I remember when I “were but a lad” telling my father that I wanted to go to the University of Reading about 40 miles to the west of London. Being the ex-Cambridge man that he was, and having already learned that my twin too was about to go up to Cambridge, his reaction was all too predictable. Bloody red brick university, he said dismissively and hardly spoke to me for what felt like weeks afterwards.
In the event, my time at university literally changed the course of my life – though there is not the time to write my autobiography here, dear blog fans. But one thing I particularly loved about Reading Uni’s campus was its wide open spaces with a lake spread bang in the middle right across it.
Maybe that’s one reason I so enjoyed my visit to Tsinghua University all those millennia later. And maybe that’s why I was so keen to explore the campus of Tsinghua’s rival, Peking University this week.
At first glance, stepping out of the subway at East Gate of Peking University station on Line 4 isn’t an earth shattering experience. Row upon row of modern buildings can be seen from the road – OK not particularly ugly, but neither are they that particularly attractive either. The fact that my guide book tells me that Peking University is especially renowned for the beauty of its traditional Chinese architecture on its campus grounds means there has to be something that I haven’t yet seen.
Though its Chinese name is now 北京大学 – or Beijing Daxue – it has kept its earlier transliteration of Peking University and not caved in to the modernists who have changed almost all other references of Peking to Beijing. In Chinese it is colloquially known as Beida (北大).
It was established in 1898 during the Hundred Days Reform and was originally known as the Imperial University of Peking. In 1920, Peking University became the second Chinese university to accept female students, after Nanjing University.
Today it consists of 30 colleges and 12 departments, with 216 research institutions, including 2 national engineering research centres and 12 national key laboratories. With 4.5 million holdings, the university library is the largest of its kind in Asia. Academic staff number more than 4,200, with over 15,000 undergraduates and a similar number of postgrads.
Peking University has had a number of well known people through its doors in its time. Mao Zedong studied here, as did Lu Xun, Gu Hongming, Hu Shih, Li Dazhao, and Chen Duxiu.
But they are the last thing on my mind as I see people walking through the main gates having their IDs and tickets checked. Naturally I don’t have a university ID, nor a ticket for that matter, so I carry on walking around the perimeter fence wondering what to do.
The campus has an area of 273 hectares, so I have been walking for some five minutes when I see another entrance to the university grounds, this one filled with students and what appear to be parents or friends flocking around.
As luck would have it, it appears that today is graduation day for some of the students, and the razor-sharp brain of your favourite blogger deduces that the tickets must get one into the ceremony itself. Working on the principle that Chinese guards are usually embarrassed to admit that they cannot speak English, and as it is clear these two guards have their hands pretty full, I decide to brazen it out and try my luck getting through.
One of the guards stops me, but full of smiles I tell him in fast, incomprehensible English gobbledegook that I want to take photos, and point to a group of students talking to their parents on the other side of the gate while holding up my camera … and just keep on walking. My strategy works and I find myself in the grounds of Yan Yuan - the gardens of Yan - as the guard turns to deal with something more pressing than an errant foreigner.
Everywhere there are students having their pictures taken by proud parents. A number of them are waiting their turn for group photographs in front of their faculty buildings…
I get a number of strange looks as I make my way through the crowds of revellers, but everyone is pretty good natured and I am left alone to my own devices.
I recall from my guidebooks that the university campus is actually located on the former site of the Qing Dynasty royal gardens and retains much traditional Chinese-style landscaping including traditional houses, gardens, pagodas as well as many notable historical buildings and structures. Yan Yuan is actually situated on the northeastern side of Haidian District in the western suburbs of Beijing near the Yuan Ming Gardens and the Summer Palace.
And as I turn a corner, there in front of me is the well known symbol of Peking University - Boya Pagoda - which was built in 1924 (and was originally used as a water tower). It stands close by the other signature vista of Peking University - Weiming Lake, which is what most people visiting the campus come to see.
The Boya Pagoda, by the way, is an imitation of the original Tongzhou Randeng tower 40 kms east of downtown BJ which was built in 1679. The octagonal, thirteen-eared solid structure, 53 metres high, is typical of the multi-eaved pagodas of the Liao and Kin dynasties.
[And here’s something for you, Trivial Pursuit fanatics: did you know that the Randeng Pagoda was the subject matter for Beijing's oldest photograph still in existence, taken on September 23, 1860, by British army war photographer Felice Beato. It recently failed to be sold at auction with a starting price of RMB80,000 (about £8k).]
As I stop to take photos of the pagoda, it is clear that this is also one of the favourite backdrops for the students to be photographed against, and as it is certainly their day, I move on so as not to be in their way.
From here onwards on the north side of the campus, the park is a mass of winding paths and small gardens, beautifully laid out with ample seating and spectacular views.
Everywhere are little bridges crossing over tributaries from the main lake…
Despite it being an overcast day, Weiming Lake is still pretty spectacular. In Chinese, Weiming means without being named. No one, it seamed, could come up with a suitable name for the lake to reflect its character, so a famous Chinese scholar gave the lake its present moniker. Who said the Chinese aren’t original in their thinking!
Everywhere you go on the north side of the campus you can see the pagoda, and it presents a great landmark for those who don’t have a good sense of direction.
Unlike at Tsinghua’s campus, Peking University makes practically no effort to cater for its non-Chinese speaking visitors. There are a few English bits on the direction signboards; otherwise almost the only exception is the collection of tree tags that give the Latin names of the genus of plants that surround the lake.
Walking away from the lake itself, however, you get the impression that the university authorities are saving money by leaving vast tracts of land to revert to nature. In a funny kind of way, this too is most attractive, despite the vast array of weeds that grows in dried up former waterways.
Even in this part of the campus there are faculty buildings; and it is this part I think that the guide book refers to when it writes about the “beauty of its traditional Chinese architecture on its campus grounds”. The paths have obviously been laid out for people with smaller legs as, try as I might, each pace from the centre of one paving stone lands me in the grass separating another.
But there is no doubt that the architecture is quite spectacular and I wonder how many students ever think about this as they go in and out of their buildings every day.
Eventually the skies grow ever more dark, and it is clear that if I don’t set off soon I will most likely end up getting drenched. Almost everyone else has a similar idea and there is a mass exodus from the lake towards the main part of the campus once more as one or two diehards use the opportunity for an extra photo or three without being surrounded by the earlier crowds.
It’s been a lovely way to while away a spare morning; but I can’t really make up my mind if I prefer the campus of Peking or Tsinghua. Maybe it doesn’t matter. They have both now been added to my list of must-see places in Beijing.