- Peking University: Chinese Scholarship and Intellectuals, 1898–1937
In her book on Peking University, Xiaoqing Diana Lin analyzes the early history (1898–1937) of the most famous academic institution in modern China. As her book demonstrates, since its establishment in 1898, Peking University has played an important role in China’s intellectual life, struggling to define new relationships between education and the state as well as between Western and Chinese education. Established by the Qing government as part of the imperial bureaucracy in response to China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese war, Peking University was intended to strengthen the Chinese empire by introducing Western knowledge while reaffirming the empire’s neo-Confucian identity. In its early stages, therefore, Peking University embodied Zhang Zhidong’s self-strengthening formula of zhongxue wei ti, xixue wei yong (Chinese learning as principle, and Western learning as application). Zhang Zhidong, in fact, was responsible for designing the university’s first long-lasting curriculum in 1903, following a series of short-lived curricula drafted by Liang Qichao, Sun Jianai, and Zhang Baixi.
As the university gradually gained its independence from the state—due to the demise of the examination system, the fall of the Qing empire, and the political uncertainties of the early Republican period—its relationship with state and politics became more complex. During his years as chancellor of Peking University (1917–1926), Cai Yuanpei resolutely affirmed the university’s independence from the state. Cai’s protection of the university’s independence was not just a reaction against the marriage of Confucianism and politics that had characterized the imperial period, a connection most famously embodied by the examination system. It was also a product of Cai’s vision of modern education. Influenced by the German model—Cai had studied in Germany—he viewed modern education as “a core of moral and theoretical knowledge” (p. 48) detached from immediate political and social utilitarian goals. Although Cai still wanted Peking University to be an important tool for the modernization and ultimate regeneration of the Chinese nation, he aimed at achieving these self-strengthening goals by developing a new form of knowledge, educating new citizens, and preparing them for self-government. As Lin explains, “Instead of direct participation in the government, [Cai] actively sought to fashion nationalism from the realm of education, severing the traditional connection between education and politics” (p. 48).
The first steps of Peking University, therefore, exemplify two of the main issues that were to characterize most of its life in the Republican years: the complex relationship between the university on the one hand, and on the other the [End Page 137] state and China’s political life at large. These early years also reveal a second important theme: the struggle to find a balance between the introduction of Western intellectual trends and what many perceived as the preservation of Chinese identity (an idea as controversial at the time as it is today). While Zhang Zidong’s curriculum kept Western knowledge confined to what he perceived as practical sciences—such as law and political science—while leaving humanities as the exclusive realm of “Chinese learning,” Cai Yuanpei and his successors strove to integrate both forms of knowledge. From this point on, the faculty at Peking University attempted to incorporate traditional Chinese scholarship “into a more universal discourse on learning” (p. 65). The goal was to develop a new universal form of knowledge that combined both methodologies (Western and Chinese) while ultimately transcending both of them. Historicism and evolution theories became, for example, the main trends in the university’s new historical studies and important tools for the integration of Chinese learning into the new “universal” intellectual discourse (see especially chap. 4).
Lin’s analysis of the thought of Peking University’s faculty reveals the extent to which, in these years, Chinese intellectuals filtered Western ideas through familiar philosophical paradigms and used them to address very local (that is, culturally and historically...