The statue of Cai Yuanpei in the campus of Peking University
Cai's former residence in Shaoxing, Zhejiang
Studied Chinese classics, gaining traditional degrees culminating in the highest degree in the imperial examination system and a place at the Hanlin Academy. Studied at Berlin (1907) and University of Leipzig (1908 11), with later trips to Western Europe and the USA.
Cai Yuanbei was appointed to the Hanlin Imperial Academy at 26. In 1898, he became involved in administering institutes and became: Superintendent of Shaoxing Chinese-Western School, Head of Sheng District Shanshan College and Director-Teacher of the Special Class of Nanyang Public School (predecessor of Shanghai Jiao Tong University).
Cai Yuanbei established Guangfuhui in 1904 and joined Tongmenghui in Paris the next year, and became a member of the Chinese anarchist group led by Wu Zhihui, and Li Shizeng. After studying philosophy, psychology, and art history in the Universität Leipzig of Germany in 1907 under Karl Lamprecht and Wilhelm Wundt, he served as the provisional Republic's Minister of Education in January 1912, but later resigned during Yuan Shikai's presidency. Subsequently, he returned to Germany, and then went to France.
Cai Yuanbei returned to China in 1916 and served as the President of Peking University the following year. There he resumed his support, begun in his Paris years with Li Shizeng, for the Diligent Work-Frugal Study Movement, which sent worker-students to France.
In 1919, after the student leaders of the May Fourth demonstrators were jailed, Cai resigned in protest (returning to office in September). Meanwhile, he and Xu Beihong wrote regularly for the Daily University of Peking University that dealt with broader issues than just campus politics. Xu addressed issues of Art and Art History and in 1920 a university art journal called Painting Miscellany was published. After resigning again in 1922, he spent a period of withdrawal in France. Returning in 1926, he supported his fellow-provincial Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang's efforts to unite the country.
Cai Yuanbei was frustrated in his efforts to remodel the national system of education to resemble the French system, but in 1927, he co-founded the National College of Music, which later became the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and in April 1928, he helped to found and became the first president of the Academia Sinica. He and a wide circle of colleagues founded the China League for Civil Rights which criticized the national government and Chiang Kai-shek for abuse of power. The situation worsened, however; the League could not attain the release from jail of Chen Duxiu, Cai's former dean at Peking University, for instance. In June 1933, the Academia Sinica's academic administrator and co-founder of the League, Yang Quan, was shot and killed in the street in front of the League's Shanghai offices. After a period of shock and reflection, Cai retired from public view in a statement denouncing the political repression of the Nanjing government.
After the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, partly because of declining health, instead of accompanying the national government to Sichuan, Cai moved to Hong Kong. He lived there in seclusion until his death in March 1940 at the age of 72.
Cai advocated the equal importance of five ways of life - "Virtue, Wisdom, Health, Collective, and Beauty" (德、智、體、群、美) - core values that are still taught in schools today in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. He was also a proponent of women's right to divorce and remarry, and strongly opposed foot binding and concubinage that were widely practiced in China at the time.