House of Red Pioneers

Source:CRI Published: 2011-8-4 13:25:00

Li Dazhao's office has been reconstructed for visitors in the east wing of Honglou. Photo:CRI

The Communist Party of China was officially formed in Shanghai in 1921, but the roots of the revolution can be traced back to a humble but refined building on Peking University's old campus.

Completed in 1918, Honglou, or "Red Building," served as Peking University's library until the Japanese occupation of Beijing in 1937. However, the moniker refers less to the red brick and cement exterior of the Belgian-designed library and more to the building's role in revolutionary activities.

Most notably, Honglou flourished under the leadership of Li Dazhao, who transformed the role of libraries in China. Traditionally, libraries functioned as storehouses for private book collections. Honglou's private book collections once occupied a total of 21 rooms. Li Dazhao converted Honglou to the European system of public borrowing by encouraging the owners of private collections to open them to the public and allocating a portion of the library's budget each year to buying books for the public collections.

The public collections were then organized according to serial numbers and fitted with registration cards and envelopes.

"Students and teachers could now access a wide range of books," said Guo Junying, Director of the New Culture Movement Memorial of Beijing. "So, Li Dazhao is remembered as the founding father of modern libraries in China."

As one of the earliest advocates of Marxism in China, Li Dazhao wrote many of his most prominent articles in his office at Honglou, including "The Victory of Bolshevism." Li's conference room also served as the earliest meeting place for the formation of communist organizations in China. His office and meeting room, occupying two rooms of the east wing, are reconstructed for viewing.

"In 1920, the Comintern sent its first representative to China," Guo says. "He met Li Dazhao in Beijing, who introduced him to Chen Duxiu in Shanghai. China's first communist group was established in Shanghai in August 1920, and Beijing's communist group was founded two months later in Li Dazhao's meeting room."

Li Dazhao ran the library, but one of his assistants would eventually become the leader of China. Mao Zedong worked at the library in 1918 for a monthly salary of just 8 yuan. He had come to Beijing from his native Hunan to help other students from his home province secure opportunities to study overseas.

Mao's meager salary barely covered his accommodations, but the atmosphere proved crucial to the development of his ideology. He lived with Yang Changji, who served as his earliest instructor and also his father-in-law. He also devoured the books at the library and benefited from the debate among the young intellectuals at the university.

"In his talk with Edgar Snow later in life, Mao mentioned that it was in Beijing that he learned about Marxism, accepted Marxism and finally became a Marxist," Guo said.

This Honglou classroom was reconstructed to reflect the room where famous writer Lu Xun lectured on Chinese novels. Photo:CRI

Lu Xun, an important left-wing author, also made a cameo appearance in Honglou's history. He was contracted by Peking University to give lectures on the history of Chinese novels and was later offered a part-time position because of his popularity. At the time, Peking University was full of debate from different schools of thought, so administrators allowed students to choose lectures based on their personal interests. Chinese literature was not a popular subject at first, but the few students who attended Lu Xun's classes were impressed by the fascinating presentation of material. Soon, Lu's lectures became so crowded that students even stood in the hallways to listen. One of Honglou's exhibition rooms is reconstructed to reflect the period of Lu Xun's lectures.

The presence of Chen Duxiu, another noted left-wing supporter of the time is also strongly felt throughout Honglou's exhibitions. Chen founded "New Youth" magazine in 1915 and moved its editorial office to Beijing after his appointment as the Dean of Liberal Arts at Peking University. Compiled in the editorial room of Chen's Jinggang Hutong residence, the magazine was one of the most influential periodicals among intellectuals in China at the time. Li Dazhao, Hu Shi, and Lu Xun began contributing to the editorial work of "New Youth" in Beijing, adding to the magazine's popularity.

After the Chinese government failed to protect the country's interests at the Paris Peace Conference, with German claims in Shandong being awarded to Japan, Peking University students responded by protesting. On the evening of May 3, 1919, students from 13 universities gathered in Honglou to make giant white banners painted with slogans to carry on bamboo sticks. On May 4, they marched on Tiananmen Square. One of Honglou's rooms has been arranged to recreate the scene on the evening of May 3, 1919.

Despite his absence from the protests, Chen Duxiu has been immortalized as the movement's icon.

"Chen Duxiu did not lead the movement directly, (even though) Mao Zedong credited Chen as the chief commander of the May Fourth Movement," Guo said. "We say that because of the intellectual influence Chen exerted on young people through 'New Youth Magazine.'"

Ironically, after the Japanese seized control of Beijing in 1937, Honglou was used as the Provost Marshal's office and Chinese communists and revolutionaries were imprisoned in the basement. During that time, Beijing's influential universities temporarily relocated to Kunming in Yunnan Province.

After the founding of the People's Republic of China, Peking University was re-established in Beijing's Haidian District, and Honglou housed a series of government agencies up until 2001, when it was closed for renovations as a museum. In 2002, Honglou reopened to the public as a museum and memorial to the New Culture movement as well as a tribute to its Red past.

Admission to Honglou is free, and exhibits include informative captions in both Chinese and English.

Posted in: Blog, Metro Beijing

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