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Hou Renzhi: Lifelong Devotion to Historical Geography

Peking University, Dec. 6, 2010: No. 61, Yannan Garden, Peking University. A simple and quiet compound with courtyards surrounded. It is the 61st year of living there, living a marvelous life, for a centenarian. It is Hou Renzhi, PKU professor and China's most prominent scholar in historical geography.


Dec. 6 is the birthday of Prof. Hou, a centenarian (according to traditional Chinese count) dedicated to the academic career at Yenching University and later Peking University, despite twists and turns of his life, the university, the city, and the time.


Prof. Hou Renzhi (File photo)


Hou Renzhi and Peking University: Most Precious Memories

Hou Renzhi was born in Zaoqiang, Hebei province on Dec. 6, 1911. At the age of 21, inspired by the patriotic appeal of renowned historian Gu Jiegang (1893-1980), Hou entered the History Department of Yenching University, where he followed Prof. Gu and later received his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees. In 1940, Hou stayed at Yenching as an instructor in history, a year after his marriage with Zhang Weiying - the wedding was held on campus at Linhuxuan, with John Leighton Stuart, then Yenching president, as presiding witness at the ceremony.


During the time of the Japanese occupation in the 1940s, Hou was arrested several times for organizing and participating in anti-Japanese freedom-seeking movements. After China's victory of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, Hou went to the Department of Geography at Liverpool University in England in the summer of 1946 to pursue a PhD degree in philosophy. He went back to China right after he finished studies three years later and attended the founding ceremony of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, 1949.


Hou Renzhi and Zhang Weiying at the Alumni Bridge of Yenching, 1938 (File photo/YNET.com)


The Yannan Garden - literally, "south of Yenching (Uni.)" - on campus (Photo by: Yang Dongping)



Prof. Hou Renzhi won the teachers’ 3,000m race at 1955 PKU Sports Meet when 44 (File photo/YNET.com)


One remaining site of PKU “May 7 Cadre School” at Liyuzhou (File photo)


Hou Renzhi was appointed associate professor of history at Yenching University before it was merged into PKU in the nation-wide reorganization of academic programs of colleges and universities in 1952. Later, Hou held several positions at Peking University, including Deputy Provost of the university, Dean of the Department of Geology and Geography, and Dean of the Department of Geography.


During the "Cultural Revolution" (1966-76), Hou was transferred to the countryside to work. At Liyuzhou in east China's Jiangxi province, he suffered from hard labor and severe environment, yet did not give up his resolution.


After China's reform and opening up, Hou was elected Member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1980. Due to his contributions to academic research, he received the degree of honorary Doctor of Science by Liverpool University in 1984. In 1999, Hou was awarded the distinguished George Davidson Medal by the American Geographical Society.


Hou’s prestige and popularity at Peking University may be further illustrated by his popular course “Hou Renzhi Talks about Beijing," which was a must for PKU freshmen from the 1950s.


Prof. Hou received the “Cai Yuanpei Award” in 2006, the most prestigious award, which is named after late President Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940), for Peking University staff.


A ceremony to commemorate Prof. Hou's 100th birthday at Peking University on Dec. 5 (PKU News)


Hou Renzhi and Beijing: A Lifelong Fascination and Devotion

Hou is known for his great contributions to the establishment of historical geography with Chinese characteristics in theory and practice, his advanced research in Chengde, Handan, Zibo, and other historically significant cities, the investigation of deserts in Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, and Gansu, but above all, his lifelong love and devotion to the city of Beijing.


Hou's encounter with the city in the summer of 1931 - when he began his study at a middle school there (then named Peiping) - was a romantic one, and also a fate-indicating one. Years later, Hou recalled according to a Xinhua report: “The moment I came with the surging crowd out of the station and walked into the twilight of Beijing, the towering Zhengyangmen and vigorous city walls suddenly came into my eyes… Since that exact moment, a seed has been engraved in my heart.” That was when the solid bond was formed between the city of Beijing and Hou Renzhi.


Later, when he finally found his way in the study of history in Yenching University, inspired by the fieldtrips around the city, he redirected his major academic interest and focus to geography, firstly under the instruction of Prof. Hong Ye, and later the world widely well-known historical geographer, Sir Henry Clifford Darby. Hou successfully completed his doctoral degree study with the thesis titled "Historical Geography of Beijing."


Besides all the academic devotion to Beijing, Hou was also a scholar that combined his personal academic interest well with his social responsibility to the country. As the first one to introduce the concept of cultural heritage and world heritage inscription to China, Hou brought the brilliant Chinese culture and the rest of the world to each other. Long before he first came to know about Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage during his visit in the US, Hou had accumulated valuable research findings on the history of Beijing city, which concluded that the city was already 3,035 years old in 1990. Based on his previous research as a historical geographer, Hou promoted China’s participation in this World Heritage Committee, which was realized in 1999. Thanks to Hou’s efforts, China has now become one of the countries that have the greatest number of world heritage inscriptions.


Prof. Hou was once interviewed to talk about when his lifelong devotion and passion to history started. Back then, he faced the dilemma between studying medicine and history, similar to that of Lu Xun’s. "I believe that cure could be found in the study of history to heal an ill society," said Hou.



Reported by: Li Xiaomeng

Edited by: Zhang Chunlan

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