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Monday, June 11, 2018

Seeing Red in Downtown Beijing

Anyone who knows anything about China’s modern history will undoubtedly have heard of Hong Lou, or the Red Building. It was the former home of Peking University (BeiDa) and the birthplace of the patriotic May 4th Movement of 1919. The building also witnessed the birth of China's first Communist group, before the foundation of the Communist Party of China.

Hong Lou was originally built in 1916 as a student dormitory for Peking University, but by the time it opened in 1918 it had become the institution’s literature academy. Today, Hong Lou is the site of the Beijing Memorial Hall of the New Cultural Movement, and is part of the National Museum of China.
It is said that the design of the building was way ahead of its time in its architectural style. It was named for its distinctive red colour, not only on the outside but even with its floors and window frames painted in various shades of red.

Staff offices were located on the second floor, with the third and fourth floors consisting of classrooms. In the basement was a large printing press that was used to produce progressive magazines like Renaissance (Xin Chao) and New Youth (Xin Qingnian), both of them being publications of the New Culture Movement. Only the ground floor is open to the public today.

On the morning of May 4th, 1919, it was from this building that not just Peking University students, but some 3,000 students from over 10 universities in the city, set out for Tian'anmen Square to begin China's democratic revolution. On May 7th it was where students gathered once again to welcome back classmates released after their arrest during the demonstrations.

In the throes of the October Revolution in Russia, Marxism-Leninism seemed to be a pertinent solution to Chinese progressives and many intellectuals with a basic understanding of communism studied and disseminated Marxism to establish the early organisations of the Communist Party of China.

On display are early books of Sun Yat-sen…

As well as pictures of revolutionaries such as Lenin and Marx…

… not to mention, of course, early translations of works such as The Communist Manifesto, Class Struggle and The History of Socialism.

Born in 1889, Li Dazhao was one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party. He joined the staff of Peking University as a professor of economics and director of the library, where on June 30th 1918, he also founded the Young China Society.

Members of the Society not only included Mao Zedong, but Gao Junyu, Yun Daiying, Cai Hesen and Xu Deheng as well. Other well-known revolutionary figures including Chen Duxiu, and cultural masters Lu Xun, Cai Yuanpei and Hu Shi all worked here at various times.

So it is not in the slightest bit surprising that a whole gallery is devoted to the life and times of these revolutionaries.

The ground floor corridor is a bit sombre in appearance, looking like many a school corridor of yesteryear, I reckon.

But off it are a number of side rooms that one can enter.

This is the study of Cai Yuanpei, who served as the first Minister of Education in the Provisional Government of the Republic of China. In 1917 he assumed the Presidency of Peking University, which he transformed into a modern institution and where the New Culture Movement was born.

In the Lecture Hall, in August 1920, Lu Xun, then an employee in the Ministry of Education, was engaged by Cai Yuanpei as a lecturer to teach a history of Chinese novels. It is said that during his lectures, the hall was filled to capacity.

This was one of the University book collections. Chief Librarian Li Dazhao expanded the variety and range of subjects, through soliciting donations from the public. He paid particular attention to improving the collection of Marxist works. It is said that the university library ended up ranking first among university libraries across the country, thanks to his efforts.

And this is Li Dazhao’s office. In the wake of the Russian October Revolution, Li made systematic efforts at disseminating Marxism and in March 1920 he held discussions with Comintern representative Voitinsky on the question of setting up a Communist Party of China. Later that year he set up an early organisation known as the Communist Organisation of Beijing, with himself in charge.
Nowadays, the room contains a display of items of historical interest such as photographs, letters, manuscripts and books. Also on display are some of the magazines that carried his essays – New Youth, New Tide, Weekly Review, as well as copies of his posthumously published works ‘Essentials of Historiography and Populism’.

The second reading room on this floor was also known as the newspaper reading room.

In August 1918, Mao Zedong came to Beijing from Changsha for the purpose of organising members of the Xin Min Society and students from Hunan to go to France on a work-study programme. During this time he worked as an assistant under Li Dazhao, managing 15 foreign and Chinese language newspapers (at a salary of 8 yuan per month!).

Towards the end of 1918 students organised The Renaissance Society and launched a magazine which opposed the "stale old culture of feudalism”, advocating literary revolution. It became an important periodical in the New Culture Movement.

On May 4th, students headed by members of the Renaissance Society made more than 3000 flags and placards here.

All in all, this (free) museum is well worth a visit, albeit that it is not going to use up more than about half an hour of your time.

Head to Dongsi, Exit E on subway Lines 5/6. Then walk due west along Wusi Street for about one kilometre. Hong Lou is on your right. You need to show ID and go through a security arch to get in, but entrance is free.