Sunday, October 7, 2018


The tree-lined entrance to the Beijing Normal University campus in Beitaipingzhuang

Beishida, that’s what Beijing Normal University is called in Chinese and I will use that term out of habit and convenience. The campus has been a kind of home away from home for me in China since I first got a room there in 1986. I’ve walked every nook and cranny of the grounds of Shida in the last three decades, initially as a graduate student in residence, later as a resident of the neighborhood. 

The campus lacks the isolated, regal splendor of Beida's imperial garden setting, but it is situated much closer to downtown Beijing, with one foot in the real world so to speak. The campus was built within walking distance  of the the old city wall, which puts it close to Second Ring Road and the central subway loop both of which trace the perimeter of the long-since demolished wall. 

Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan attended Beishida and lives in the area. Another Nobel Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, lived on campus in the 1980's, got caught up in the protests at Tiananmen, and soon became one of China's best-known dissidents. Tragically, he died in detention in 2017. There are few campuses that can brag two recent Nobel Prize winners, but Beishida isn't bragging. Liu Xiaobo goes sorrowfully unrecognized and unmentioned because he challenged the party line. 

Being a key teaching college, and in keeping with its motto, Beishida is a model school:

xue wei ren shi
xing wei shi fan

Learn, so as to instruct others; 
Act, to serve as a model for all

The motto of Beishida carved in stone

Beishida has long had a diverse student population, grooming future teachers from the far corners of China; the Uyghur population is noticeable on campus where halal dining is an option. The outspoken student rebel Wuerkaixi is easily the best-known native of Xinjiang to hail from this campus, although he now lives in exile in Taiwan on account of his politics.

The foreign student population in the 1980's was mostly American and Japanese, since then many South Koreans have joined the mix, as well as Russians, Khazhaks, Latin Americans and Europeans. 

Non-Han Chinese have always been shunted aside (or cosseted) in one way or another. Because of its historic and continuing  The large Xinjiang contingent points to Beishida's role as a premier teacher training college. Students hail from every province and many remote areas that are not as well represented at other schools. Upon graduation they are expected to go back to the provinces to teach. Wittingly or not, teacher education is a key tool of social assimilation and control.  

Xinjiang students in some ways get the foreign treatment, which is to say, they are not entirely assimilated and don't necessarily have native fluency in China. LIkewise, when Americans first arrived on campus, we were sometimes compared to people from Xinjiang, teased for speaking accented Chinese. For a foreigner to be thrown together into a pre-existing category for a national minority was both discriminatory and inclusive; we weren't Han, but we were conversing in Chinese, so we weren't exactly tourists, either.

The Beishida campus reminds me of college campuses in Japan in the sense that it is functional, almost factory like, and not at all inspired architecturally. Mercifully the towering pile of coal next to the heating plant was removed by the mid-1980s, but even today there are few lawns and no ponds or pagodas. There are tree-lined roads, open sports fields and shaded dormitory compounds. Compared to the bustle of the major north-south thoroughfare Xinwai Road, campus is a tranquil compound that offers some relief from the burgeoning, chock-a-block urbanism that surrounds it. It's no secret that the campus doubles as an unofficial park, more or less open to residents of the congested area, and it is a popular place for families to take an after-dinner stroll.

The campus is heavily gated, north, south, east and west, but those cardinal gates are open to most of the public most of the time, though each entrance is guarded and those seeking access may be stopped or questioned at the whim of the guards. 

As elsewhere, there is a tightening of access and an uptick of inspections during times of political vigilance. The most heavily-monitored portal is East Gate, which, not coincidentally, sits astride the foreign student dorm compound. Foreign students were moved from the dorm cluster where Chinese were housed to a relatively isolated spot on the east perimeter in the mid-1980's and it they have remained cloistered there ever since. 

East Gate is the main entrance to campus, and its most cosmopolitan corner. In symbolic terms at least, most foreigners never really get past gate--the foreign dorms, shops, and eateries are all clustered here, as are classrooms for Chinese language instruction. In a way effusion of cross-cultural vibrancy at the gate strangely parallels the segregation patterns of Qing dynasty Beijing, such as Qianmen Gate, which was a vital, culturally diverse market area that sat astride the main entrance to the Forbidden City back when the inner city was still forbidden to all the but Manchu elite.

East Gate has uniformed guards posted round the clock with a special booth to inspect auto traffic. 

Beishida foreign student dorm dating to the late 1980's as seen from the bicycle parking lot

Things are much more open now, but echoes of the old forbidden zones can be detected now and then. The Olympics were one such time; the campus was as tightly guarded as a military installation, not so much out of fear of political turmoil but for the simple reason that Team USA was ensconced on campus and local authorities, in full-blown host mode, were willing to inconvenience every one else to accommodate the "honored" visitors. As an adjunct Olympic Village, security and safety were over-riding concerns, even as the dollars rolled in. 

Michael Phelps and his compatriots were housed in the foreign student quarters, which had been greatly spruced up for the occasion. The athletes and staff had the run of the entire East Gate compound, converted for the occasion into an interlocked knot of dorms connected by enclosed walkways. Yumadun, the best restaurant in the area at the time, was converted to the US team’s cafeteria. 

When I first got to Beishida, foreign students were housed in a nondescript block adjacent the Zhongnanlou women's dorm on the south side of campus. At that time I arranged to stay in the campus guest house for visiting scholar's  which sat astride a row of shops on the north side of the women's dorm.  

The three-story brick structure that housed campus shops was not technically a dorm but a “neibin zhaodaisuo” for official university guests, one of the few buildings where foreigners (there were three of us when I was there) and Chinese could stay under the same roof.  The "Insider Guest House," as I liked to call it, was tightly-monitored, friendly smiles aside, and the front door was padlocked at ten in the evening. To seek return to one's room after hours was to court verbal abuse, and a deliberate wait, from the grumpy old custodian with the big ring of keys that could open every door on the premises.

Two "fuwuyuan" in front of the old "Insider Guest House" in '89

Centrally located but shabby, the zhaidaisuo lacked bathing facilities and even lacked hot water. The ground level housed a small post office and dry goods shop. Right around the corner lay a small but important structure that I called the hot water shack. The multiple hot water spigots served as a sort of campus well, a place to fill hot water flasks with drinking water and exchange gossip. During the protests it was an important information node on campus, and urgent student bulletins were often posted there. I explained this to US television host Ted Koppel after the protests ended and he did a standup on the spot, saying "this is where it all began." That wasn't quite the case but the publicity bothered Beijing authorities enough to tear it down and relocated the hot water facilities a short time later. 

The "Inside Guest House" remained much as it was until 2007 when it was torn down to make room for a purpose-built facility for the US Olympic fencing team. This gymnasium like structure was sensibly converted into a campus sports facility after the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  

Beishida was kept under heavy wraps during the Olympics for a variety of reasons ranging from normal security concerns to fears that athletes from other  countries might be spying on Americans as they worked out. Michael Phelps was housed here and the best restaurant in the foreign student dorm compound was temporarily converted into a private cafeteria for the American Olympic team where Phelps reportedly chomped down multiple egg sandwiches as part of his daily 12,000 calorie diet, but he did his swimming elsewhere. There was the Water Cube in Olympic Park, but and also a beautiful outdoor pool at the Soviet-styled Friendship Hotel which was converted to a world-class indoor pool for Olympics training.

Given the mixture of security concerns, it was especially difficult to visit campus during the Olympics, a special permit was necessary, and normal school life and normal neighborhood access ground to a halt. It was the height of summer anyway and most students were sent home, though allowances had to be made for those hundreds of families who live in dorm-like structures on the north side of the campus grounds.

The ceremonial south gate, where the all but obligatory Mao statue once stood, is still mostly used for ceremonial purposes. I watched the Mao statue being torn down in the middle of the night in 1986, and the plaza was later widened to make way for a new library, which in turn was replaced by an bigger plaza with an even bigger library.  The massive library structure with its huge over-hanging roof is apparently the image university authorities like to project, and while the architecture is a bit over-blown, and the library incomplete due to censorship, the wide open plaza in front is a delightful semi-urban space where old folks stroll, kids roller skate and students court and spark.  

East Gate is the most cosmopolitan corner of campus; it houses hundreds of foreign students studying Chinese, and university guests of all stripes. The main building is 20 stories tall, the ground floor entry is flanked by Twelve Oaks café on one side, and a MacDonald’s on the other. 

Interior of Twelve Oaks Cafe which overlooks East Gate

Service workers wear no uniform in this private cafe

University administrative staff at service desk in foreign compound

The guard post to old student dorm

The old student dorm, where foreign students stayed during the Tiananmen protests (they were specifically instructed not to participate) is still used by long-term students though it is  showing its age. The once-dreaded guard post at the campus entrance, which in the 1980's was a key surveillance node, is more relaxed now, and can even be seen unoccupied, as electronic innovation and more modern forms of surveillance have rendered it somewhat redundant. It used to be rumored that the guards were expert snoops secretly proficient in foreign languages, eyeing one's every move, which in retrospect seems comically exaggerated, but it truly reflected the low-level paranoia common at the time. One reason why I was almost alone among the foreigners from this campus to join the marches to Tiananmen Square was because I did not live in the heavily-monitored foreign student dorm at that time.

Deeper inside the recesses of the old foreign compound can be found a whimsically decorated “Canadian” restaurant, accessible by a steep staircase dotted with red lights, and a Japanese restaurant which used to be accessible directly from the dorm but now has a separate entrance.
Isshin Japanese restaurant attached to dorm

The Korean restaurant is gone, replaced by a well-stocked dining hall with diverse stalls, but food cannot be purchased without a university ID.

The main concentration of Chinese student eateries is on the other side of campus, and around the big, no-frills dining halls, which hark back to the days of a collective lifestyle and uniform diet. It was in this cavernous hall, in the mid-1980's, where I first met several of the Beishida students who were to become active in the 1989 protests. Today it looks drab in contrast to more trendy eateries, and there are any number of small shops and food stalls near the old dining hall that have won university approval to operate on the premises.

The main Chinese dining hall on the southwest side of campus

The hot water shack adjacent to main dining hall where thermoses are filled

A bakery, fruit stall, indigenous fast food and snack shops near dining hall 

Today's students reflect fashions of the times

In 1989 unauthorized free speech posters sprung up on campus bulletin boards and dorm walls

Plastered on the walls were political tracts, poems, song lyrics and directions for the next demonstration. The sports grounds in central campus were a key meeting place, and a staging ground for students to organize by department and academic affiliation before pouring en masses into the streets. Although student crowds at the Square might appear at first glance to be a large random gathering, there was considerable organization by school and department, and this cellular structure remained largely in tact through the hunger strike and after.

I was invited to march with friends in the history department but got pulled into the Choral Arts Group which was fun because it was music and song all day long. Once we arrived at the square, we were reminded to stay with the group, an example of the discipline that made such a large gathering orderly and peaceful. It later helped prevent infiltration, as one was most often surrounded by familiar faces, and when the provincial students showed up a week or two later, they were gently nudged to the side of the square where they set up their own encampments and affiliation groups.

The basketball courts were the staging ground for the mass march to Tiananmen Square on May 4, 1989

The campus basketball courts today, now fenced in.

In 1989, the so-called East Gate was the main entry point to campus, but it was a different gate than what is called East Gate today.  The old gate still functions as a point of entry and egress, but it no longer connects directly to campus and cars have to use the new gate. The old gate was torn down, replaced by a sliding metallic gate. It is guarded, but sees little foot traffic as it serves chiefly as a parking lot serving for the Jingshi commercial building that sits on the southeast corner of the university compound. The Jingshi high rise boasts offices, restaurants and Chinese-style hotel facilities, but it is not an attractive building or well-integrated with campus. It is typical of the showy facades and reckless commercial expansion of the Jiang Zemin era, 

The Jingshi building abutting campus 
The old east gate has been reduced to a parking lot behind the Jingshi Building

The old east gate was the last campus barrier for students seeking to take the protest from the sports ground to the street. A significant portion of the student body marched, reaching such numbers that all was traffic halted and the handful of police on the scene were unable and unwilling to stop the forward surge of marchers.

This photo was taken as students poured out of East Gate at the outset of a march on Tiananmen

Students swelled Xinwai Street until all traffic was halted and the marchers owned the road

Utilized mainly for parking nowadays, the old east gate is a forgotten campus thoroughfare, but in 1989 this was the key passageway in and out of campus and the gateway through which students broke past campus security to enter the streets, in defiance of warnings from police and university security. After assembling on the basketball courts at the crack of dawn, it was through the now-demolished archway here that began a series of epic marches to Tiananmen Square.

This is the location of the old arched east gate where students first broke free of campus in 1989

Photos with Beishida students on the Square in '89

Between the old east gate and the new one once stood dozens of commercial cafes, restaurants, bars and snack stalls, but when I visited in the summer of 2019 all of them were boarded up and slated for demolition. This was the biggest change around campus in years so I got asking about it.   

"What happened to all the student hangouts, cafes and restaurants?"

The answers, all of them interesting, all of them likely containing a kernel of truth.

"The university is cleaning up..." "it's to combat air pollution" "beautification" "there were complaints..." "unsightly,” “unsanitary,” "too many unregistered provincials..." 

If the shops that sprouted out with little help from the authorities in the ambiguous zone outside the campus wall were not completely illegal, they were not fully authorized by the university, but more to the point, not in keeping with the latest trends under Xi Jinping for urban beautification which meant in essence restoring something of the simplicity of the Maoist Beijing he knew as a youth to what today is an admittedly intensely capitalistic commercial environment. 

The idea seems to be to restore the university exterior, part wall, part fence and partly composed of buildings that line the street but do not open to the street.

Blue fencing blocks access to the recently closed restaurants and bars on Xinwai Road by campus

This is what remains of popular bar that served pizza, beer and loud music

Certainly, the complaint that the shops were run by provincials, that is to say “waidiren” or rural migrants was a political factor in the clean-up campaign, as similar clearances have taken place throughout the city. But one cannot underestimate the power of bureaucratic greed, either, and it was explained to me that university officials long looked askance at the vibrant activity going on just outside the gate, or perhaps secretly coveted it, and wanted to rope it in by establishment a monopoly on food and drink outlets inside and outside the campus walls.

Welcome no more. Closed by order of the university

This Korean restaurant closed down as part of the clean-up campaign

Keeping things prim and proper, at least in appearance seems to be a ruling ethic of today's Beijing. Or to paraphrase some bad fashion advice, it's more important to look good than feel good.

It's not surprising that young people who are being groomed as teachers should be gently pressured to behave in an upright manner, and conservative students and administrators were shocked in 1989 when so many of the nation's finest teachers-to-be broke out of campus to join other college students in the big protest at Tiananmen Square. 
Today politics is not a popular topic, but lifestyle is, and today's youth eagerly seek to escape the confines of a buttoned-down campus as much as their predecessors did. It's a place where rules abound and are taken seriously, even the elevators signs in the high-rise classroom building have a pedagogical ring.

It’s understandable that students should seek to escape this comfortable but caged crib from time to time, just as it is easy to see why street-weary locals, who are not under the watchful eye of professors and administrators, should find a whiff of freedom within its confines, safely distant from the tyranny of the workplace and nosy nannies

in neighboring residential compounds
Thus the flow goes both ways, non-students flock to campus in the evenings to promenade and unwind, just as students rush out the gates for food, drink and the distractions of the street