First time visitors to Beijing spend their time visiting the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, then take a day trip to the Great Wall. Of course, with a population of 20 million and massive urban sprawl now encompassed by a half dozen ring roads, there’s much more to see in Beijing. One site usually passed by on the obligatory trip to the Summer Palace is the Peking University, China’s Harvard or Yale, occupying a beautiful, leafy-green campus in the city’s far northwest corner.
Opened in 1898, during a brief period of Western-style reform cut short by a coup d’etat that gave the power behind the Peacock Throne to ultra-conservative Dowager Empress Cixi, its past is brief compared to that of the nearby Summer Palace. But the university--Beida, for short--played a signal role in the tumultuous modern history of China, breeding dissidents who fought for modernization in the May Fourth Movement of 1919 and the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square; others helped to launch the Cultural Revolution which began as an ideological cleansing of the Communist Party before it spun out of control. To tour the campus now is to remember the country’s wild ride through the 20th century, from fabled Oriental empire to revolutionary Peoples Republic built by Mao.
Start by taking the Metro from central Beijing to Wudaokou Station in Haidian, home to Tsinghua, Renmin and other smaller universities that make the district the Cambridge, Mass., of China. Wide Chengfu Road goes west from there past student-friendly cafes and apartment complexes, bookshops and movie theaters, finally dead-ending at the walled campus of Beida. Apart from its fascinating past and current educational importance, Beida is one of the loveliest places in the capital, a quiet oasis with trees labeled in the nomenclature of Linnaeus and ornate Ming-style architecture.
Walk northwest from the gate, past intriguingly-named buildings--for instance, the Research Center for Deng Xiaoping’s Theory at the College of Marxism--to Weiming Lake, circumscribed by a network of paths and overlooked by Boya tower, a replica of the capital city’s oldest and tallest pagoda built in the Tongzhou District across town. The lake is decorated with pillars and fish sculptures removed from the ruins of the nearby Old Summer Palace, Yuanmingyuan, looted by English and French soldiers.
On the south side of the lake it isn’t hard to find tomb of journalist Edgar Snow, marked by a tablet that calls him “a friend of the Chinese people from America.” He earned that epithet by writing, among other books, “Red Star Over China,” one of the first accounts of the nascent Communist movement and its long battle with the Nationalists before and after the Second World War.
Walkways lead from there to Beida’s west entrance, a striking, classical Chinese red gate guarded by stone lions, Qing Dynasty gardens, the traditional courtyard-style China Center for Economic Research and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology, built by the American physician and philanthropist in 1986 to house the university’s extensive collection of artifacts and train students in museum management. Its galleries are open to the public, displaying bronze, jade, ceramic and bone artifacts, some almost 300,000 years old.
America’s contributions have continued since Snow and Sackler with partnerships between Beida and U.S. universities. Completed this year near the Art and Archaeology Museum, the new Stamford Center at Peking University serves as a headquarter for 7 foreign study programs in fields ranging from medicine to sustainable development.
There’s even a conference center hotel on campus, Shaoyuan Guest House where no-frills doubles cost under $50--not a bad choice for travelers who want to stay in a Chinese ivory tower.