Legendary Figures in PKU History

With that special admission letter, I was accepted to be a formal member of Peking University. The new arrivals at PKU Shenzhen will spend several years here to finish their master’s or doctorate degree, or maybe just a short time on exchange. For those beginning their study life at PKU, interested in it’s importance, or considering becoming part of the the PKU story themselves, let’s talk about the great history. At PKU, you are traveling in history and walking with greatness.

Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940)

Cai Yuanpei was one of the headmasters of Peking University. He was born at the end of Qing Dynasty, a feudal society. He became the founder of modern education in China. He proposed the educational concept of combining Chinese and Western thought, and shaped the true meaning of Peking University.

In 1916, when he was studying abroad, Cai Yuanpei received an urgent message from the then Minister of Education who invited him to serve as the headmaster of Peking University. However, Peking University was full of corruption and bureaucracy, and lacked the atmosphere of steady learning. Cai insisted in his mind to save Peking University and save Chinese national education!

On the fifth day of Cai becoming the headmaster, he delivered a famous inaugural speech: “University is the place for researching advanced scholars”, which defined the university’s position clearly. It has also been the purpose of Chinese universities since.

Cai’s great ambitions and expectations for Peking University were also reflected in the school badge. He entrusted Lu Xun (a great Chinese literature in 20th century) to design the school badge: the upper “Bei” (first character of “Peking”) was the two people’s portraits standing side by side, and the lower “Da”(first character of “University”) was the portrait of the front standing. This badge meant “people-oriented”, and shows the responsibility of PKU to shoulder the important mission of opening up the citizens’ wisdom.

Later, Cai made another important decision: let PKU accept female students. Since then, the curtain of the coeducation of Chinese university education has been opened.

Ji Xianlin (1991-2009)

Ji Xianlin was one of the greatest Chinese scholars of history, ancient languages and culture. Well-versed in 12 foreign languages, he was known as a “master in traditional Chinese culture”. Ji Xianlin began his career in the early 1930s with a series of studies of Western literature. He graduated with a degree in western literature from Tsinghua University in 1934 and went abroad to continue his study. After completing his education in Germany, Ji returned to China in 1946 to become head of the Department of Oriental Languages and Literatures at Peking University, he was also one of the founders of this department.

The most famous deed of his may be the creation of A History of Sugar. Information about sugar was scattered among various books, and Ji read them one by one. Every morning, he went to the Peking University Library in a blue khaki tunic and sat for the whole day to search for information from the vast collection of books and find historical materials related to sugar page by page and book by book. From 1981 to 1998, after nearly two decades of brewing, a great work was finally published, totaling 730,000 words.

Tu Youyou (born 1930)

Tu Youyou was born in Ningbo in 1930. She entered Peking University in 1951 and majored in pharmacognosy. After graduation, she devoted herself to the research of traditional Chinese medicine.

When China urgently launched the project of “Malaria Prevention and Treatment Drug Research Collaboration” in 1967, Tu was appointed as the leader. Tu turned to Chinese ancient wisdom and re-examined the classic Chinese medical books. She finally found inspiration from the Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies — she then experimented. After 190 failures, in 1971, the Tu’s Research Group found an extract of Artemisia annua extract with an antimalarial effect of 100%. In 1972, researchers extracted artemisinin, an antimalarial active ingredient, from this extract. She invented dihydroartemisinin with an anti-malarial effect as much as 10 times greater than the former treatment.

In October 2015, Tu Youyou won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. She became the first Chinese scientist to receive the Nobel Prize.

By Zhang Wendou


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