I don’t know what it is about university campuses, but many of them present an amazing oasis of calm in the middle of what can be a bustling city. Beijing seems to have more than its fair share of universities and technical colleges – 67 by my reckoning – and although some of them are simply buildings situated on main thoroughfares, many have lovely campuses surrounding them.
I had already been to Renmin University (中国人民大学), as well as UIBE (经贸大学) but everyone talks about Tsinghua (清华大学) - Tsinghua University's campus was named one of the most beautiful college campuses in the world by Forbes in 2010 - so I decided it was time to get off my sit-upon and go visit the place… and I’m really glad I did.
The campus of Tsinghua University was established in 1911 in the former Qing Hua Yuan (imperial gardens of the Qing Dynasty) and it’s surrounded by a number of historical sites in the Haidian district of north-west Beijing. It’s only a 10 minute walk from Wudaokou station on line 13.
Following the Boxer Rebellion, the defeated Qing Empire was fined war reparations of around US$333 million with an interest of 4% per year for 39 years, for the loss caused to the Eight-Nation Alliance. But the then-American Secretary of State John Hay suggested that the $30 million paid to the United States was excessive, and in 1909 President Roosevelt obtained congressional approval to reduce the payment by US$10.8 million, on the condition that the said fund was to be used as a scholarship for Chinese students to study in the United States.
The university section of ‘Tsinghua Xuetang’ was founded in 1925 and the name Guoli Tsinghua Daxue (National Tsinghua University) was adopted in 1928. Since then it has developed to the point where it now has 14 schools and 56 departments with faculties in science, engineering, the humanities, law, medicine, history, philosophy, economics, management, education and art.
Tsinghua is generally regarded as one of the top two universities in mainland China and ranks around 71st worldwide.
The campus is absolutely huge - 406 hectares in all - accommodating all 28,000 full time students (from 103 countries), 7 libraries, 6 public teaching buildings, 155 research institutes and many other school and department buildings, as well as supermarkets, bookstores, banks, post offices, a hospital, sports centres, outdoor and indoor swimming pools, restaurants and dining halls… In fact it’s a virtual town in its own right.
Not surprising, therefore, that you could well do with a map when wandering around in order not to miss anything… This fragment of map represents about a third of the whole campus.
I knew I had an affinity for the place the moment I walked into the park. Stuck up on railings near some of the residential areas were large notices banning the entrance of dogs – such a refreshing change from the myriad antisocial poopers, being walked by their just-as-antisocial owners, that one finds everywhere throughout Beijing.
Walking through the main gate is like walking straight into a public park. It takes a good 10 minutes (assuming one is still finding one’s way around campus, like I was) to find what is known as the Main Building, called that presumably, because it is not only so massive, but contains the departments of Architecture, Automation, Computer Science, Mathematics, and Foreign Languages. Beautiful is not an adjective that comes to mind, but impressive it certainly is. Set up over 30 years ago, all in all it has a footprint of over 76,800 square metres.
88 years after the university’s founding, Tsinghua opened its School of Arts and Design by merging with the Central Academy of Arts and Design. As if to ram home the point, the campus has now been turned into a sculpture park, to celebrate its centenary in 2011.
Everywhere you go there are sculptures in the weirdest places, some of which raise a smile, some of which are aesthetically pretty “kool” and some, admittedly few, that leave you cold.
This stone sculpture by Taiwanese artist Wei Yung-hsien is called Breeze and Rain.
while “Nail Serials” by Wang Xiaohui has – to my mind at least – a feel of Delft pottery about it…
Not that the sculptures are all that catch the eye… How about using a redundant Chinese fighter jet as a makeshift car port, for instance?
Undoubtedly, the part of the campus that most people come to visit is the old, original, section of the university. I had been on campus for at least half an hour before I found it, crammed with rubber-kneckers; and at times I had to remind myself that this really is a place of learning, rather than a university theme park.
In 1909, the Qing dynasty government approved the application from the Department of Foreign Affairs to establish a school in the suburbs of Beijing. Tsinghua Garden was chosen as the site for the school, and the heavily guarded Old Gate was the main entrance to the school campus at that time.
A century ago, the lower classes were not allowed to go beyond the gate without express permission and people not on official school business were forbidden to pass through it.
After the residential area was expanded in 1933, the former enclosing wall was moved further out and a new gate, on the west side of the campus, became the new main entrance. Ever since, the original gate has been known as Er Xiao Men ("the second school gate").
The Old Gate was demolished in the 1960s but was rebuilt in 1991, following the original design.
Passing through the gate into the old campus one comes across a park within a park. And at the far end of a stretch of lawn is the Grand Auditorium, a Jeffersonian architectural design built between 1917 and 1920 and now one of the favourite buildings on campus.
Mixing Greek and Roman architectural styles, the 1,200-seat auditorium has a rounded roof, a brass gate, and four large white marble columns. In its day, it was the largest auditorium of its kind at any university in China, and could easily seat the entire faculty, staff and student body for school assemblies.
Down the right hand side of the expanse of lawn one finds Tsinghua School - a two floor German style building, which was one of the main buildings of the school in its day and housed the student dormitories.
The west wing was built between 1909-1911, whilst the east wing was built in 1916. Overall it covers 4,650 square metres. It was later used as a teaching building and classrooms and now it forms the offices of various administration departments.
Round the back of the old school buildings are more administration blocks resembling a scene straight out of a southern German village.
But it’s not all just history in the old section. True to form, the “sculpture park” theme of the main campus spills across here with some stunning pieces…
But if there has to be a “pièce de résistance” of the entire campus, its surely has to be the “Shui Mu Tsinghua”, (literally: "clear water and trees surrounding Tsinghua") which is a park within a park within a park. Shui Mu Tsinghua is often compared to the Garden of Harmonious Interests in Beijing's famed Summer Palace, and not without reason.
Shui Mu Tsinghua has many charms. Unusual rock formations abound, and a variety of trees encircle an expanse of calm, clear water. On the northern bank are two ancient pavilions.
The Shui Mu Tsinghua has to be the best way to end a visit to the university and walking back towards the main entrance, I couldn’t help but think, when looking at “Graduation Moment” by Dong Ke, that I know that feeling!
It’s a feeling of happiness and light headedness and that all is, basically, right with the world. All that was left now was to quench an enormous thirst that had been growing as I had wandered round the campus.
A street vendor selling ice lollies tempted me with a hawthorne-flavoured popsicle – something I had never before tried – and turned out to be the perfect way to end a perfect morning.
Tsinghua University will definitely find its way onto my list of recommended places to visit in Beijing.