Ts'ai Yüan-p'ei (1867-1940) was the foremost liberal educator in 20th-century China and gained renown as a synthesizer of Chinese and Western ideas.
Ts'ai Yüan-p'ei was born into a merchant family in Chekiang Province in southeastern China. A brilliant student of the Chinese classics, he became, at 23, one of the youngest holders of the coveted chin-shih (the highest academic degree). In 1892 he was appointed to the elite Hanlin Academy. Believing the educational system to be responsible for China's defeat by the Japanese in 1895 and for the failure of the reform movement of 1898, he returned to Chekiang to devote himself to educational reform.
By 1902 Ts'ai had become involved in revolutionary political activities in Shanghai. There he helped found anti-Manchu educational and political societies, schools, and a newspaper. In a pattern that was to be typical throughout his life, Ts'ai soon left politics to return to the world of scholarship. In 1908 he went to Germany, where he attended lectures at Leipzig University and developed a strong interest in esthetics. Though he returned to China in 1911 and 1913 and served briefly as minister of education in the new republic, Ts'ai was in Europe during most of the tenure of Yüan Shih-k'ai. During World War I he helped bring 2,000 Chinese students to France under a work-study program.
After the death of Yüan Shih-kai in 1916, Ts'ai was appointed chancellor of Peking University (Peita), a post he held until 1926. Dedicated to principles of intellectual experimentation and academic freedom, he assembled a distinguished faculty, including Hu Shih and many other leaders in the New Culture movement. Among the diverse ideologies that found a forum at Peita was Marxism, whose followers included two faculty members (Ch'en Tu-hsiu and Li Ta-chao) and a library assistant (Mao Tse-tung). Peita was the focal point for the anti-Japanese student demonstration of May 4, 1919, which accelerated intellectual, political, and social revolution and gave its name to the era. Ts'ai left Peking to protest the arrest of student leaders and returned only after their release.
Alienated from Peking's warlord rulers, Ts'ai spent most of his remaining years as chancellor in travel abroad. Returning to China in 1926, he supported the Northern Expedition against the warlords and sided with his fellow Chekiangese Chiang Kai-shek against rivals within the Kuomintang. Under the Nanking government, Ts'ai served briefly as acting minister of justice and president of the Control Yüan. He was president of the short-lived Ta-hsueh yüan (Board of Universities), which attempted to reorganize Chinese education on the French model. From 1928 to 1935 he was president of the Academia Sinica, China's highest research institute.
However, Kuomintang suppression of civil liberties provoked Ts'ai's resignation from all official posts in 1935. Disillusioned with Chiang Kai-shek's government and in declining health, Ts'ai fled to Hong Kong after the Japanese invasion of 1937. There he died on March 3, 1940.
Further Reading on Ts'ai Yüan-p'ei
Although there is no English-language biography of Ts'ai, useful material can be culled from Joseph R. Levenson, Confucian China and Its Modern Fate, vol. 1 (1958); Chow Tse-tsung, The May Fourth Movement (1960); Ssu-yü Teng and John K. Fairbank, China's Response to the West (1961); and Yi Chu Wang, Chinese Intellectuals and the West, 1872-1949 (1966).
Additional Biography Sources
Duiker, William J., Ts'ai Yüan-p'ei, educator of modern China, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977.