One of the most interesting places I visited during my recent trip to Beijing (March 2016) was the Beijing University ‘Red Building’. This building is only a short walk from the north west corner of the Forbidden City and is on the original site of Beijing University. Beijing University has now moved to another part of Beijing, but the ‘Red Building’ remains a very important part of Chinese history. That is because it was the focus of a demonstration by around 2,000 students on 4th May 1919, against the decision by the Versailles Peace Conference to give Japan control over the former German ‘concessions’ in the Chinese province of Shandong. The demonstrating students marched on the Beijing ‘legations’ of western countries including the UK, France and the US, and they also attacked the home of a leading Chinese politician who was sympathetic to Japanese interests in China. No-one was killed in the immediate demonstrations but some students and others died in further demonstrations that spread across China. The 4th May events became known as the ‘4th May Movement’.
The greatest significance of the ‘Red Building’ and the 4th May Movement, however, is that some of the students and teachers involved in these events went on to found the Chinese Communist Party two years later, while others pursued intellectual and political interests of a more liberal nature.
One of the teachers at the Red Building was Lu Xun, China’s most respected writer of the 20th century. Another teacher was Chen Duxiu. The head librarian was Li Dazhao. Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao went on to found the Chinese Communist Party in 1921, along with Mao Zedong. These individuals, plus other teachers and students, also published and wrote for periodicals including ‘New Youth’, ‘New Tide’ and ‘Citizen’, which were very influential in Chinese cultural and intellectual life of the time. The presiding genius of Beijing University at the time was its President, Cai Yuanpei, who created an atmosphere in which original thinking was encouraged.
The Red Building is no dusty relic of the past, though a visitor might be forgiven for thinking that when viewing the historic classrooms, reading room and library. The events of May 1919, and the ideas they helped to spread, still reverberate in China today.
Access to the Red Building
Most of the building is used by another organisation and I was at first unsure whether it was possible to visit, as there is no sign outside, though I understood from Rana Mitter’s book ‘A Bitter Revolution’ that it was indeed open to the public. However, two staff members in the middle of a cigarette break on the pavement outside urged me to go in and I did so. You have to request a ticket at the guardhouse in the entrance way, but there is no entry charge.
The museum is located on the ground floor of the building, and there is a separate display area in an annex next door. I took a number of photos of the exhibit areas, some of which are set out below. There is a dedicated book shop, where the manager was particularly helpful in identifying books that might interest me. My Chinese is/was not yet good enough for me to read most of the titles on display, but i was impressed by the variety of books available.
I would certainly recommend the Red Building as a worthwhile destination for visitors to Beijing. It is not difficult to find, and the exhibit notes are all translated into English (which is by no means always the case in Beijing).
Michael Ingle – firstname.lastname@example.org