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The Spirit of Tsinghua with Daniel Bell

In ancient Greece, Sparta was synonymous with war and Athens with democracy.

Tsinghua Professor Daniel Bell believes that long after the Greek city-states have ceased to be, modern cities continue to have defining personalities.

Bell’s new book (co-authored with Avner de-Shalit of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) The Spirit of Cities explores the unique ethos of nine modern cities (Beijing represents political power) and how the differences between them shape the lives of those who call them home.

Bell will discuss these topics and more during his book talk on Tuesday, November 29, but before then he took The Bookworm for a walk to demonstrate how a place, even a school campus, can have an ethos.

The Location: Tsinghua University in Beijing’s Haidian District.

Background: Tsinghua and its chief rival Beida regularly duke it out for the position of top dog in the Chinese university system. Bell notes that it is interesting that the two rivals are situated right next to each other and that their respective campuses reflect the unique and somewhat opposing ethos of the schools.

Tsinghua, the alma mater of Chinese President Hu Jintao and of Hu’s expected successor Xi Jinping, has a reputation for conservatism. Engineers designed it. Beida has been at the center of many student political movements that sought to liberalize Chinese society. A poet designed its campus.

Bell points out that Tsinghua may be easier to navigate when you’re late for class but that Beida is a much better place to take your date for a walk at night.

Stop one: The Main Administrative Building


Bell: “This building was built in the 50s and has that Stalinist heritage but it’s interesting inside because it has this art deco interior, from when they redid it. Which in a way shows that they are not completely rejecting tradition.”

Stop two: Campus Green (Auditorium pictured in back)

In 1909, President Teddy Roosevelt obtained congressional approval to reduce the amount of indemnity money China owed the United States after the Boxer Rebellion. His condition: the money had to be used to support Chinese students going to study in America. Tsinghua, originally a preparatory school for these early exchange students, grew from that fund. Tsinghua’s American-influenced history shows in the western style architecture around campus, notably in the Monticello-esque design of the Auditorium.

Bell: “To show a little bit of the unromantic atmosphere here, you aren’t allowed to go onto that central square so you won’t see students lazing around in the grass, staring at the stars. “

Stop Three: The Old Gate

The Old Gate was once the main entrance to the campus. It was demolished during the 1960s and rebuilt according to the original design in 1991.

Bell: “It’s interesting that they choose to keep the characters in traditional form, instead of simplifying it. This reflects respect for tradition.”

Stop four: Confucius statue

In recent years, Confucianism has undergone a revival in China, so much so that a 31-foot bronze statue of the philosopher was unveiled early this year near Tiananmen Square – though admittedly, it was just as quickly removed four months later.

Bell: “This University is a center of Confucianism. Confucians value social harmony –which includes freedom and respect for difference, but ultimately you have to be socially harmonious. ”

Stop five: Shui Mu Tsinghua (not pictured)

The spot, literally “clear water and trees at Tsinghua,” is one of the most scenic parts of campus, featuring rock gardens, a small pond and weeping willows. Unfortunately, on the day of our visit, the water was clogged with rotting vegetation and giving off a distinctly unpleasant smell.

Bell: “I guess that shows where the school’s priorities are.”


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