Southwest Associated University: Staging Reform

Source:Global Times Published: 2009-4-20 22:12:05

By Du Guodong

Southwest Associated University: Staging Reform

Few universities in the world are so intimately tied to a nation's founding and development as is the short-lived National Southwest Associated University, whose history and graduates have played a central role in modern China. The legendary university's story is now being resurrected by Yunnan's Repertory Theater on the big stage.

Opened in 1937 and disbanded eight years later in 1945, the National Southwest Associated University was founded in response to the Japanese invasion of northern China and during its brief history as the intellectual heart of the country's resistance, trained many of the scientists, scholars and professors that would be the foundation of the People's Republic of China.

Directed by Yang Lixin, the drama My Southwest Associated University aims to retell and celebrate the university's unique history, beginning with a performance at Peking University on April 21 that will also commemorate the 90th anniversary of the May 4th Movement in 1919.

“My work is to help the actors to recreate the magic of the school and its students,” said Yang at a press conference in Peking University on April 14.

Set in the recreated courtyard where students and professors animatedly debated the future of China, My Southwest AssociatedUniversity captures the intellectual excitement and ferment that permeated both inside and outside the university. According to Yang, the school's old wooden two-story classrooms and courtyard will be transferred to Peking University to give audiences an authentic insight into the university's past.

After the play's debut in Beijing, the performance is scheduled to meet audiences at Nankai University in Tianjin and later in Taiwan and Hong Kong, whose own histories were also strongly influenced by scholars who once passed through the doors of National Southwest Associated University.

In 1937, as the Japanese invaders advanced across major swaths of China, the leading universities such as Peking University, Tsinghua University and Tianjin-based Nankai University retreated to Changsha, Hunan and later headed south to Kunming, Yunnan to escape Japanese blockades and aerial bombardments. Once in relatively peaceful Kunming, the three universities merged into National Southwest Associated University.

Both faculty and students trekked thousands of kilometers during their journey south, enduring hunger, disease and poverty along the way. Things were only marginally better in Kunming, with limited necessities and sporadic air raids. But National Southwest Associated University kept its doors and its classrooms open throughout, serving as a beacon of hope during the bleakest hours of the Japanese invasion.

At its height, the university boasted five colleges and 26 departments, with 179 elite professors drawn from across the partner universities.

After Japan surrendered in 1945, the National Southwest Associated University disbanded and each school moved back to their original home. Despite its brief and tumultuous history, the university's graduates left an indisputable mark on modern Chinese society and culture.

The university produced 172 Chinese Academy of Sciences or Engineering academicians, as well as China's first Nobel Prize winners Professor C.N. Yang and Tsung-dao Lee, who shared the prize in physics in 1957.

Yang has said many times in the past that his experiences in Kunming profoundly influenced his career and that he would not have been as successful without them.

Many other graduates went on to noteworthy careers in government, academia and the military, where their influence on a newly liberated China continues to be felt today.

“National Southwest Associated University set a good example for contemporary Chinese universities, and there are many treasured legacies for us to inherit, to cherish, and to share,” said Li Zhong, vice-president of Southwest Associated University's Beijing alumni association.

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