Archive for the ‘Academic Life’ Category

From Harvard to the Chinese Internet

June 15, 2011

I have to do my part to make sure that Harvard friends see this: Thomas Friedman’s did a really fun piece this week about Michael Sandel’s “Justice” class which, if you didn’t know it, is a big deal in Asia.  The class, in which Sandel uses the arguments from famous philosophers to frame debate on contemporary moral dilemmas, is infamous at Harvard. Anecdotally I can confirm what Friedman says about the runaway popularity of the class in China; I have several friends who have downloaded and watched lecture videos from the whole class, which have at this point can be downloaded fully subtitled in Chinese. Sandel’s fame in China is, probably, second only to Greg Mankiew, whose intro economics textbook is used, as far as I can tell, almost universally in Chinese universities.

I would like to believe what Friedman suggests about the implications of Sandel’s popularity for the Chinese (and, more broadly, Asian) education system:

Sandel’s popularity in Asia reflects the intersection of three trends. One is the growth of online education, where students anywhere now can gain access to the best professors from everywhere. Another is the craving in Asia for a more creative, discussion-based style of teaching in order to produce more creative, innovative students. And the last is the hunger of young people to engage in moral reasoning and debates, rather than having their education confined to the dry technical aspects of economics, business or engineering.

I think he’s right that, at least in some small scale, Chinese universities are starting to experiment with the possibility of broader-based, interactive learning. The Yuanpei school at Peking University, which has taken the radical step of allowing students to choose their own majors in their second year rather than entering as freshmen into a particular department, is one of the most prominent examples. I know that it was my Chinese friends’ own dissatisfaction at the rigid nature of their university curricula that drove them to find external resources like “Justice.”

National Security After Bin Laden? Spend More on Education

May 4, 2011

Obama and members of his national security team receiving an update on the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden. Source: New York Times

The headlines on May 1 were dominated by breathless announcements of the death of Bin Laden, while nearly every newspaper gave an entire section on May 2 over to an extended description of the harrowing Navy Seal raid, then coverage in the couple of days since has gradually shifted to the question of, “now what? What does this mean for American national security policy?”

Yesterday, Jim Dwyer in the New York Times offered one suggestion with his coverage of Capt. Wayne Porter and Col. Mark Mykleby, who are both special strategic assistants to Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Last month the two military advisors released a white paper through the Woodrow Wilson Center which, in the tradition of George Kennan’s 1947 “long telegram” about Soviet aggression, attempts to redefine a new “strategic narrative” for American defense policy. The document dramatically argues that national security in the age of globalization cannot end simply at the identification and pursuit of threats, but must more holistically encompass domestic prosperity as well:

The term ‘national security’ only entered the foreign policy lexicon after 1947 to reflect the merger of defense and foreign affairs…“national security” has become a trump card, justifying military spending even as the domestic foundations of our national strength are crumbling. “National prosperity and security” reminds us where our true security begins.

In particular, the paper calls for increased investment in three main “investment priorities,” as needed for maintaining American strength and influence:

1. Education: The document clearly and decisively defines education, and the preparation of globally competitive workers, scientists, and leaders, as a matter of national security:

“By investing energy, talent, and dollars now in the education and training of young Americans – the scientists, statesmen, industrialists, farmers, inventors, educators, clergy, artists, service members, and parents, of tomorrow – we are truly investing in our ability to successfully compete in, and influence, the strategic environment of the future.”

2. “Sustainable Security:” The authors link traditional military measures of national defense with other tools of foreign policy influence, like economic exchange and diplomacy, as equally vital in maintaining America’s position and influence abroad. In a sense, this priority is a summary of “smart power,” a doctrine first coined by foreign policy scholar Joseph Nye, which calls for the effective integration of both military “hard power” and “soft power,” such as cultural and economic influence.

3. Environmental Sustainability: Lastly, it ties environmental sustainability to national security by identifying the protection of natural resources with economic prosperity.

Anyone who has been following the budget debates over the last six months (as I, from my internship on Capitol Hill have) will recognize this rhetoric as very similar to the language which Democrats and their allies have begun to increasingly rely on to justify domestic spending. Increased spending on education and environmental protection have been core planks of the Democratic Party platform for decades; however, I would argue that there has been a major shift in the way that these programs are defended and justified.

The most prominent example, of course, was Obama’s “Win the Future” State of the Union address this year, in which he framed investments in education, infrastructure, and clean energy almost entirely in terms of America’s need to maintain parity with China and other rising powers:

“Our infrastructure used to be the best, but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater Internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports.”

Even Obama’s push for more education funding is framed primarily in terms of international economic competition:

“Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America’s success. But if we want to win the future — if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas — then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.”

Extensive federal funding for and involvement in public education dates back to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, passed as part of  Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program. At the time, though, improvements in education were justified in a much different way. Johnson argued that the “Great Society” would allow “every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents.” Education, in his vision, was the path to individual achievement, not necessarily to national competitiveness.

Environmental protection in the Great Society was justified not in terms of natural resources and economic viability, but simply out of the need to protect natural beauty:

“We have always prided ourselves on being not only America the strong and America the free, but America the beautiful. Today that beauty is in danger. The water we drink, the food we eat, the very air that we breathe, are threatened with pollution. Our parks are overcrowded, our seashores overburdened. Green fields and dense forests are disappearing.”

Overall, Great Society programs unapologetically sought to reduce socioeconomic and racial inequality in the United States. Johnson called for programs to create “abundance and liberty for all” and to help all Americans “escape from the crushing weight of poverty.”

The confrontation of inequality has almost entirely vanished from the rhetoric that supporters of increased domestic spending, both in and outside of the Administration, use today. In fact, the words “poverty” and “inequality” don’t appear in the last State of the Union once. The partisan in me would argue that, in today’s political climate, where almost any mention of reducing inequality as a goal is branded as “class warfare” and “socialism,” liberals have abandoned the rhetoric entirely in favor of this new narrative focused entirely on national competitiveness.

This new rhetoric had been circulating the liberal community for a while before the Obama Administration picked up on it. Thomas Friedman is particularly fond of using China as a foil to argue for increased domestic spending, as he did in this article I criticized last fall. Fareed Zakariah used the specter of American decline to argue for increased education funding in an article a couple of months ago.  Porter and Mykleby’s white paper may indicate, however, that this new viewpoint is trickling into the military and national security committee as well. If education and sustainability could be successfully case as issues of national security, it would make it much harder for fiscal hawks to oppose them.

Beida vs. “Radical Students” and the Difficulty of Objective Reporting on China

April 9, 2011

Last week I wrote about a puzzling new policy announced by Peking University to screen students and identify “students with radical thoughts, psychological fragility, poverty…” and other supposed difficulties and provide them with some sort of “consultation.” A few China bloggers bemoaned this as yet another example of what’s now being called the “Big Chill,” a sudden ramping-up of censorship, police pressure, and detainments of dissidents and activists.

I have a fair number of friends in Beijing who went to or still go to Beida, and I wrote them this week to ask if they had heard of the policy or if it had affected them at all. Apparently the announcement of this policy did elicit considerable criticism on Weibo微博–the Chinese Twitter.

A good friend of mine graduated from Beida’s prestigious Yuanpei college (the one department at Beida where students get to choose their own majors after entering) and is currently working as a reporter at a major newspaper. She was recently asked to go back to the school and interview teachers in students in preparation for an article about the new policy.

My friend told me that she had a hard time gleaning any substantive knowledge about the program. Faculty members whom she interviewed knew that it was a sensitive topic and were all reluctant to give information. However, she did find out that Yuanpei was apparently selected as a test site for the new policy last November. In five months, though, only three students have been singled out. All three had been identified as suffering academically, but as a result of either “serious illness” or “internet addiction,” both of which are among the other conditions the policy was meant to target. All three, she insisted, had been on the verge of dropping out of school due to poor academic performance, and had since been allowed to continue at the university.

In one of her interviews with a school official my friend discovered that this policy was not quite as new as I had been led to believe. For as long as five years, she found, professors have been obliged to hand in the names of students thought to fall into one of several “problem areas”–including politically radical beliefs, extreme poverty, and possible psychological illness–to the university’s branch of the Communist Youth League. The Communist Youth League, she was then informed, would plan hiking trips, games, and other activities for these students in an attempt to integrate them more socially–and, therefore, help to ensure “stability” on campus.

Surely the idea that Beida is keeping tabs on its “radical” students is troubling–I think perhaps we should be even more troubled by the idea that political beliefs are being considered as a category of mental illness. It’s certainly not a new policy, though, and it certainly isn’t heralding the onset of some Orwellian nightmare at China’s most prestigious (and probably most independent) university–at least not yet.

Learning about this policy has once again gotten me thinking about just how difficult it is for any of us to sort through the competing narratives on China and figure out exactly what is going on. The newspaper my friend works for is not even remotely in the business of challenging government policy. The reporting assignment came with explicit instructions to portray the university in a positive light. On the other hand, there is no denying that Western reporting on China often takes on an exaggerated accusing tone. An anecdote in the New York Times’ story about increasing digital censorship in China several weeks ago left the impression that anyone saying the word “protest” during a phone conversation would be automatically cut off–and set off a wave of Beijing expats yelling “protest” into their cell phones in unsuccessful attempts to duplicate the incident. These kinds of incidents highlight just how hard the current media climate makes it to form a complete and objective picture of what’s going on in China.

Peking University to Start Screening Students for “Radical Thoughts?”

April 1, 2011


PKU's library near the West Gate, which I walked by nearly every day during my stay there last year

I found a link this morning on rudenoon’s China blog to this article in the Guardian about a forthcoming new policy by Peking University to screen and identify “students with radical thoughts, psychological fragility, poverty, registration changes, eccentricity, Internet addiction, job difficulties, serious illnesses, and discipline violations.”


PKU’s official announcement on the program explains that they intend to implement “consultations” with students in these categories regarding problems in academic performance. In essence, the announcement attempts to frame the new policy as a mental health provision. I should point out that mental health services are one of the several aspects of student life, so common on American campuses, which are routinely–if not always–ignored on Chinese campuses. It certainly goes almost completely unaddressed  at Peking University–I had students in my class last year complain to me several times that there was no one whom they could go to on campus to talk about the pressure and stress they were dealing with.

The announcement on the new policy is quite–and probably deliberately–vague. However, I agree with the Guardian that this specific targeting of non-mainstream political opinions is really scary. PKU is known as a particularly liberal and reform-minded university. I would even argue that the school allows more intellectual freedom and forward thinking than nearly any other institution in the country.

Whether this month’s protests have really been wide enough in scale to merit being called China’s own “Jasmine Revolution,” the scope of the government’s paranoid reaction to them seems to be expanding. Harassment and detainment of journalists is now being supplemented by preemtive screening and singling out of students thought to be politically dissatisfied. Though I argued earlier this week that Beijing has effectively kept a tight leash on political dissent thus far, the leadership is clearly scared of what’s been happening in the last month. It’s anyone’s guess, however, how much they’ll be willing to tighten the noose this time.

Can the Number of American Students Studying in China Ever Catch Up to Chinese Students in the US?

March 30, 2011

The front gate of Peking University. Chinese students studying in the US dwarf the number of American students studying in China

My work with the US-China Education Trust has sent me digging for statistics again, this time to prepare an acceptance speech for Ambassador Julia Chang Bloch, who is receiving an award this spring from NAFSA: The Association of International Educators. I spent part of this morning looking up statistics about the numbers of international students studying abroad in the US and China. Certainly it’s no surprise to anyone that the number of Chinese students studying in the US dwarfs the number of Americans going to China. I think it’s sobering (and, hopefully, somewhat inspiring), though, to be reminded just how wide the gap is:

In the 2009-2010 academic year nearly 128,000 Chinese students studied in the United States. Again, no surprise at how big this number is. It’s also probably not surprising to many people that Chinese students outnumbered international students from any other country, and together represented 19% of the international student population in the US last year.

What was somewhat more startling to me was to discover that the top three countries of origin for international students–China, India, and South Korea–together represent nearly half, 44%, of the total international student population in the United States.

While Asians make up the lion’s share of students studying in the United States, American students still overwhelmingly prefer to hang out in Europe. China ranked only fifth among international destinations for American students. American students studying in China last year, numbering some 13,600, were less than half as numerous as students studying in the United Kingdom. The other top three most popular destinations were Italy, Spain, and France.

To anyone who cares as much about US-China relations as I do, it’s certainly frustrating to see how many fewer American students are bothering to learn about China than Chinese students are learning about America. As with any cache of statistics, though, it is just as possible to find room for optimism:

China was by far the most popular destination for American students in Asia, and more than twice as many students went to China as went to the next most popular Asian destination, Japan. Also, China was the only one of the top-5 destination to see an increase in student travel from the previous year. American students studying in China last year were up 4% from the 2008-2009 academic year. Of course, a massive upswing in Chinese students to the US–who were up 30% from 2008-2009–dwarfs this figure.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that student interest in China is measurably increasing.  In my own anecdotal experience, I feel as if I am becoming increasingly aware of a much greater number of programs that offer exposure to China and to Chinese language for students at even younger ages. On a recent trip to visit my parents, who both work at the University of Kentucky, I found out that some of the high schools there even offer Chinese language classes. With Confucius Centers and other similar programs increasing in number, this phenomenon is certainly becoming more common. I had never even heard of a person studying Chinese when I was in high school (and, honestly, I’m a little jealous of the kids who, by virtue of being born later, will have the advantage of being able to start tackling the language at an earlier age).

The Institute for International Education, which is based in Washington, D.C., publishes a comprehensive report each year on statistics relating to American study abroad and international students studying in the United States.

A Day in the Life of a Rural Chinese School Teacher

September 26, 2010

I spent the day following around He Na, a friend of mine who works as an English teacher at a school in the nearby town of Ma An. As I expected, the sudden appearance of a foreigner was something of a momentous event at the school. Her class of 5th-graders erupted in excitement as I entered the classroom, and at least a dozen children escaped from neighboring classrooms to peer in at me through the doorway. After listening to He Na drill her class on pronunciation of various English words for most of the class, she finally indulged their curiosity and allowed them to spend the last few minutes of class asking me questions about the United States. Many of them were the same standard questions I have gotten throughout the past year that I lived

in China: “What do people eat in America?” “Can Americans use chopsticks?” “Do all Americans own guns?” Upon pulling out an American dollar bill which I happened to have in my wallet, the entire class burst from their seats and rushed to the front of the classroom, pushing both me and He Na back up against the blackboard in their effort to see. Only by repeatedly pounding on the front podium with a ruler was she able to get them to settle down and return to their seats.

The main teaching building of the school where He Na teaches

Though He Na’s parents also live in Yilong, she and most of the other teachers live in a dormitory across a courtyard from the actual classroom building. Over three hundred students also live in dormitories on campus as well, which is common for middle school and high school students from surrounding towns.

Having majored in English at the Sichuan Foreign Languages University in Chengdu, He Na is only a month into her first job out of college. “It was my father who originally wanted me to be a teacher, with this job I can easily stay close to my parents,” she explained when we first met. As a graduate of a four-year bachelor’s program, He Na is rare among a teaching staff comprised mostly of graduates of three-year “professional” programs. However, she explained to me that her options for different teaching positions were still quite limited without any previous experience.

A short way down the road from the private middle school where she teaches is a public middle school. Teachers at the private school, however, are under considerably more pressure for considerably less pay. He Na complained to me that teachers at the public school make over 1,200 RMB a month, and are not subject to any sort of regular teacher performance evaluation. “If their students do poorly on tests, it’s not their problem, but if my students do poorly on exams then they can take it out of my salary.” At 700 RMB a month, He Na’s salary is already quite low.

The students were quite eager to get their picture taken

After lunch, I sat in on another class of fourth-graders who were also practicing English pronunciation. He Na singled out a student in a corner who had not been paying attention, asking him to read the words on the board for the whole class. After he failed to repeat the words again, she scolded him, switching from Mandarin into Sichuanese in her frustration. After asking the class how many of the words he had said incorrectly—six—she came over to his desk and rapped his wrist six times with a ruler. As she walked me back to the school gate she complained how that class always consistently had lower grades than her other classes. “If their grades are low then the headmaster will take it up with me.”

Students crowded in through the doorway to get a look at me as I took a picture of He Na's class

Students crowded in through the doorway to get a look at me as I took a picture of He Na's class


June 13, 2010

Although my class has been focused on European history and European politics, I have tried whenever possible to connect discussions back to China or to ask students to connect what they’ve learned back to what they learned about Chinese history in school. It’s been really interesting to see how the students contextualize their understanding of contemporary Chinese politics in history. One thing that has drawn a lot of my attention for the last year has been the role that authoritarianism plays in my student’s understanding of Chinese history and politics.

One of my first lessons last semester focused on Ancient Greece and the historical roots of Greek democracy. I got back a plethora of response papers that postulated a rather interesting geographical determinist answer for the lack of similar institutions in China. Greece was a peninsula where easy access to the ocean has encouraged maritime commerce early in many parts of the region. As a result, the constant travel and communication between different regions and cultures in Greek society produced a culture that valued individual freedom and relative political independence. Ancient China’s primary reliance on agriculture, my students argued, made it much more susceptible to autocratic power by comparison.

This basic truism plays a commanding role in their understanding of every period of Imperial Chinese history. My students have argued over and over again in response papers that, as official policy dictated, the Emperor held absolute unquestioned authority over every aspect of Chinese politics, made all decisions himself, and was ultimately responsible for all of the Imperial government’s policies. The question of relative government power in European and Chinese history is one which has reappeared frequently in my discussions with students. They frequently argue that the power of early modern Chinese emperors must have far outstripped that of European kings, inhibited as European rulers were by powerful nobles and by a politically independent Church.

This trend got particularly interesting when we got to the Industrial Revolution in class last week. I tried to present to my students a little bit of the fairly complicated and difficult to navigate network of different historical arguments behind why the Industrial Revolution happened first in Europe and not China. I tried to explain how recent Western historiography had cast significant doubt on the traditional mix of arguments which posited that European scientific culture, backed by patent laws and social and political institutions which encouraged self-motivated individual innovation and competition, had technologically outstripped societies trapped within some form of “oriental despotism.” Drawing mostly on the work of Kenneth Pomeranz (whom I had read in undergrad for Niall Ferguson), I tried to present some of the more recent historiography which has downplayed cultural essentialism for a more complex combination of environmental, political, and economic factors. To my surprise, though, my students had no interest whatsoever in a history freed from the bias against “Oriental Despotism.” As I lectured I watched them balk at the idea that Chinese living standards at the end of the eighteenth century have been shown, on closer scrutiny, to rival if not exceed those of Britain at the time. I encountered even more skepticism at the argument posited by Pomeranz that British technology was not resoundingly ahead of Chinese technology.

I received several skeptical emails after class that week explaining why they had had trouble believing Pomeranz. My students argued that the stifling social, intellectual and economic control of the all-powerful emperor had strangled any home-grown technical innovation and any semblance of a domestic market economy. I then suddenly found myself in the rather strange position if defending the relative strength of the pre-industrial Chinese economy against the overly Eurocentric views of my Chinese students. Their arguments certainly made me reconsider my own position and I believe that their points have some merit. Pomeranz is after all not formost a Chinese historian, and his synthesis of economic historians may overlook some common themes of Chinese history which my students are more familiar with. For example, my students are fond on drawing upon a long-standing Imperial policy known as 重农轻商, or “encourage agriculture and de-emphasize commerce.” This policy, founded in the traditional Confucian attitude that merchants were untrustworthy while farmers were the moral backbone of society, sought to make life difficult for commercial entrepreneurs while encouraging small-scale farming.

While my students have convinced me to at least reconsider an uncritical reading of Pomeranz, my training as a localist historian has nonetheless made me deeply suspicious of the absolutist arguments that seem to dominate their understanding of Chinese politics. Many of my professors in college emphasized the declining role in recent scholarship of historical narratives told primarily from the perspective of the central government. Official government sources tend to overestimate their reach (especially in the case of China, where civil service officials’ careers could depend on how they reported their own performance in official records), and tend to simplify the extremely complex power dynamics between officials, local elites, and other authorities at the local level. As a result I have done my best to at least cast some doubt in my students’ unqualified acceptance of Imperial authority, pointing out that at the very least, in the days where transport and communication functioned on horseback, technological limitations must have made it impossible for a central government to have consisted and sophisticated control over far-away provinces. Recently I have started to counter some of their old Chinese sayings with one that 博哥 taught me: 山高皇帝远, or  “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away.”

The prevailing narrative that my students have learned offers a rather shocking contrast to the dominant themes that young students of American history get in elementary and high school. I remember learning in my high school American history classes about the relative autonomy of the American colonies from the very early stages of British control, and about local colonial governments that, in the absence of strong centralized control, had developed representative institutions that from the early stages of American government enshrined certain principles of individual involvement. Americans learn that the roots of democracy and individual liberty run deep in their history. This contrast certainly provides a stark reminder that the institutions needed to support a stable representative government are the products of a particular time and place and can only develop slowly over time. Certainly this understanding of Chinese history encourages the prevailing attitude among most young people here that while democratic reform may be desirable eventually, in China it is at least several generations off (on multiple occasions I have had students or other friends my age say that democratic reform in China is at least a hundred years away) and must follow a long period of very gradual reform.

While I think this line of historical reasoning has some merit, it’s a little bit unnerving just how well it serves to reinforce the status quo. I can’t presume to have any familiarity with the Education Ministry or its process of curriculum development–and certainly every government is guilty of encouraging a certain political culture through its education system. But nonetheless I am keenly aware of how successfully this narrative enhances historical continuity between the current regime and the long stretch of Chinese Imperial history. Of course China has an authoritarian government. It’s always had one, since the beginning of recorded history. This connection seemed even closer to the surface as Beijing marked-or rather, conspicuously went out of its way not to mark-the 21st anniversary of the Tiananmen massacres last week.

Only in China

June 9, 2010

Today was probably the best example yet of just what a peculiar creature the Chinese bureaucracy is.

Last Monday a couple of students raised their hands at the end of class to ask if there was still lecture next week.  A little confused, I said that of course there was–next Monday is in fact the last lecture of the semester, where I will attempt to make it to World War One and triumphantly tie off the nineteenth century for my students–I had scheduled a lecture next Monday on the syllabus and had no intention of cancelling it.  Only the next morning did I find out from friends that next Monday through Wednesday are apparently an official government holiday: Duanwujie 端午节, the Dragon Boat Festival, and that all classes were cancelled for all three of those days.  This set off a flurry of frantic phone calls between me and the other Harvard student currently team teaching my class this semester–as I was off campus all day today my poor colleague was sent on a wild goose chase from one office to another, trying to find out exactly what the schedule change was and if we could still reserve a classroom for that day.  My classroom had apparently already been snapped up by an English class that had rescheduled for that day, and the teaching building staff refused to book another classroom for her directly–that could only be done with the clearance of a higher up office on another part of campus.  Instead she was given a slip of paper which described her request, which she would have to take to the higher-up office, but which unfortunately closed before she could make it today.

We were saved from another frantic visit to the department office tomorrow by an email from the History Department office late this afternoon, informing us (for the first time) of the national holiday and also that Monday and Tuesday classes had been moved later in the week.  The first official notification of this change, then, arrived only five days before the actual change, giving us less than a week to arrange with our students.  While it would be easy to write this laxity of communication off to our second-class foreigner status in the department, and to our ignorance of Chinese holidays, we were in fact not much worse informed than the rest of the university of the change.  An undergrad friend told me that she had no knowledge of an official university calendar, published or online, which included all of the holidays for the year.  My fellow Harvard teacher and I had been given a calendar way back in September, which had included the dates for the holidays in 2009–but with a note that the exact dates of holidays for 2010 would not be available for publication until after the new year, because the university had to wait until the government made final decisions about holiday dates for that year.  Not even the Chinese government decides official holiday dates more than a year in advance.

Lacking an official centralized calendar, my friend informed me that arrangements and schedule changes for holidays were simply announced ad-hoc by each of her different professors, and that nobody knew the holiday dates for certain more than a few weeks in advance.  Nonetheless, one would assume that this doesn’t leave that much room for variation, and that most people should roughly know when holidays will come up because they will be roughly the same as last year.  But students and faculty don’t even have the regularity of tradition to rely upon.  Though the Dragon Boat festival is a well-known traditional Chinese holiday, this year is apparently the first year that the government has designated it as an official holiday–a symptom of the recent re-acceptance of Chinese tradition as the country slowly heals from the militant anti-traditionalism of the Cultural Revolution.  So anyone attempting to plan their schedule in advance and accommodate vacations and holidays has little that they can rely on for certain. 太不靠谱.

The Spectre of Marxism (cont.)

May 13, 2010

So it was quickly clear that my students had had no formal introduction to Marxism in high school.  What has become quite clear over the course of the school year, however, is the more subtle role that Marxism plays in shaping the overall paradigm of the high school history curriculum here.  In many respects, the high school history curriculum here has all of the standard qualities of straight-up vulgar Marxism (I will attempt to continue this post without too much digression into the details of Marxist philosophy).  The progression of history is divided into a series of discrete developmental stages: the stage of the “slave economy” gives way to “feudalism,” which then gives way to “capitalism,” and then, theoretically, the communist revolution.  Each of these stages are neatly separated from one another by some fundamental historical shift.  In this model, for example, the shift from “feudalism” to “capitalism” is supposed to be marked most clearly by the French Revolution, when the bourgeoisie class which had slowly grown at the end of the feudal stage rose up to foment revolution against the landed nobility and seized the reins of power from them.

Likewise, the vulgar Marxist view of history requires that populations be split into neat, discrete social classes, and that all changes and social behavior be described by class.  One of the more interesting answers I got on a response paper explained that the Renaissance was an artistic and intellectual movement fomented by the bourgeoisie against the Catholic Church, which promoted individualism and humanism as a resistance to the Church’s continued attempts to stifle capitalism.  This of course requires that one ignore both the leading, if not completely dominating, role played by aristocratic intellectuals in the Renaissance,  not to mention the leading, if not overwhelming, role that religious themes played in Renaissance art.

As someone who feels that materialism should still play a role in the way we understand history, and someone who’s trying not to ruffle too many feathers with this class, I’m reluctant to uniformly or directly denounce any of the Marxism that I come across in their response papers or essays.  But I’ll admit that one of my secret goals with this class is to at least poke a few holes in a history education which I think is dangerously simplistic.  I’ve been doing my best to call into question some of the things they previously learned through counter-examples, such as the example above by which I tried to pick apart their previous view of the Renaissance.  And it’s always exciting to see when one of the students tells me about how they’ve come to question something they learned in high school.  For example, in an exercise this semester I asked them to compare the relative impact of grassroots political revolution in 19th-century Europe to top-down political reform.  The goal was to show how centrally-directed political change, such as German and Italian unification, had by the end of the century had a much more fundamental impact on European politics than had actual “revolutions,” such as the revolutions of 1848.  In office hours, though, I had a student explain how this idea directly contradicted what her high school teacher had taught her.  She had been taught resolutely that “自上而下” (top-down) political change is never as effective as “自下而上” (bottom-up, or “grassroots”) political change and revolution, because only “bottom-up” revolution can remove all of the lingering traces of feudalism in a society and further the progress of history–a view that would work well to support the legitimacy of a regime founded on a peasant revolution.

What’s interesting is that many of my students seem to recognize the rather limited scope of this kind of history education, but they are still struggling to acquire the tools to overcome it.  I had a student once complain to me in office hours that he knew how one-sided his high school history classes were, but that he lacked the vocabulary to explain history in any other way.  History had been taught to him as an unbroken procession of various Marxist stages—“slave” to “feudal” to “capitalist” to, theoretically, communist.  Historical actors had been resolutely divided into 资产阶级 (bourgeoisie) and 无产阶级 (proletariat), or perhaps into “landlords” 地主 and commoners.  Because these terms formed the entire vocabulary with which he had learned to conceptualize history, it would be an uphill battle to learn how to describe history in a more nuanced way.

Not that anyone reading this should get the idea that I’m a lone voice for post-Marxist history swimming against a stream of party hacks.  I have discussed the role of Marxism in my students’ education with both the professor who hired me and with my teaching assistant last semester.  They both revealed their own frustration with the one-dimensional view of their students’ knowledge of history coming into college, and revealed that it was a gradual process over several years by which their students learned more sophisticated approaches.  So in the end it’s not really all that different from the difference between high school and college history in the United States.  I know that my high school history classes, while certainly not quite as one-sided as it sounds like Chinese high school history classes are, were nonetheless less diverse in the range of historical viewpoints that they presented, and that I really only learned to conceptualize the study of history as a dialogue between different arguments after several classes in college.

The Spectre of Marxism

May 6, 2010
社会主义好 (Socialism is good!)

社会主义好 (Socialism is good!)

I’ll admit that one of the most nerdy, but interesting parts of this class has been trying to figure out the relationship of these students, and of the history education they’ve had thus far, with Marxism.  It doesn’t take long here to figure out that, despite the near complete abandonment of economic planning in favored of feverish, unfettered capitalistic economic growth, socialism is still very much a part of the government’s official lexicon.  The official celebration last fall for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC was communist pageantry at its best, with legions of trained university students parading in lockstep past Tiananmen Square in hammer-and-sickle formations, and other participants trained to hold up colored cards to spell out slogans like  社会主义好! (Socialism is good!), or to form mosaics of Mao’s head in profile alongside Marx, Engels, and Lenin.  For a good four months after, even a ride on the subway would give you a quick dose of red fervor; the video monitors in all of the cars cycled through a series of patriotic music videos, in which the singer belted out her ardor for the PRC in front of a billowing backdrop of red hammer-and-sickle flags, or in which rows of police, soldiers, and public servants watched a shining golden hammer-and-sickle float across the sky and salute vigorously as it passed.  Socialism is still very much a part of the image that the government cultivates for itself, and uses to sustain its legitimacy, despite the visible reminders all around that socialist economic policies have been all but abandoned.

What I have been trying to get a handle on, though, is the way that students of this generation envision Marxism, and the answer has been fairly inconsistent.  As far as I can tell, Marxism still plays a paradigmatic role in the education that most Chinese children get in high school, but there is very little direct indoctrination in Marxism or socialism any more.  In college, almost every Chinese student, at any university, is required to take a few key classes which are meant to provide the foundation for their participation in a socialist society.  There is a required Marxism/Leninism philosophy class, a Mao Zedong Thought 毛泽东思想 class, and lessons on the philosophy behind the Deng Xiaoping economic reforms of the 1980’s, which I think is sometimes offered as a separate class and is sometimes combined with the Maoism class.   These classes, along with a “morality” class, are standard across almost every program at every Chinese university.  My understanding, furthermore, is that they are soul-crushingly boring.  The “politics” department (most Chinese universities, or at least Beida and Tsinghua, don’t have any sort of actual government or poly sci major, they only have the special department that offers these classes) seems to be full of teachers chosen for their party compatibility rather than any teaching ability, and I’ve been told that a majority of students either sleep through these required classes or do other homework in them.  So Marxism, when it is directly taught to the students, is not presented in any sort of engaging way.  What I thought was even more interesting, though, is that college is the first time that students are given any sort of direct, straightforward education in Marxism.  I discovered this a few weeks ago when I braved teaching The Communist Manifesto to my class as part of our study of 19th-century European socialist movements.  I was afraid before giving the lecture that it would be horribly awkward for someone from a cesspool of capitalism to get up and try to teach Marx to Chinese students.  It turned, out, however, that none of them had read it before or had any exposure to the document at all—not that most American students get exposed to Marx before college, but I was sure that there would be some introduction to Marxism in the high school curriculum here.  Instead, I discovered that I was to have the honor of being their first formal introduction to Marxism, a thought which gave me an odd feeling of power.

Once again, I’ve proved unable to write something that conforms to what I have been told is an appropriate length for a blog, so stay tuned for the shocking conclusion!