My Freshman Year at Tsinghua University in 1936

By Shih Ying Lee

(In 1936, Mr. Shih Ying Lee became a freshman at Tsinghua University(THU) in Beijing, China. After his freshman year, Mr. Lee had to travel many miles to Changsha, and then Kunming as Tsinghua University had to relocate due to the Japanese invasion. Mr. Lee arrived Boston to study at MIT as a graduate student in 1942. Ms. Lee later became a professor at MIT, and an entrepreneur. This article is from Prof Lee’s autobiography.)
Mr. and Mrs. Shih Ying Lee celebrate THU’s 100th anniversary at MIT Student Activity Center in April 2011.

My first day in the university

I still remember the first day I went to Tsinghua. At the time, the change from the drab and ordinary environment of my grade school to this ultra-modern, Western-style college campus was quite overwhelming. The huge change of environment, plus the fact that it was the first time in my life for me to live independently away from home, made my freshman year stand out as one of the most exciting years of my whole life. I remember that in the first few days after I arrived, I explored the campus in leisure. I was so impressed by the library with its huge reading room and the magazine room with hundreds of magazines from all over the world lined up neatly on the racks, by the athletic building with all kinds of exercise machines and a rubberized running track, and by the huge swimming pool which was entirely new to me. Years later, after I had the chance to see some of the campuses in America, I would still rate Tsinghua on par, or even higher, than the average. It struck me that with about a 1300-student body, Tsinghua in size and campus atmosphere resembled Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

Life at Tsinghua University

At Tsinghua, I majored in physics, a subject I was always interested in since high school days. I enjoyed the classes, especially those taught by a few well-known professors. I tried swimming for the first time in my life in the fabulous swimming pool, and I played around with all the exercise machines. I was told by some upper-class students that athletic activities were considered very important in Tsinghua. One of the requirements for graduation was to be able to swim at least one lap in the swimming pool. Most students studied in the library in the evening because it was quieter than the dormitories, which were set up for two students in a room. The students often got together chatting or playing card games in the evening hours in their dorms, but they generally behaved orderly. There were no wild parties or drinking binges, as in some college dorms or fraternity houses in the U.S. As a matter of fact, as far as I know, no one drank alcohol at all. For transportation, almost everyone had a bicycle. There was not a single automobile on campus.

For meals, we had the choice of the Large Dining Hall where cafeteria-type Chinese foods were served; or for a change, we occasionally went to a tiny restaurant in the back of the campus where local Chinese dishes could be had. Each meal cost about 0.2 Chinese dollars (US $.04 at the then exchange rate). For tuition, we paid 20 Chinese dollars (US $4.00 at the exchange rate) per year. The tuition money would be retuned upon graduation, so that the students might use it for travel or other good uses.

Sports and other activities

There were a number of sports teams during my freshman year. I picked tennis, partly because I had played a bit when I was in the middle school. I do not recall that we ever played any serious match with other teams. I guess schoolwork prevented me from spending too much time in the sport.

One of my high school friends, Ho Guang Ci (何廣慈), who was very musical himself, persuaded me to join the band in which he was already a member, playing the clarinet. He managed to obtain from the band a saxophone, and he gave me some beginner’s lessons playing it, with the hope that I would be ready to join the band the next semester. He also tried to induce me to play piano. I did take a few lessons from him. Unfortunately, it was near the end of the second semester of our freshman year, and those few musical lessons turned out to be the last and the only musical training I ever had in my whole life. All in all, my freshman year was one of the most exciting and productive years of my life.