kan, Zhu Xizu, Chen Hanzhang, Gu Hongming, Lin Qinnan, Ma Xulun, Qian Xuantong, Shen Yinmo and Ma Yuzao. Those of sciences were represented by Xia Yuanli and Hu Junji; those of law by Tao Lügong and Zhang Yaozeng; those of engineering by Wen Zongyu and Sun Ruilin. Feng Zuxun, He Yujie, Yu Tongkui and other PKU students that had been dispatched overseas returned to their alma mater for teaching. They established courses in modern mathematics, physics and chemistry, and became the founders of those new disciplines. In order to meet the needs of development, PKU launched the construction of a new building in 1916 with loans. The building was completed in August 1918 and became known as the famous “Red Building” of PKU.