Humboldt’s academic perception and the foundation of Peking University

Published in Ecology & Evolution
Humboldt’s academic perception and the foundation of Peking University

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After completing a scientific expedition in South America and the North American continent, Alexander von Humboldt was eager to travel to Asia to satisfy his curiosity and to further confirm the facts he had observed in previous investigations. But it was very difficult to get permission to go to Asia, even for scholars such as Humboldt who were very famous at home and abroad at that time. After several years of struggling, Humboldt finally got a limited license to visit Russia when he was 60 years old. However, he did not follow the original route. On August 17, 1829, Humboldt and his companion reached Batyr in Xinjiang, China. He was excited in his letter home: "I came to China! The legendary Tianchao."

Humboldt's journey across Russia, 1829. The red pentagram denotes Batyr, China. Credit: Andrea Wulf.

What he did not expect was that his influence on China was not limited to being watched by the Dynasty Qing’s soldiers at the time (in fact, he enjoyed the experience as a foreigner being watched). In 1898, sixty-nine years after he visited China, Peking University, one of the best universities in China, was founded. The “academic” and “freedom” advocated by Peking University’s President Cai Yuanpei made Peking University the leading Chinese university, which is exactly the same spirit as the Humboldt University of Berlin, the mother of modern universities. The Humboldt University of Berlin was founded by Wilhelm von Humboldt, the brother of Alexander von Humboldt, and follows the concept of “loneliness” and “freedom.” Alexander von Humboldt and his brother have similar views on acadaemia and education: both of them believe that "education is the foundation of a free and happy society," teaching should be combined with research, and universities need to remain academically free and open.

The Weiminghu Lake, Peking University. Credit: Jianguo Gao.


                                                   —蔡元培(Cai Yuanpei)

Cai Yuanpei was born in 1868, which was after the death of Humboldt, so the two did not have the opportunity to meet and discuss acadaemia and education. Cai came to Germany in 1907 and listened a two-year course (no degree or diploma) at Humboldt University of Berlin. Naturally, the university concept of “academic” and “freedom” was brought to Peking University. During Cai's tenure as president of Peking University in 1917-1927, he carried out a drastic and fruitful reform on Peking University, and brought academic freedom to its height, to establish a glorious period in the history of Peking University. It should be pointed out that the meaning of Cai's "academic" is different from the modern meaning. "Academic can be divided into two nouns (theory & application), learning is the theory, and practice is the application." Cai believed that universities should serve society, which is a sublimation based on the concept of Humboldt University of Berlin. In 1919, he submitted his resignation as the president of Peking University, "I don't want to be the president of Peking University." The main reason is that "I can never be president of a university which is not free."

A bird's-eye view of the library of Peking University. Credit: Jianguo Gao.

A free scholar is always lonely. In 1917, when Cai was appointed as the president of Peking University, he encouraged students to overcome the loneliness and hardship during learning. Advocating graduates to enjoy loneliness is a standard parting gift given to graduates by Peking University professors and senior alumni today. Perhaps only a scholar who enjoys loneliness can maintain a leading and maverick personality in science, just as Humboldt did when he measured and collected data. Humboldt and his brother's contribution to higher education may lie in their understanding and practice of academic and scientific connotations.

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