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Letter from a Chinese College

The following article came to The New York Review through sources who are in a position to vouch for its authenticity, although the names and locations of the authors must be withheld for obvious reasons.—the Editors

We are third-year students in the Chinese Department at a certain liberal arts college in one of China’s provincial capitals. We have been enrolled through examination after the “Second Liberation,” the so-called “smashing” of the Gang of Four. We have come from every district and every stratum, for before coming to college some were in the countryside and some in the cities, some were workers, some peasants, and some middle or primary school teachers. Despite these differences we all have one thing in common: we hope to gain something from our four-year college education. And what, in fact, have we gained? In answering this question we can reach some interesting conclusions about the current educational system.

1. Thought Education

The first week after we got to college we had to undergo political education. This very first educational experience proved to be the clue to what lay ahead of us. Big and small report sessions, discussion meetings, thought education meetings—this multi-barreled and complex experience had only one message: the sole purpose of our education was for the revolution.

Our hearts sank. Although when we were small we had learned that the purpose of the revolution was to bring happiness to the people, our growing years had taught us that it brought only suffering, as we saw our neighbors driven to divorce during the Anti-Rightist Campaign, our fathers beaten and driven to suicide during the Cultural Revolution, and as we ourselves learned the pain of an empty belly and hostile neighbors during our many useless years in the countryside. During all this time there had been nothing but talk of revolution, and the longer the talk went on the more abstract it became, until there was nothing left but a form, of whose meaning we had only the vaguest notions. Our first school experience left us with only one feeling: that the air was hard to breathe.

Of course, there were many ways of turning off this debasing indoctrination. We could talk, read novels, memorize English words—the bold could even skip the meetings entirely. The school authorities themselves knew that this barrage would not produce the desired effect, and that if they themselves had to go through it, would think of every way possible to escape. But they could hardly be expected to move to abolish such practices. They were used to fixing their eyes to Party newspapers, their ears to telephone receivers, and their attention to documents from higher offices. The political struggle within the Party had taught them how to protect themselves by passing on the responsibilities for making decisions, and the Party structure ensured that they neither dared nor wished to offer their opinions on anything.

2. Study

After a week of spiritual hardship, we hoped that in our classes we would breathe fresher air. However, the classes made us lose hope once again, for of the “basic knowledge” classes to which we were assigned, only a small percentage were of any interest, and most of our time was wasted in memorizing dogma and the words of the teacher. In philosophy class, for example, we learned that “philosophy is Marxism.” No other schools were mentioned, and if a student was foolhardy enough to bring them up they were dismissed absolutely. Art theory was simply, “the purpose of art is to serve the politics of the proletariat.” Literature, we learned, was “the life of the society reflected in the mind of the writer.” Contemporary Chinese literature was just as bad. Our textbook told us that “China’s contemporary literature is the literature of the proletarian leaders, the masses of the people, the anti-imperialists and anti-feudalists.” As for political economy, all we had to do was copy down the Marxist formulas on the blackboard and we had accomplished our duty, and modern Chinese literature was simply reading copies of influential articles from Party newspapers about cultural meetings held within China.

There was nothing which could hold our attention in such classes. Our teachers had just woken up from the bad dream of the Cultural Revolution and could not forget the hardships they had suffered. Even if they themselves disliked the content of the courses, they dared not use a creative viewpoint, but had to start from traditions, unceasingly repeating old things. Even the boldest teachers used a welter of jargon to cloak their opinions. There was no independent thinking or free discussion, and from beginning to end the teacher was the only person speaking. This system could only teach us to listen to others, let others tell us what to do and how to do it. We wished instead to “liberate our thought” and avoid being hated in turn by our future students. Many of us thus had no recourse but to steal away, and the greater part of our study time was thus wasted in vain. Although admittedly there were few students who thought really freely, outside in the libraries, dormitories, and campus walks there were “young thoughts” everywhere.

3. College Life

Our extracurricular life is unimaginably dull. Outside of study there is nothing. Even activities related to our work, such as literary recitations or the publication of a literary magazine, are all but stifled. The material for such activities must be approved by the leaders to ensure that it is consistent with the party’s policies and requirements, and we are in constant fear of being criticized for “extremist opinions.” We have almost no access to information about foreign artistic theories or literary movements. Protest of any kind, such as the writing of wall posters, could only jeopardize our futures.

Romance is out of the question, despite the fact that many of us are in our late twenties. Marriage is forbidden absolutely, for our future work assignments will have nothing at all to do with our personal situations. Although at one time occasional dances were permitted, they aroused so much interest that they have now been banned once again. From classroom to dormitory, from dormitory to library, our lives are nothing but study. Aside from the fact that we no longer do some of the naughty things that children do, we might as well be in primary school.

4. Examinations

For us, examinations are a terrible suffering, because our grades will determine where we will be and what jobs we will have. What everyone is afraid of is that he or she will be sent to the countryside, far from family and friends, where living conditions are miserable and where there will never be any possibility for further study. Those who were enrolled from the countryside are particularly worried, for they know that unless their grades are exceptional they will be the first to be sent back, despite the fact that many were originally from the cities, having been sent to the countryside as educated youths during the Cultural Revolution.

Of course, using grades to determine our futures is preferable to the old system of using family background, so-called political showing and membership in the Party or the youth league, and if what we were learning had any value, we might happily compete for grades. However, because the examinations are so crucial, we who crave independent thinking cannot be our own masters. We have little courage to choose a path which will prove harmful to our destinies. Our only choice is to memorize the insipid course material, write it down on the examination papers, and shake our heads, knowing that we have sold our own thoughts for our high marks. Our talents are insulted, our value is mocked. We think back on what we were taught in primary school, “study for the revolution,” and on the uninteresting things we are being fed in class, look at the life we are living now and toward the life we will live after graduation, and we despair.

5. Hope

Our despair lies in the fact that even after the “Second Liberation” our educational system is still as bad as it is. This kind of system, with its heavy dose of feudalistic ideas and authoritarianism, cannot possibly develop our generation’s talent effectively, especially those of us in the liberal arts. What we want is to become people of the world, to know ourselves and to become part of the modern age. We want an environment suitable for the development not only of knowledge but also of the spirit and psyche. Those authorities who claim that the Gang of Four ruined an exemplary educational system are on the wrong track, for the system during the 1950s was basically conservative and unscientific. What we need is not a surface repair but a thorough transformation of the basic nature of the educational system. Only then will our college educations have any value.

Letters

Uncle Jose in Mexico January 22, 1981

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