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Tan Kah-Kee, the Founding Father of Xiamen University

XMUICE    Public:ICE    Datetime:2011/4/17

Xiamen University was founded in 1921, the first university in China to be established by an Overseas Chinese leader. Mr. Tan Kah-Kee was the pioneer of private education in China, spending his entire fortune in support of education in his native country. Tan Kah-Kee is an inspirational figure in China´s history of education, and was described by Mao Zedong as a "Standard-bearer of the Overseas Chinese and Glory of the Nation". He was the first President of the China Overseas Chinese League, an outstanding Overseas Chinese leader, a great patriot, and an eminent entrepreneur, educator and social activist.

Standard-bearer of the Overseas Chinese and Glory of the Nation

Tan Kah-Kee was born on October 21st, 1874 in Jimei, in what was then Tong´an County in Fujian Province-currently Jimei District of Xiamen. He was born into an Overseas Chinese family, and was sent to a private school at the age of 7, to be educated in the traditional Chinese manner. He left China for Singapore at the age of 17 to work in his father´s business. He took over the company in 1904, but eventually it failed. In 1916, he started his own business in rubber planting and processing. By 1925, Tan Kah-Kee had become famous as an entrepreneur, known as one of the four founders of the "Malaya Rubber Kingdom" in Singapore.
Tan Kah-Kee was a real patriot, and considered the revitalisation of the Chinese nation a responsibility. He met Sun Yat-sen and, one year later, joined the United League. After the liberation of Fujian in the1911 Revolution, Tan was chosen to be leader of the Fujian Public Security Committee, to raise money for Sun´s revolution. He became the Chairman of the South Seas China Relief Fund Union following the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937 - the incident thought of as the start of the Anti-Japanese War - and in 1939, he sent Wang Jingwei a telegram accusing him in harsh terms of betraying his motherland - Wang Jingwei was originally a close associate of Sun Yat-sen, but in 1939 was negotiating a settlement with the Japanese, which led in 1940, to his setting up an independent government in Shanghai in opposition to Chiang Kai-Shek. In March 1940, Tan Kah-Kee led a team of Overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia to visit major war zones and Chongqing and Yan´an. He had become disillusioned with the corruption within Kuomintang and the dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek, and became a firm supporter of the Communist Party as the force to save the people and the nation from chaos. He was the leader of the Singapore Overseas Chinese Anti-invasion Union when the Japanese invaded Malaya, and even though his life was in danger and he was forced to leave Singapore and seek refuge in Java, he never vacillated in sacrificing his own interests to the noble cause of the liberation of China.

When the Anti-Japanese War ended in 1945, he returned to Singapore to a warm welcome from every group within the Singaporean community. At the invitation of Chairman Mao, he attended the first National People´s Consultative Conference and the founding ceremony of New China in 1949, and in February 1952, returned to China permanently. Tan Kah-Kee held numerous positions within the Communist Party of China, including Member of the Standing Committee of the National People´s Congress, Deputy-Chairman of the National People´s Political Consultative Conference. In his later years, he continued to visit cities all over China, in order to understand the primary concerns in life of the common people, and devoted himself to the establishment of the Chinese socialist society. He was also a pre-eminent factor in bringing the Overseas Chinese together to support the development of their hometowns and the nation as a whole. His final wish, even as he lay on his sick-bed was the unification of China. He died in Beijing on August 12th, 1961 at the age of 87, and was given a state funeral. His coffin was sent to his hometown of Jimei, where it is buried in the Turtle Garden.

Devoting his all to education

Even though he spent much of his life in Singapore, Tan Kah-Kee always retained the deepest love for his motherland. As an alien in a foreign land who had suffered indifference and discrimination, he felt the greatest sympathy for the suffering of the people of China as a result of domestic unrest and foreign invasion. He was an honest and successful businessman, and feeling his responsibilities as a Chinese, he resolved to use his wealth to support education in China as a way of helping the nation´s development. In 1913, Tan founded the Jimei Primary School, followed by the endowment of Jimei High School, Jimei Normal College, Jimei Fishery School, Jimei Navigation College, Jimei Business School and the School of Agriculture, which came to be known collectively as the "Jimei Schools".
In due course, Tan Kah-Kee realised that there was not a single university, neither public nor private, within Fujian Province - a province with a rather large population - with a consequent shortage of professional expertise in both education and other fields. He also realised that there was no possibility of a government-funded university being set up in the province at the time, so, in 1921, he drew on his personal fortune to found Xiamen University. Initially, he saw to every detail himself: the selection of the President; the construction of the necessary buildings; and the recruitment of the academic staff; and, of course, the site for the university - with its back to the hills and its face to the sea, the University is widely acknowledged to have perhaps the most beautiful campus of any university in China. His aim was the development of talented people from both home and abroad, to which end he set up five schools in the University, teaching a total of 17 majors: the School of Liberal Arts, the School of Science, the School of Law, the School of Economics and the School of Education.

Tan Kah-Kee´s educational philanthropy in Singapore was equally impressive. He founded a number of schools of various kinds, and his endowments created an extensive, open education system known by his name. In spite of the fact that his business was running into difficulties as a result of an economic recession, he still managed to raise money in every possible way so as to maintain the continued operation of his schools. This commitment extended as far as turning down flat, in 1932, a generous offer from an overseas consortium which would have saved his business, simply because there was a precondition of withdrawing his support for Xiamen University and Jimei School Village. By spring 1937, he could no longer keep it up, having spent every penny of his fortune on supporting Xiamen University, so the Government of the Republic of China took over the university. Even after it became a public-funded university, he still followed its development closely. He returned to China to visit the university in 1940, after it had been forced to move to Changting because of the war, which the university survived in a manner that earned it the honorary title "Strength of the South". Following his permanent return to Jimei in 1952, Tan Kah-Kee continued his efforts to raise funds for the expansion of the university.
But Tan Kah-Kee was not merely dedicated to educational philanthropy; he was a far-sighted, extraordinary visionary. He was a firm advocate of the overall development of the students, physically, intellectually and morally; he stressed the importance of vocational education and teacher training; and he laid emphasis on the decisive role in education of the university leadership and its academic staff.
Tan Kah-Kee also promoted social development actively; he founded the museum in the Turtle Garden and it was he who proposed the establishment of the Xiamen Overseas Chinese Museum.
According to incomplete figures, Tan Kah-Kee´s spent a total of 13.21 billion RMB between 1904 and 1931, including 8.37 billion directly on education itself and 3.8 billion on interest charges related to his educational funding, in all 92% of his total outgoings. In contrast, his monthly living expenses amounted to less than 1,000 RMB. He said, "My earnings should be spent on public causes, not on personal affairs." His generosity inspired many Overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia to follow his lead in supporting education. The figures show that, between 1915 and 1948, Overseas Chinese of Fujian Province origin set up 48 high schools in various regions of the Province, proof positive of Tan Kah-Kee´s influence on education in China.

The Tan Kah-Kee spirit: "Pursue Excellence, Strive for Perfection"

On establishing Xiamen University in 1921, Tan Kah-Kee gave it the motto: "Pursue Excellence, Strive for Perfection".

"Pursue Excellence" refers to the conscious, unceasing effort to improve oneself. The expression first appears in the Book of Changes: "As Heaven maintains its vigour through movement, so the gentleman should pursue self-improvement unremittingly." Tao Kan, the Governor of Jing Zhou during the Jin Dynasty made it his motto, and through his dedication became a powerful, outstanding military figure, whose fame spread wide. His stories of untiringly pursued self-improvement were even recorded. This appears in the Book of Rites compiled towards the end of the Tang Dynasty, where it says, "Tao Kan, throughout his life was diligent and pursued self-improvement unremittingly".
"Strive for Perfection" concerns the persistent effort to pursue ultimate perfection. It refers to the Daxue - "Great Learning" chapter of the Book of Rites: "The way of great learning consists in manifesting one´s shining virtue, in loving the people, in only stopping on achieving perfection." Zhu Xi, a renowned Song Dynasty scholar explained the term "qin-min" as meaning "xin-min", or "renovating the people" rather than "loving the people", emphasising the role of education in fostering people´s inner good qualities. Zhu Xi also laid stress on "persistence" and "perfection" in "only stopping on achieving perfection". Tan Kah-Kee´s aim in basing the university on ancient wisdom was to inspire the students and staff of the University to maintain a constant pursuit towards the grand goal of perfection and excellence which is the essence of education.

Xiamen University has now become a comprehensive university offering programmes and courses in a wide range of disciplines. It is the only high-level national key research university in any of China´s six Special Economic Zones which comes under the state key "211" and "985" projects. Its location in Xiamen facing the ocean on the southeast coast of China gives Xiamen University the unique geographical advantages of close proximity to Taiwan and easy access to Southeast Asia and the outside world.

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