The Aesthetic University, the Market University, and the Battle for the Soul of Beida

By Hartnett, Richard; Wang, Haixia | Asian Culture and History, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Aesthetic University, the Market University, and the Battle for the Soul of Beida


Hartnett, Richard, Wang, Haixia, Asian Culture and History


Abstract

Beida reformers invoke the legacy of Cai Yuanpei's cosmopolitan vision for making it a world-class university while erecting it on the principles of the "market university," which are contradictory to Cai's aesthetic ideals of universality, transcendence, and freedom of thought. This study compares the conceptual underpinnings of both models and proposes a pathway for resurrecting Cai's foundational idea of the university and preserving the "Beida spirit."

Keywords: aesthetic, market, university, the soul of Beida

Recent reforms at Peking University recall its transformation a century earlier under its legendary leader Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940). Cai "threw the stone of intellectual revolt into that placid water" that made Peking University ripple with internationalism, pluralism, and freedom of thought. At one level, the triad echoes the Chinese Enlightenment spirit of "dare to do" combined with the European Enlightenment motto of "dare to know" (sapere aude) (Chiang, 2000, p. 116). At a deeper level, it embodies Cai's syncretic coupling of German aesthetic philosophy with traditional Chinese thought, particularly the pre-Qin "Hundred Contending Schools of Thought" (baijia zhengming ['ifyfyi11')). In this interplay, Cai found a unifying idea for the reinvention of Chinese culture that would spark a creative dialogue with the new tide of Western knowledge to form a universal perspective for transforming Beida into a modem university. The Enlightenment model rooted in instrumental rationality with admixtures of progressivism, utilitarianism, and iconoclasm lacked the capacity to integrate Western and Chinese thought consistent with the perennial Chinese ideal of wholeness or "unity of opposites." In the Chinese context, Cai was searching for a unified sensibility from earlier eras to mend what T.S. Eliot called the "dissociation of sensibility" to refer to the separation of intellectual thought from the experience of feeling in Western culture. A coda suggests how the founding idea may be restored following the basic tenets of Cai's vision.

Recent reformers seeking to raise Beida's academic reputation internationally have invoked Cai's cosmopolitan vision as they maintain that the latest wave of Westernization is consistent with his guiding principles. This study examines how congment their "great leap forward" of transforming Beida into a "first-rate world-class university" by adopting the American "market university" model is with his aesthetic vision of forging a creative synthesis of Western knowledge and traditional Chinese thought that strengthens the capacities of each model.

1. Cai's Aesthetic Idea of the University

Cai's idea of the university was modeled on the University of Berlin (founded in 1810) as "an imperishable monument of the strength and self-reliance which enables the state to rise again," as his mentor Friedrich Paulsen at Leipzig phrased it when Cai studied there from 1907-1911 (Paulsen, 1908, p. 185). Under its founder Wilhelm von Humboldt, Berlin was bom to raise humanity to a higher level and regenerate the German nation, an ideal Cai followed in awakening a sluggard Beida based on "reason and immutable ideas" (Paulsen, 1908, pp. 183-184). If Cai did not quite subscribe to the German belief in an omnipotent human will to realize a new civilization and usher in a great human epoch, he did believe in the power of the university to transform society if humanism were guided by the power of reason. Cai considered the situation facing Chinese culture as "unprecedented" (bianju 3£M) and believed that Beida had an obligation "to save the nation from destruction" (jiuwang iSrt).

Initially, Cai was drawn to the scientific worldview as the model to transport Beida from an obsolete xuetang it) into a modem university and prepare a new generation of rencai K A' or "men of ability." Science, or Wissenschaft as Cai would have encountered the term at the University of Leipzig, made German higher education a cynosure for Western learning in the nineteenth century. …

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