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…

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