It's lunchtime on an ordinary Monday, the triangular concourse at the center of the Peking University (PKU) campus is bustling. On one side of the "triangle," fastfood stands, book stores and small shops have set up to do a brisk bit of business with the students. On another side, a variety of posters line the road, ranging from information about various lectures to internships with companies.
A landmark in PKU, the triangle, or Sanjiaodi, is well-known as a place of free thought embedded in PKU. Back in the late 1980s, it became a platform where students could freely express their thoughts, as well as their political idealism. In 1980, many students made passionate speeches here, and ran for delegates at the People's Congress in Haidian district, a trial reform by the central government toward grass-roots democracy.
Since the early 1990s, politics have been left behind. The slogans and posters about China's destiny have given way to information more directly relevant to the students' immediate prospects. "It's simply an image revival for the school's management," Zhang, a PKU graduate student, said while pointing at a newly redecorated placard.
"Indeed, few in today's PKU understand the importance of the triangle to those who studied here in the 1980s," said Ju Bei, who gained his PhD at PKU.
A highly political past
From many aspects, the 1980s will always be remembered as a special time in China's history. It was a time when the country had just come out of the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and tried to restore order from chaos.
"It was an era full of idealism, aggressive selfcriticism and learning from the West," Zha Jianying, a female writer, said when trying to encapsulate this special era in her book Interviews on the 1980s, which regroups the retrospective of writers, artists and scholars from that time.
For Feng Xiaoyu, a Beijing native who enrolled in Beijing Foreign Studies University in 1978 after China resumed the longhalted college entrance exams, four years in college symbolized a spiritual enlightenment.
"Before that, we had been used to living in a closed society. All of a sudden, we started to learn about democracy from the West, and all kinds of new thinking came into our classrooms. It was a cultural shock, or more accurately, a foreign shock to us," said the former English major.
"Most students in the 1980s held a strong sense of social responsibility. Some fought against the absolute policies of the Cultural Revolution. Others, leaning toward liberalization, expressed their strong dissatisfaction with society," wrote professors Xiao Yongmei and Dai Gangshu on their thesis concerning the changes of political attitudes of Chinese college students over the past three decades.
Compared to today when university is no longer only for the elite, only a very small number of people had a chance to study then.
"We felt we were those chosen by history to help build the country, everyone was very hardworking as we had wasted too much time during the Cultural Revolution," said Feng, who, because of his high school education, was sent to spend several years at a remote island in Heilongjiang Province before finally becoming a college student at the age of 25.
Many intellectuals agree that going through this time when China was undergoing radical changes made the students in the 1980s a special generation. "Due to the realization of the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution, and the new social orders and system being established, the whole academic environment at that time was pretty dynamic. Different and new ideas were encouraged to find a new path for the country," said Yu Guoming, vice dean of the School of Journalism at Renmin University of China.
"Independent thought, strong social responsibility and expression of ideas can be regarded as common characteristics of most scholars in the 1980s", Chen Pingyuan, dean of Chinese literature at PKU, is quoted as saying in Zha Jianying's book.
In the highly political era after the Cultural Revolution, most of the college students and scholars found themselves deeply involved in politics as a means of selfexpression. By going into politics, university students could engage in social development and find their soulmates at this special time.
Contrasting two eras
Chinese universities have seen a dramatic change over the past decades. While the number of students has increased rapidly, a college diploma is no longer enough to secure a bright future.
"My family paid so much money for my education, I have to return this investment by making plans for my future. Idealism alone doesn't make sense today," said Xiao Lin, a postgraduate student from PKU.
Zhou Naiyuan, studying at PKU Law School, said the general atmosphere today is different.
"Our own development always tops the agenda, no matter whether it's finding a satisfactory job, or choosing to go abroad to study. After all, compared with the 1980s, PKU graduates are no longer the most competitive ones on the job market nowadays," said Zhou, who is going to study a master's degree at Cornell University this fall.
Beyond the new pressures facing today's college students, Ju Bei says the lack of social responsibility among their peers is more of a reflection of the mainstream values in today's China. "When facing many social problems, it's easy to take on a materialistic approach so as to survive in a society where the weak fall prey to the strong," Ju Bei said, complaining about less attention from the university management on humanity and social studies subjects, compared to the huge influx of resources into the application branch of learning such as business and law.
Today, it seems that the PKU's reputation for nurturing an "independent personality and freedom of thought" has already become a luxury. "A majority of students here have their complaints about the injustice in society, but most of them believe they have to accept it with recognition," Zhou comments.
Compared with the 1980s when universities were regarded as the pioneers of new thoughts, Professor Xu Jilin from East China Normal University says today, universities are following other social changes.
"Enrolling in university means entering society. All kinds of competitions can be found across campus," wrote Xu.