Before 1949 much of the education at all levels in Beijing was in the hands of private schools, many of which were run by missionaries. The government subsequently took steps to abolish private schools and put all education in the hands of the state. It was soon realized, however, that the government could not possibly provide enough schools for all who required education, and it reversed its policy to some degree. Local organizations, such as factories, business concerns, collectives, and communes, were encouraged to establish schools. The outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 stopped all regular classes in Beijing and throughout China, massively disrupting the education system; conditions did not return to pre-1966 levels until the late 1970s. A major part of the financing for elementary education is now met by sources other than the central government, though the government does provide considerable subsidies to schools in difficult financial situations.
There are now enough primary and secondary schools in Beijing to accommodate all students during their years of mandatory schooling, and essentially all primary-age children are enrolled. About three-fifths of the primary students move on to the secondary level, a rate that is considerably higher than the national average. For preschool-age children, kindergartens and nurseries are operated by factories, business enterprises, government offices, and city block cooperatives. Their main function is to permit mothers to work, and although some of these facilities are located in the residential neighbourhoods, many are on the premises of places of employment. In the suburban or rural areas, kindergartens are often temporarily set up during such events as the harvest.
There are three main types of secondary schools in Beijing: general middle schools, normal schools, and vocational and technical schools. The general middle school is of the academic type, with a curriculum designed to prepare students for college. The normal school trains teachers for primary schools. Vocational and technical schools, created to provide skilled workers in various fields, have developed rapidly in the city.
Since the end of the 19th century, when China began to adopt the Western educational system, Beijing has been the country’s centre of higher education, a position that was only strengthened after 1949. The city is home to a number of the country’s most prestigious institutions; many of them are located in the northwestern Haidian district, which is set against the background of Kunming Lake, the Summer Palace, and the Western Hills. Notable among these are Peking University and Tsinghua (Qinghua) University. Peking University (1898) is one of the largest comprehensive institutions in China. In 1953 the university moved from its old site at Shatan, in the inner city, to the present campus, which previously belonged to the missionary-established Yenching (Yanjing) University. The Haidian campus has been expanded considerably to the east and south. Tsinghua University (1911) is the country’s most renowned facility for science and engineering. Other institutions of higher education within the academic district include the People’s University of China, which offers ideological training; the Central Institute of Nationalities, enrolling students from the country’s various autonomous regions and districts; Beijing Normal University, for teacher training; Beijing Medical University, which includes a large number of affiliated hospitals and institutes; the Central Conservatory of Music; and universities for specific disciplines, such as aeronautics and astronautics, geoscience, agriculture, and posts and telecommunications. The Chinese Academy of Sciences, the most prestigious research institute in the country, is also located in the district.
Beijing also has a number of foreign-language institutions where foreigners are employed to teach alongside their Chinese colleagues. The Beijing Foreign Studies University (1941), located in Haidian, is the largest facility of its kind in China. The Second Foreign Language Institute was set up in 1964 for training personnel for the New China News Agency. There are also a number of small institutes of language training run by the government and by the Beijing Radio Station. The Haidian Shangli Foreign Language School, at the secondary level, accepts children as young as eight years of age; most of them learn English, while others study French, German, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, and Japanese.
Beijing has been the magnificent centre of traditional Chinese culture and learning since the Ming dynasty. Emperors and courtiers patronized the arts, especially painting and calligraphy. Precious objects from other parts of the empire and from foreign countries poured into the capital. This role of cultural centre was continued during the Qing dynasty, although the century of political and social upheaval that began in the mid-19th century led to an overall cultural decline in both Beijing and the whole of China. In the late 1940s the Nationalists shipped a huge quantity of art treasures to Taiwan before their defeat by the communists. On the mainland, subsequently, many family heirlooms were purchased by the state for low prices and were then sold for export or used to enhance the country’s museum holdings.
The communist government initially encouraged pursuit of traditional arts, crafts, and scholarship, but this policy abruptly ended with the onset of the Cultural Revolution. Art objects that were not deliberately smashed were confiscated (some were returned to their former owners after 1980), traditional Chinese scholarship was essentially put to an end, and many academics were sent to the countryside or imprisoned. Since that time the government has made a concerted effort to restore damaged treasures and to revive the work of traditional artists and scholars. Because much of this activity has taken place in Beijing, the capital has undergone something of a cultural renaissance and resumed its leading role in the country’s cultural life.
Traditional jingxi (Peking opera)—with its elaborate and stylized costumes and makeup, cacophonous music, and spectacular dance and acrobatic routines—has been revived, after an attempt during the Cultural Revolution to adapt the form to modern revolutionary themes. The opera has great appeal for older people but less for the young, who instead prefer movies, television, and popular music. A great variety of other performance styles are also found in Beijing. The city boasts a symphony orchestra and Western-style opera and ballet companies and hosts visits by foreign orchestras and performers. Concerts of traditional Chinese and Western-style popular music are also common. A variety of plays by Chinese and Western dramatists are staged each year. Venues with high reputations include the Capital, Youth Art, and Tianqiao theatres. Also popular are acrobatic performances and musical revues.
Visual arts, notably calligraphy and Chinese-style painting, have had a major resurgence in the city, and there are many shops and galleries displaying these works as well as Western-style paintings. There is also a growing market for antiques, which can be found at Liulichang near the Qianmen site and the Panjiayuan area. In addition, the city has numerous well-stocked bookshops.
Museums and libraries
The Palace Museum, housed in the main buildings of the former Imperial Palaces, contains the city’s greatest collection of art treasures. Many of the halls are kept as they were in dynastic times, each constituting a museum in itself, and others are used to display some of the priceless treasures from China’s past. Of special interest are its porcelains and enamels, works in embroidery and precious metals, and stone carvings and scrolls.
The National Museum of China is located on the eastern side of Tiananmen Square. It was created in 2003 by the merger of the National Museum of Chinese History (established 1912) and the Museum of the Chinese Revolution (established 1950). Its extensive collection ranges from replicas of bones of Peking man to scientific instruments introduced to China by missionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries and many hundreds of decorative objects—such as bronzes, pottery, lacquerware, jade, and textiles—and documents, art, and artifacts dating from the Paleolithic Period to the present. With approximately 2 million square feet (190,000 square metres) of space, it is one of the largest museums in the world. The Capital Museum, in the northeast near the Anding Gate site and part of the Confucian Temple complex, has exhibits on the history of the city.
Notable art collections are housed in the China Art Gallery, just northeast of the Palace Museum, and in the Xu Beihong Museum in northwestern Beijing northeast of the Xizhi Gate site. Institutions devoted to the natural sciences include the Natural History Museum, in the northwestern corner of Tiantan Park; the Geological Museum, just east of Bei Hai Park; and the Beijing Planetarium, west of the Xizhi Gate site and south of the Beijing Zoo. The former homes of such notable individuals as Song Qingling (Soong Ch’ing-ling), Guo Moruo, and Qi Baishi are preserved as museums.
The Beijing Library, which holds the collections of the National Library of China, is located in the southern Haidian district, just west of the zoo. The library inherited books and archives from the renowned Imperial Wenyuange library collection of the Qing dynasty that has existed for more than 500 years and that, in turn, included books and manuscripts from the library of the Southern Song dynasty, established some 700 years ago. Also in its holdings are other collections from imperial libraries of the Qing dynasty, imperial colleges, and private owners. Among them are rare copies of ancient manuscripts and books of five dynastic periods from the Song to the Qing, including a vast number of manuscript volumes on different subjects, copies of Buddhist sutras dating to the 6th century, old maps, diagrams, and rubbings from ancient inscriptions on metal and stone. In addition, it possesses the Yongledadian (“Great Canon of the Yongle Era”) of the Ming dynasty and a copy of the Sikuquanshu (“Complete Library of the Four Branches of Literature”), dating from the Qing dynasty. In the late 1980s most of the National Library’s collections were moved to the present site from the Beijing Library’s original building just west of Bei Hai; that facility is now a branch of the main library. Other important libraries include the Peking University Library, containing a large collection of documents on local history, and the Capital Library.