As China’s most renowned temporary university celebrated its 80th anniversary in Beijing on Wednesday, a scholar has called for more research to preserve the spirit of wartime colleges.
Alumni with an average age of 95 gathered in the capital to commemorate the founding of the National Southwestern Associated University (NSAU), a temporary academic institution that sheltered scholars and students in southwestern China during World War II, reported Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper.
“The spirit of such universities should be preserved,” Zhang Manling, a writer who has been studying the university’s history for decades, told Sixth Tone on Wednesday. Zhang said research on wartime universities like the NSAU is lacking, and she called for scholars to collect oral history materials while they still can.
When Japanese troops marched into northern China in July 1937, the Nationalist government at the time decided to relocate the staff and students of three of the country’s most prestigious schools: Peking University and Tsinghua University in Beijing, and Nankai University in Tianjin.
At first, the government established a temporary university with around 1,500 students in Changsha, central China’s Hunan province. But when the Japanese army advanced further inland, around 800 teachers and students moved to Kunming, capital of southwestern China’s Yunnan province, in early 1938.
The NSAU was one of 77 colleges that moved out of areas threatened by the Japanese during World War II, known in China as the Second Sino-Japanese War. Coalitions among universities were common and constantly in flux. The National Northwestern Associated University, a similar institution established in northwestern China’s Shaanxi province in 1938, lasted only one year before falling apart.
With the school motto “unyielding, persistent, resolute, outstanding,” the NSAU operated for eight years until the end of the war. With limited resources and under constant threat of bombing, the school taught 26 subjects across five departments — but struggled to survive. At one point, the university’s deficits ran so deep that it sold its iron roof to raise funds.
Many of the NSAU’s 8,000 students later formed the backbone of Chinese academia. In 1955, for example, around a quarter of the natural sciences faculty at the Chinese Academy of Sciences were NSAU graduates. Some of the university’s alumni — such as Yang Zhenning, a Nobel Prize winner who graduated from the physics department in 1945 — continued their studies abroad and became world-famous scientists.
“My seven years [at the NSAU] laid the groundwork for my research,” Yang said in a speech at the commemorative event on Wednesday.
While contemporary Chinese universities are sometimes criticized for their restrictive environments, the NSAU era is celebrated as a golden age of academia that spawned pioneers in many fields. After the defeat of the Japanese, NSAU students and other scholars opposed the civil war that broke out between the Communists and the Nationalists. Police under the Nationalist government killed a teacher and three students — two of whom were from the NSAU — during a protest on the streets of Kunming.
According to Zhang — the writer — the university’s enduring spirit comprises integrity and moral courage, as well as academic independence and freedom. “Its most valuable legacy is not the talents that it educated,” said Zhang, “but the spirit of innovation that combined knowledge from the East and the West.”
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Attendees applaud during a meeting to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the establishment of National Southwestern Associated University, Beijing, Nov. 1, 2017. IC)