Inspiring Chinese historian and educator Zhang Kaiyuan

By MA MIN and LIU LI / 04-27-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Zhang Kaiyuan was a renowned Chinese historian, educator, and winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the 7th Wu Yuzhang Humanities and Social Sciences, the highest award in the field of humanities and social sciences in China. He is known for his pioneering contribution to the scholarship of modern Chinese history, such as China’s 1911 Revolution, the history of Chinese Christian colleges and Christianity, and historical documents related to the Nanjing Massacre. Photo: Courtesy of MA MIN, LIU LI

Born in Wuhu, Anhui Province, Zhang Kaiyuan (1926–2021) spent his childhood flitting between Shanghai, Wuhan, and other places with his family due to wars. They finally escaped to the Chongqing countryside when China’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression broke out. Despite the family’s financial difficulties, Zhang continued his studies through government student loan. During that time, he developed a love for literature and was known among his peers for his cold and austere writing style, earning him the nickname “Little Lu Xun” [commonly considered the greatest writer in 20th-century China, who was known for his sharp and unique essays on the historical traditions and modern conditions of China]. Unfortunately, his joyful youth proved transitory in times of turmoil. In 1943, Zhang was expelled from school due to his involvement in student activism, abruptly ending his “idyllic high school life.”

From underclass to college

Forced to make ends meet, Zhang studied accounting at a vocational school in Chongqing. However, he was once again expelled due to a conflict with a military training instructor. Zhang then worked as a boatman on the Chuanjiang River, living at the bottom of society. This brief yet harsh experience gave him insights into the darkness of society, and he developed a deep sympathy for the underclass.

Following his stint as a boatman, Zhang’s next job was as a copy clerk in a Chongqing warehouse under a government agency responsible for allocating military rations. During this time, he lived alone in a stilted house by the river, reading literary works and practicing writing at night. His love for life, his longing for the future, and his frustration with the times were all expressed in his writing.

In the winter of 1944, as the war intensified, Zhang volunteered to join the army to defend his motherland. From December 1944 to June 1946, he received training in the 603rd Regiment of the 201st Division of the Youth Expeditionary Army [an army consisting of educated youths established in 1943]. Due to Japan’s unconditional surrender on August 15, 1945, Zhang didn’t have the opportunity to go to the front line. He regretted this and poked fun at himself as an “old soldier who had never fought in the war.”

Two years later, Zhang enrolled in the Department of History at the University of Nanking [a private university in Nanjing, founded in 1888 but effectively defunct in 1952], where he formally received training in historical studies. Both Miner Searle Bates, the founder of the Department of History, and Wang Shengzu, then head of the department, majored in history at the University of Oxford, and emphasized the teaching and research of modern and contemporary history and international relations. These shaped Zhang’s academic preferences. Life at the University of Nanking was a turning point in his life.

In the period of [China’s War of Liberation], Zhang’s willingness to fight for his people was aroused. In the winter of 1948, introduced by secretive members of the CPC, he dropped out of school and entered the Central Plain Liberation Area. He then studied at Zhongyuan University, which later merged with the private Huazhong University to form the public Huazhong University, later reorganized into Huazhong Higher Normal School in 1952, then renamed Huazhong Teachers College in 1953, the predecessor of the Central China Normal University (CCNU). Zhang served the university for life, dedicating himself to China’s education.

Research on history

Zhang’s interest in historiography began after he started teaching at the Department of History of Huazhong Teachers College. 

His research into the history of the 1911 Revolution began in 1954. At the time, a German historian came to Wuhan to search materials on the history of the revolution. Impressed by the academic charm of the history of the 1911 Revolution, Zhang initiated his research. To further promote the study of the revolution, he proposed holding an academic symposium to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the revolution in Wuhan. In 1961, the symposium was successfully held, making it the first national academic symposium with a historical event as its theme. 

In October 1981, after nearly four years of effort, Zhang’s three-volume, 1.2 million-word History of the 1911 Revolution was finally published, marking a new starting point for him. He subsequently published a series of influential works such as The 1911 Revolution and Modern Society and The Footsteps of Pioneers: The Collected Writings of Zhang Jian. Zhang was widely recognized as an authority on the history of the 1911 Revolution in academia.

Additionally, Zhang has been fruitful on the study of the Chinese bourgeoisie in the modern era, China’s early modernization, the Nanjing Massacre, and theoretical research of history, making outstanding contributions to the study of modern Chinese history.

Zhang’s remarkable achievements were not only due to his diligence and innovation but also his unique personality as a historian. “Historians should maintain their independent scholarly personality. Even when under political pressure or the temptation of money, we must not forget this fundamental principle.” This was the basic tenet that Zhang followed in his scholarly life.

Contributions to education

Zhang often said, “I love teaching, I love my students, and my students love me. This is my greatest happiness.” At the beginning of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, in order to meet the urgent need for education, Zhang, who had not yet graduated from university, hurriedly stepped into the classroom, and loaded himself with heavy teaching schedule. At Zhongyuan University, Zhang mainly taught the history of the CPC and the theories of new democracy. In 1954, he had been acclaimed for lecturing on modern Chinese history to undergraduate students and high-school history teachers.

In the late 1970s, Zhang set up a postgraduate programme on modern Chinese history and started to recruit students. In 1981, he was approved as the first doctoral supervisor in this field in China. To promote research in modern Chinese history, he founded the Institute of History (later renamed as the Institute of Modern Chinese History) at CCNU and developed it into a research center for the history of the 1911 Revolution, the history of the Chinese chamber of commerce, and the history of Christian colleges. It also became an important base for training talents in modern Chinese studies.

In graduate education, Zhang devoted all his energy and passion, guiding his students to conduct independent academic research. He went to the University of Tokyo in search of archives related to Miyazaki Tōten and Umeya Shōkichi, and explored the historical value of archives about Suzhou Chamber of Commerce at the Suzhou Municipal Archives. From those works, Zhang became keenly aware of the potential value of several emerging academic fields, and immediately advised his graduate students to conduct systematic research. A group of outstanding young scholars emerged as a result, making significant achievements in their respective fields. “I’m a busy old hen, always pecking and searching around. On finding any grain or insects, I will call the chicks to come and enjoy a ‘meal,’” Zhang said.

‘Never too old to live out a dream’

Even in his later years, Zhang didn’t slow down. He began to explore the history of the Nanjing Massacre and wrote extensively on this topic. More importantly, he spent many years exposing the atrocities against innocent Chinese civilians committed by the Japanese invaders and calling for world peace. In addition to writing books and articles, during his travel in the United States, Zhang also participated in activities related to seeking compensation from Japan for their war crimes. He also attended various commemorative events and seminars related to the Nanjing Massacre in Japan and delivered speeches. “The harsh reality teaches us that we cannot forget history, nor can we allow history to be tampered with. As historians, we should defend the truth and dignity of history,” declared Zhang. 

From 2005, Zhang began a constant dialogue with the renowned scholar Ikeda Daisaku, discussing major issues such as the reconstruction of civilization and the maintenance of world peace and justice. At the first Nanjing Peace Forum, he and seven other Chinese and Japanese scholars were awarded for their special contribution to the Memorial Hall of the Victims in the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders.

In 2014, Zhang became the first to retire from a position as a senior professor, attracting nationwide attention [as his job was a top academic post]. He believed that academic teams must constantly replace old with new, so as to maintain academic vitality. Even in retirement, however, Zhang continued to focus on the development of his institute and the cultivation of young scholars. As long as he was on campus, he insisted on going to work every day, welcoming visitors who came for knowledge. He continued to care about the growth of undergraduate students. At the beginning of every semester, he would give a lively lecture to new students, earning himself the nickname “Mr. Sunshine.”

In order to promote international academic exchanges, in his later years, Zhang went to Japan, the US, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, and other places to deliver lectures or attend academic symposiums. Under his efforts, the CCNU established the Institute of Ikeda Daisaku and the Research Center of Shibusawa Eiichi. In 2001, the CCNU established the Zhang Kaiyuan Academic Fund, inviting famous scholars from home and abroad to give lectures every year, and held annual summer seminars on China-West cultural exchanges, greatly promoting the development of young scholars and international academic exchanges.

In his fulfilling 95-year life, Zhang had undertaken important national research programmes and worked on various projects such as the history of the Qing Dynasty. He always wrote diligently, staying up late to write at the invitation of students and other organizations and individuals. He cared about the campus environment, criticizing any behavior damaging to its flora and fauna. He continued to pay attention to society, encouraging historians to actively participate in social activities.

Ma Min (professor and director) and Liu Li are from the Institute of Modern Chinese History at the Central China Normal University.