Nankai University was conceived in the New Culture Movement and founded during the May the 4th Movement in 1919 by the patriotic educators Zhang Boling (1860-1951) and Yan Fansun (1876-1951) with the goal of rebuilding the country through education. When the university was founded, there were only three disciplines – arts, sciences and business – and a total of ninety-six students, with Zhou Enlai among the first arts enrollees (student number 62). In its early stages, Nankai was the first among northern private universities in China to pioneer coeducation.
In March 1922, the school administration rented more than 400 mu of public land in the area of Balitai. Upon this land teaching buildings, dormitories and faculty residences were built. In 1923 nine buildings, including a teaching building, the No.1 Dormitory, the No.2 Dormitory for male students, and residences for female students and faculty were completed. The teaching building was named “Xiu Shan Tang”, with a bronze statue, Xiu Shan, in honor of the building. The Rockefeller Foundation of the United States donated 125,000 yuan for construction and facilities. Yuan Shuzhi from Henan Province donated 70,000 yuan for building the science hall. In August of that year, Nankai University officially moved into the Balitai campus. The university established four disciplines: liberal arts, science, business and mining, as well as preparatory medicine. Thus, Nankai University started to take shape.
From 1927 to 1937, Nankai experienced growth and improvement in various sections. Its scale was expanded; the facilities were improved; and the teaching direction was adjusted from imitating western education to adapting to Chinese demand. The characteristics and spirit of Nankai were basically formed.
Lu Muzhai donated 100,000 yuan in 1927 for building the Mu Zhai Library. In 1931, the Zhi Qin Building was established with a donation from Chen Zhiqin. By the early 1930s, Nankai had already become a famous place in Tianjin.
During this period, the scale of Nankai University was further expanded. In 1927, the Committee of Social Economic Research (later the Economic Research Institute) was founded. In 1930, according to the requirements of the Ministry of Education of the ROC Government, the three disciplines were reorganised into Schools of Arts, Sciences and Business. Meanwhile, a Department of Electrical Engineering was established within the School of Sciences, followed by a Department of Chemical Engineering and an Institute of Applied Chemistry over the next two years. Before the Anti-Japanese War, Nankai University had become a renowned institution of higher education with three schools, twelve departments, two institutes, 429 students and more than 110 faculty members.
In the spring of 1928, the university released its Development Plan for Nankai University, clearly raising localization as the fundamental policy of the university’s development. This policy signified the huge progress in Nankai’s educational thought and was in addition an important sign of the new development phase of Nankai University. Renowned for its administrative management, campus facilities and teaching, Nankai University was considered one of the best private universities among Chinese higher education institutions at that time as well as a representative mark of Tianjin.
In its early years, as a private university, the university's finances relied mainly on donations from groups and individuals, with some funding coming from government subsidy, tuition, and revenues from the school's assets. Following the principle of quality weighing over quantity, and limited by investment, the university was kept at quite a small scale, yet it had a strong faculty, including Ling Bing (Education), Jiang Lifu, Liu Jinnian (Mathematics), Rao Yutai (Physics), Qiu Zongyue, Yang Shixian (Chemistry), Li Jidong, Xiong Dashi (Biology), Jiang Tingfu (History), Li Ji (Anthropology), Xiao Gongquan, Xu Mo, Zhang Zhongbo (Politics), He Lian, Fang Xianting, Chen Xujing, Li Zhuomin (Economics), Huang Yusheng (Psychology), Zhang Pengchun (Education), Liu Wuji (English), Situ Yuelan (English), and Feng Wenqian (Philosophy). Zhang Kezhong, Zhang Hongyuan (Chemical Engineering), Chu Kochen (Meteorology and Geography), Tang Yongtong (Philosophy), Xiao Shuyu (Economics), Fan Wenlan (History), Luo Longji (Politics), and Wu Ta-You (Physics), all taught at Nankai University for a short time as well.
After a period of development, Nankai University became prestigious for its advanced academic environment and spirit of pragmatism. It fostered generations of talented people, including Premier Zhou Enlai, Dr. Shing-Shen Chen, Dr. Ta-You Wu and Cao Yu.