Through Our Door | Fan Zhang: Professor of Teaching and Research Section of Ancient History, Former Dean of History Department, Peking University

From the time he began his undergraduate studies in 1982 to the time he joined the faculty at his alma mater when he graduated with a Ph.D. in 1992, Professor Zhang has witnessed the changes of seasons, the blossoming and fading of flowers, and how the spirit of Peking University has been passed down from generation to generation. Thirty-nine years have elapsed since Professor Zhang started his university life as an undergraduate. During this period, Jingyuan 2 was renovated twice, and offices and departments in the six courtyards also changed several times. Jingyuan has witnessed the coming and going of Peking University students, but one thing that remains unchanged throughout is its tranquility, elegance, and humility.

Thesis Defense of Doctoral Dissertation, Jingyuan 2, 1992

Q: When was your first visit to Jingyuan? What was your first impression?

A: I was an undergraduate of the class of 1982, so I came to Peking University at the beginning of September 1982. I can’t remember when my first visit to Jingyuan was because not long after we registered did we start to attend classes there. It was definitely not long after school began. We had a class meeting sort of event, in which we met the teachers from our department. My memory is all blurry because Jingyuan was an office location, not a scenic spot. Since there was a lot of pseudo-classic architecture at Peking University, buildings in Jingyuan courtyards weren’t all that different from other classroom buildings in the university. The only distinctive feature we remember was that there were several courtyards in Jingyuan.

Q: Did anything especially memorable happen in Jingyuan when you were a student there?

A: It would be my thesis defenses. I spent a  relatively long time pursuing my studies in Peking University, that is, from  when I was an undergraduate in the summer of 1982 all the way to when I  obtained my doctorate degree in the summer of 1992. The History Department was  in Jingyuan courtyard 2. We didn’t have an thesis defense for our  undergraduate graduation thesis; instead, we only needed a score from our  tutor. There were thesis defenses for postgraduate and doctoral dissertations. I remember the defense of my postgraduate dissertation quite distinctly. It was 1989. The thesis defense was supposed to take place in June, but it was deferred to July.

My thesis defense for postgraduate studies took place in Jingyuan courtyard 2. At that time only senior students would come back so the campus was really quiet. Even the teachers were on vacation. But for the oral defense we had no other options but to invite the teachers to come back to campus. One of the teachers I invited was Professor Dalin Xu from the History Department, who later became  my doctoral supervisor. Unfortunately, he was in poor health at that time so I  picked him up in Zhongguanyuan. July of 1989 was quite hot. It took us more  than an hour to go from Zhongguanyuan to Peking University, and from the  university to Jingyuan 2. It took us so long because he was a slow walker, and  he had to take a rest from time to time. After the oral defense I sent him  back to his home, which, again, took us more than an hour.

The oral defense of my doctoral dissertation took place in June 1992. This was even more important. At that time doctor’s degree holders were few so when I did the oral defense I made a point of asking a student who was several years below me to help take some photos. This is the only photo I can find that was taken in Jingyuan 2 when I was a student. Before that, I hadn’t taken a single  photo in Jingyuan for 10 years because cameras were hard to get. Even when you  had a camera you could only use it to take important photos because films were  costly. We could only pose for a photo at the West Gate or by the Weiming Lake.

I heard that these courtyards were dormitories for female students at Yenching University in the past. I never took it to heart, and I even forgot about it. I didn’t remember this until the 2000s, when Zhan Lian, the then chairman of Kuomintang, went to Jingyuan courtyard 1 during his visit to Peking University. His mother lived in Jingyuan 1 when she studied there, so he wanted to take a look. It was at that time that we recalled this place was used as a female dormitory.

Q: When you were a student, besides the three humanities departments in Jingyuan, what were the other departments that were also here?

A: It seems that the Math Department and several other departments with long histories were also in Jingyuan. There was a sign at each door, but I didn’t make a point of memorizing it. I do remember that the student broadcasting station was also there, on the second floor in Jingyuan 6. I remember that because when I was a student and when I had just joined the workforce, I listened to the broadcast every day. At that time, the broadcasting station also helped people record tapes. There were a lot of music tapes, sung by stars from Hong Kong and Taiwan. You could bring a blank tape, and for a small fee they would record songs for you to enjoy afterwards. I went there quite a few times because of that.

Q: Were courtyards in Jingyuan mainly used as teachers’ offices, seminar rooms, and meeting rooms?

A: There weren’t any private offices in Jingyuan. There were only shared teaching-and-research offices and meeting rooms. At the beginning, the History Department only took up half the room of Jingyuan courtyard 2, and the other half was for the Department of International Politics. I cannot recall when Jingyuan courtyard 2 became solely used by the History Department, but there was definitely a process. As I said, teachers didn’t have private offices, and instead there were only teaching-and-research offices for different research fields such as Ancient Chinese History, Modern Chinese History, Modern and Contemporary History of Europe and America, etc.—all of these offices were in a large area. There were also offices for administrative affairs, offices for teaching affairs, and a large meeting room. In this way almost all the space was occupied so there wasn’t room for private offices. The meeting room was also used as a venue for lectures. Room 108 in Jingyuan courtyard 2, the meeting room that was right across from the entrance, was the biggest and academic lectures hosted by the History Department usually took place there. Though the room was spacious indeed, sometimes the speaker was so influential that there weren’t enough seats.

Q: You’ve experienced a change in identity from a student to a teacher. In this process, does the space also feel differently to you?

A: Jingyuan makes me feel that I’m just living a day-to-day life here so to me  there’s nothing special. Perhaps besides my dormitory, Jingyuan courtyard 2 was the place that I went to most often. I did a lot of things in Jingyuan courtyard  2 when I started my studies there. For example, because I was in charge of  things related to my classmates’ daily lives, I went there to pick up student  subsidies. After I joined the workforce, I also needed to pick up my salary  there. At that time, we didn’t have bank account, so we needed to pick up the  money in person. Moreover, I also went there for meetings, selecting courses,  and for handling things related to work. I was the Vice Dean of the History  Department from 2002 to 2006. During that time, because I had to keep office  hours, I went there even more frequently.

Q: Did anything memorable happen in Jingyuan when you were a young teacher?

A: Yes. Back then, Jingyuan was also the place where all mail was delivered to. There was a row of mailboxes, and each person owned a pigeonhole. No one would dare to send letters to the dormitory lest they were lost. I remember it was December 31st, 1994 when I went to Jingyuan to check my mailbox. Professor Fangchuan He, the Dean of the History Department at that time, came over and warmly greeted me. He even put his hand on my shoulder. At this I thought to myself, “Gosh! I must have failed my academic title evaluation. Or why else would he be so kind to me?” You see, I was applying to the associate professor academic title at that time. Then he spoke exactly on this. This event was very memorable to me. Luckily, I finally passed the evaluation in the following year.

Q: Have you attended any memorable lectures in Jingyuan?

A: Lectures I have attended fall largely into two categories. The first of such took place in Jingyuan 2. These lectures were all activities held by the History Department. The second type of lectures were held by Peking University. Sometimes, classrooms were used as the venue and sometimes office buildings. Some important ones were given in the big meeting room. The ones that impressed me the most were given by overseas historians, such as American scholars Cho-yun Hsu, Jonathan Dermot Spence, etc. Spence’s lectures were especially impressive, with every single one of them filled to capacity, and there was absolutely no room for shoving your way into the auditorium.

Q: The history department was relocated from Jingyuan to Lee Shau Kee Humanities Hall. What do you think are the differences between these two places?

A: The infrastructure is definitely a lot better because at least we each have our own private offices. When the History Department was in Jingyuan, if I taught classes both in the morning and in the afternoon, I had nowhere to go at noon but to squat at the gate. It was miserable. Though there were teaching-and-research rooms, they were open to everyone. If there were already people inside, then it would be embarrassing if you also went in and interrupted them.

Though the infrastructure is much better, the Humanities Hall does not have a sense of history to it. Visitors always praise the antique flavor of the place, but I tell them the antiquity of the place isn’t real. The place that has a real sense of history to it is Jingyuan. It gives you a different feeling. Despite the fact that buildings here were built to convey an antique feeling, to me they’re just modern buildings, only made softer on the eyes with decoration.

Q: You mentioned that when you were a student, you selected courses in Jingyuan. What was that process like?

A: First, we needed to check out the class schedule. At that time the schedule was put up in the department, very different from how we have access to it on our phones today. So we went to our department to copy the schedule so that we could take a closer look later. There was a student who facilitated our academic affairs and they took care of the process. When we all filled in the courses we would like to select, the student in charge would hand them in to the teaching secretary. Sometimes you needed to find the secretary yourself if you wanted to make any changes to the classes you had chosen. Checking test results followed the same procedure. You needed to find the teaching secretary when test results were released. Otherwise, you would not know your score, or even if you had failed a class.

Q: Some students commented online that, “Jingyuan embodies the spirit of Peking University.” What, to you, is the spirit of Peking University?

A: I think it’s “disdainful”. Let me explain. It means that you are contemptuous of what others go crazily after. More than that, you don’t necessarily accept all the rules and doctrines that others take for granted in society because you have your unique perception, and you stick to your own point of view. To put it in another way, I think the spirit of our university can be encapsulated in the word “freedom”, which is central to the action of “disdain” I just talked about. Of course, there’s a limit. You can’t be contemptuous about everything. There are things to respect and rules to accept. One day it may backfire if you always stick to your own rules. Despite that, the spirit of our university to me is disdainfulness and freedom.

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