I figured I would dedicate a post to talking about my temporary home, Tsinghua University. Not to sound arrogant, but in China Tsinghua is a big deal.
Most of you reading probably have some experience with the US college admissions process. The Chinese equivalent is far more stressful and dehumanizing. Chinese students are accepted into colleges on the basis of one test, “Gaokao.” Grades mean nothing, and there are no essays, recommendations, etc. Many westerners regard the system as brutal, but given how vulnerable things like grades and recommendations are to bribery in Chinese society, I’m not convinced that it isn’t the most logical system at this point in China’s development. At any rate, Gaokao represents the crucible of twelve years of education. The test last three days. Parents hold candlelight vigils outside of testing centers. A good score means a good university and, presumably, a good life. A bad one means a year of shame, parental disgust, and preparation for a Gaokao retake.
Out of all the students in China who survived Gaokao, those at Tsinghua are the elite. Tsinghua, along with its neighbor, Peking University (more commonly called BeiDa), are the top colleges in China. Naturally, the subject of which one is superior is a great conversation topic among the ranking obsessed Chinese. The “official” line, which I have heard from many people that have no connection with either school, is that Tsinghua is the “MIT” of China while BeiDa is the “Harvard” of China. Besides revealing something about Chinese envy of all things America, this comment speaks to the fact that Tsinghua is somewhat more Math/Science oriented, while BeiDa is more Arts/Humanities oriented. Almost every student who attends one of these schools, almost every student who I pass walking down the street, is brilliant, or at the very least an extremely good test taker (there are a few exceptions related to children from well-connected families and ethnic minorities, but those are the subject of another post).
Given Tsinghua’s status as a revered, almost mythical institution in Chinese culture, I was suprised by its physical appearance. First of all, Tsinghua is massive. Walking from one end of the campus to the other can take up to an hour. The outskirts of Tsinghua–the massive science buildings, the student dorms, the myriad newer buildings–are, for lack of a better word, ugly. Classic communist architecture doesn’t possess much in the way of natural beauty, but Tsinghua’s interpretation of the college campus does it no favors. Buildings in Tsinghua’s outskirts are massive, fading tall columns of blank gray, and ultramodern glass-covered academic buildings. They rise out of fields of upturned dirt, miniature junkyards, and cracked asphalt pathways. Combined with a dreary Beijing evening, the entire area feels apocalyptic, like a vision from a dystopian science fiction movie.
That is the outskirts. The core of the campus couldn’t be more different. The interior of Tsinghua is sumptuous, filled with foliage and ivy-covered buildings. The oldest building, and the most famous, is the dome, pictured below:
Does this dome look familiar? It reminded me of the rotunda at the University of Virginia:
That the symbol of Thomas Jefferson’s “academical village” and, by extension, republicanism, would be replicated in the People’s Republic of China caught me off guard. After a bit of research I learned that the person who designed Tsinghua’s dome and most of its interior campus came from the University of Illinois, and modeled his work after that campus. Tsinghua was founded in 1911, in the age of the Guomindang, with reparation money paid by China to America after the Boxer Rebellion. In this sense, the architecture of Tsinghua is like rings in an old tree. The central campus with its western sensibilities and buildings serves as a reminder of a time when western ideas surged through the Chinese elite. The dull communist layer records the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The massive new glass buildings testify to China’s resurgence. This all begs the question: what will the Tsinghua campus look like in another fifty years?