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Memories of May Fourth in Downtown Beijing

Just a block from the Forbidden City sits the site of one of the greatest intellectual transformations in history


Memories of May Fourth in Downtown Beijing

Just a block from the Forbidden City sits the site of one of the greatest intellectual transformations in history


Just a block away from the walls and moats of the Forbidden City sits an old red building which a century ago was the site one of the greatest educational and intellectual transformations in history.

Hong Lou (“The Red Building”) is the original campus of Peking University, and inside its classrooms and corridors, dusty and shabby with neglect, are the echoes of an educational revolution that transformed a decrepit and corrupt academy into China’s most famous institution of higher learning.


Founded in 1898, the “Imperial University” was one of the achievements from that ill-fated summer to survive the Empress Dowager’s counter-coup against her own nephew and his young counselors.

Originally a recruiting ground for officials and a diploma mill for the sons of the idle rich, students and faculty shared a loathsome reputation. Students were famous for brawling and drinking. They expected easy courses and went on strike or threatened university officials when classes became too hard. With students like that, faculty saw their jobs as sinecures and spent little effort on educating their charges.  Many faculty were officials biding their time until they could receive a better appointment somewhere, anywhere, else.


All of that changed in 1916, when the Minister of Education recruited Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940), then living in France, to return to China as become the new chancellor.

Cai was a classically-trained scholar, but at the relatively advanced age of 37, left his home to study for four years in Leipzig, Germany. His educational style combined the moral rigor of a Neo-Confucian upbringing with the vigorous multi-disciplinary approach to education that Cai experienced in Germany.


His friends begged him not to take the job. The school was unrelentingly corrupt. The students were hopeless. It was a holding pen for the dregs of scholarship.

What to others seemed a dire situation; Cai Yuanpei viewed as a challenge.

Within a year of his appointment, Cai transformed the university into an epicenter of intellectual dynamism.


For his Dean of Faculty, Cai chose Chen Duxiu (1879-1942), best known at the time as the editor of the radical journal La Jeunesse (xin qingnian). A fierce critic of China’s traditional culture, especially Confucianism, Chen would in 1921 be one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party and served as its first general secretary until 1927.

Cai also recruited Hu Shih (1891-1962), a young scholar still working on his doctorate at Columbia. Despite a lack of experience, Hu Shih was a fiercely bright individual, who would go on to make substantive and brilliant contributions to the fields of history, language, and philosophy.  Hu’s pragmatism balanced Chen’s firebrand leftism. In the halls of Peking University, many voices and ideas would be heard.


Finally, Cai hired as his librarian Li Dazhao (1888-1927). Li was passionately interested in Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution. His essay “On Bolshevism” would influence a generation of students seeking a new way forward for China. Perhaps his greatest project was his assistant in the library, a chubby young man from Hunan named Mao Zedong. Mao didn’t have the intellectual chops to attend the university, but he hung around the library and certainly absorbed the politics of heavyweights like Li and Chen.


But it wasn’t all leftist politics. Cai Yuanpei knew that an institution without a diversity of ideas and voices cannot call itself a university. In addition to iconoclastic scholars like Chen, and teachers like Hu Shih, who blended West and East in their classroom, the faculty also included Gu Hongming (1857-1928), a confirmed monarchist who still wore his hair in a queue and dressed in traditional gowns.  Lu Xun (1881-1936), one of modern China’s most famous and respected writers, lectured at Peking University while writing his short stories in a courtyard just a few blocks away.

The university also brought in the best minds from around the world. He arranged lectures at the university by such leading figures as John Dewey and Bertrand Russell. The provenance of ideas mattered less than their substance.

Holding it all together was Cai Yuanpei who led by his example of frugality and dedication. His office had a simple wooden desk and chair, an example followed by the other faculty. In a Republican Era Beijing of dusty, chaotic streets, Cai refused to use sedan chairs or rickshaws and traveled by foot whenever he could. He was known for greeting everyone on campus, from teachers to servants, with a cheerful lifting of his hat and a deep bow.


By 1917, Peking University had over 2,000 students in 14 departments and was the largest university in China. Three years later, in 1920, under Cai’s leadership, it became the first university in the country to admit female students.

Of course, the most famous event during Cai’s tenure as chancellor came in 1919. The royal screw job given to the Chinese representatives at Versailles in the aftermath of World War I inspired students in Beijing, especially at Peking University, to take to the streets in mass demonstrations. The university’s proximity to the legation quarters and Tiananmen (Gate) made those natural gathering points and places to vent their anger. The May Fourth Demonstrations became the defining event of a generation.


After the founding of the PRC, Peking University was moved from the center of the city to Haidian District, where it took over the campus of the closed Yenching University.

The original building, the one where Hu Shih and Chen Duxiu argued, Lu Xun taught literature; Li Dazhao wrote his treatises on Bolshevism, and a young Mao Zedong plotted what he wanted to be when he grew up still stands. Visitors can look inside and see rooms presented more or less just as they were a century ago including the office of Cai Yuanpei, Li Dazhao’s library reading room, and Lu Xun’s classroom. They remain a silent tribute to an era where the best ideas of China and the world came together in fierce debate and a generation looked for a new way forward.

Hong Lou (The original site of Peking University) is located 29 Wusi Dajie, east of the Forbidden City. It is open every day (except Mondays) from 9:00-16:00. Admission is free but ID is (usually) required.  A short 15-minute film (in Chinese) about the history of Peking University and the May Fourth Movement shows at 9:30, 10:30. 13:30, and 14:30.