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Lingering flavor of a generation---the Old Great Canteen of PKU

Peking University, Apr. 30, 2015: The Centennial Hall of Peking University (PKU) is now the center of students’ recreational life, hosting all types of cultural events, such as drama, movies, lectures, music, etc. However, what is less known is that before the centennial hall was built, there used to stand the old great canteen, heart of students’ life on campus and witness of the changing time.

The great canteen, consisting of two student dining halls, was built in 1952 when Peking University was relocated at the site of Yan Yuan (now the northern part of PKU).

In the 1950s, PKU canteen adopted the Free Supply System. Back then, free meals were placed on each table to all students. If you happened to sit next to an untaken table, you are lucky enough to enjoy an extra meal.

After 1956, the meal ticket system came into practice. All the students had access to government funding for living expenses. Alumni recalled that the meals back then were really good. And the canteen even provided the staple buffet services for students with a large appetite.


Meal tickets of PKU canteen

The great canteen also witnessed the difficult living conditions from 1959 to 1961. The quality of meals declined drastically, and the amount of food served was strictly controlled. A meal card system was introduced to better regulate the supply of food. At that time, the food was so precious that every one adopted a zero tolerance attitude towards food waste. Zhou Xianglong, a student from law school, still recalled being reprimanded by a student next table  at the canteen for accidentally dropping some rice on the table.

The great canteen, linking the teaching area and residential area, is also the central stage for the exchange of information.

On April 27th, 1957, President Ma Yinchu put forward the New Population Theory in his speech at the great canteen, advocating that it is time to control the size of population. 

President Ma Yinchu addressing the population problem of China

On May 19th, 1957, the first big-character poster in the anti-rightist movement was posted by Xu Nanting, a student majoring in history, on the south wall of the great canteen. And after that, the walls of great canteen were swarmed with all kinds of posters. The students even moved the tables out to the open ground outside the south gate of the canteen to make their speech.

On May 25th, 1966, the east wall of the great canteen saw the first big-character poster in the Cultural Revolution and Peking University was then beginning to slide into this nationwide madness.

It was only in the winter of 1980 that the national democratic elections were reinstalled. And this time, the great canteen was chosen as the place for the election. Professor Yang Fuxu still recalled making it to the canteen around midnight, just before the polling was closed.  

The first big-character poster in Cultural Revolution on the east wall of the great canteen

The 1980s of PKU is the age of resurrection of knowledge. In the early morning, students would hurry to the great canteen with their lunchboxes. It was common to see students eat as they were walking to classrooms and the library. While waiting for classrooms to open, many students wasted no time, porridge in one hand and the English word cards in the other. For those studious students, the thirst for knowledge minimized their attention to the still simple and plain food.

Students dining in a canteen of the 1980s

The great canteen also served as the assembly hall, due to the limited space of the  original hall in the office building and inadequate seats in the great canteen also enable it to accommodate more people. 

The stage in the west side of the great canteen witnessed the revival of the art and culture after the decade-long turmoil. It held multifarious cultural lectures, witnessed the excellent performances of popular singers, and saw students’ passion for the appearance of renowned poets, in an age marked the popularity of poetry and the pursuit of ideal. 

Student fans of rock superstar Cui Jian

The great canteen was also the ballroom for PKU students. “The earliest balls and dances were held there. Those dances were by no means elegant, but they were passionate and enlivening. That was unusual in that age---we students of PKU meant to break the forbidden zone and lead the trends,” says one alumna from the department of the Chinese language.

In 1983, the great canteen was formally converted to the Great Hall, though still old and shabby. In 1997, the construction of the Centennial Hall of Peking University started on former site of the great canteen, and in 1998 the new hall went into service.


The Centennial Hall of Peking University

Laden with the special memory of numerous PKU students, the great canteen epitomized the PKU culture and spirits over these years. “Every time I walk into the Centennial Hall of Peking University, all sorts of feelings well up in my heart. I miss so much the unforgettable youth spent here, and I also feel so proud of its changes and improvements, ” Hu Jian, the dean of Research Center for Finance, writes in his blog.

Along with the transformation of the great canteen, other canteens in PKU have been always in the change too. Years ago, there were an array of students’ canteens named from Students’ Canteen No.1 to Students’ Canteen No.7. But nowadays, only Students’ Canteen No.1 and Students’ Canteen No.5 remain, while the rest were either torn down or transferred to larger and more modern ones.

Recently, at the site of Campus Restaurant and Jiayuan Dining hall, a new modern dining hall is under construction. Nevertheless, what accompanies the changes of the canteens is the memory of the PKU students and the unchanged spirits of PKU.

Translated by: Zhang Xinyu & Li Xiaowei
Edited by: Xiao Chunliang
Source: PKU Youth, Renren Blog