Your humble author

A Beida lecture on Tibet

As a kind of sister post to my last, here are a few photos from a lecture at Peking University (Beida) titled “the Tibet question”. No sensitive topic left behind at Six … next up, FG practitioners commemorating 6.4!

As you can see, a packed room (my wide-angle lens would have added another couple of dozen faces). My sweat-glands get uncomfortable at the memory. It was an open event, in the evening, but I gather an unusually big audience even for these popular lectures. It seems that Tibet attracts the interest of Chinese students, just as with their Western equivalents.

This is surely out of the issue’s importance for China’s relations with the world, but also – I’d venture - for the same reason which gets the West shouting ‘free Tibet’: the romance and mystery of ‘Shangri-la’. ‘Tibet chic’ is a well established phenomenon in big Chinese cities – a well-off family might hang Tibetan scarves or tangka on their wall and enjoy showing jealous friends pictures of their trip to Lhasa (too expensive for most).

I’m afraid I had to leave after a half-hour of so of the lecture itself. What I heard before I left, though, was the thoughtful Professor Wang saying right off the bat that ‘the Tibet question’ can’t be understood without a solid grasp of the long history behind it – and launching into a potted summary. He did mention the West’s “different perspective” on the issue, which unless I misunderstood his tone was a euphemism for ‘they don’t get it’.

But it’s true – I couldn’t possibly ‘get’ the Tibet question without a lot more reading (not to mention that oxymoron, helpful Chinese archivists). And I didn’t get the impression from the students listening that they thought they did either. (Professor Wang clearly thought he did.)

Time and again, Beida students strike me not as ‘brainwashed’ on such sensitive issues (it’s embarrassing to use the term even to refute it), but keen to learn more, with a sceptical eye to the information given them to boot. And regardless of the obvious and unforgivable propaganda which still passes for history when it comes to Tibet in the last sixty years, lectures on sensitive issues like Taiwan and Tibet in Tsinghua and Beida are a far cry from poker-faced propaganda, if still hard to swallow at times.

Q: “Why doesn’t Marx drink good tea?”

A: “Because all proper-tea is theft.”

A Tsinghua class on Taiwan

I’m back in Beijing after a spot of travelling, returning to a neglected blog and an overflowing tankard of new Chinese words to cram. As I begin to sip at the meniscus (oooh, get you with your fancy metaphor), here are two posts from classes I audited in China’s top two universities, where students are glugging diligently at their own studies.


On a wednesday afternoon, international relations students at Tsinghua take diplomacy class with teacher He (for it is he). A friend suggested I listen in on one of these, as in the past, teacher He has “shown pictures of him wearing a slightly risque Japanese robe, an animated depiction of China as a rooster eating Japan as a caterpillar, and him standing with a bunch of African girls in their native dress”. He sounds interesting.

No ‘slightly risque’ pictures this time, but a lot of holiday snaps. Teacher He clicked through pictures of his various trips to Taiwan, eating local snacks and admiring the view of the sea, while introducing various basic facts. There was even  a picture of him as a kid. And one of the Dalai Lama’s recent trip to Taiwan – the first time I have seen a public image of this personae-non-grata in China outside of ethnically Tibetan areas.

But most of the slides were packed with statistics, and I now get what Chinese friends mean by the ‘powerpoint’ style of teaching in Chinese universities – Tony often complains about this tendency to batter students with slides and facts without going into much detail on any one aspect. After this time spent in just such a class, I don’t doubt it.

As to what He was saying (the teacher, not God*), none of the content struck me as surprising or controversial – more boring than anything else. Here are a couple of the interesting moments I’ll pick out (NB at my Chinese level, a lot of the vocabulary was over my head and I was probably frowning in incomprehension at the most interesting bits):

  • teacher He tells the class how we must “love and respect” Taiwan for both their ancient culture and achievements, and their modern “economy, democracy, and system of law”. He delivers this as if the norm for his students would be not respecting Taiwan.
  • He relates an anectode when talking with a Taiwan resident, who tells him “I’m Taiwanese, you’re Chinese”. His response: “are we not both Chinese?” The way he says this – as a parent would to a child - gets a short laugh from the front of class.

While I’m listening to this, my attention is distracted by an intermittant tapping noise to my right. I look over. A grumpy-looking girl sitting next to me right at the back of class has her laptop open, and is online keeping up two QQ conversations (like MSN chat), writing a long email, and starting the homework essay teacher He set at the start of class:

Oh, and if you’re wondering what a giant missile is doing on the projection screen, Teacher He is about to explain the military build up of Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan should a conflict arise. His next slide?

Not a blink from any of the Chinese students as this slide pops up, while my US friend and I exchange a raised eyebrow or two. This projection of a Chinese military strike, the class was assured, was made in Taiwan.

*apologies for excessive punning and any pronoun confusion

With plenty of Tibet in the middle, and even me tripping over on ice-skates. Yes, that’s right: your humble author has committed the equivalent of blogging masturbation and uploaded a compilation of clips from traveling in China to YouTube. My only excuse for this shameless self-indulgence is that I am home sick and have nothing better to do. And my sole defense is that I had a clip of my cat playing the keyboard but in a temporary moment of sanity decided not to include it:

In other news – and in a vain attempt to redeem this post – I am hearing and seeing some anectodal evidence that swine flu is hitting Beida and Tsinghua. Of course, it could just as well be a spate of bad colds with the winter arriving: the symptoms are indistinguishable, with the exception of the feverish desire to upload travel clips to YouTube that characterises H1N1 (oh no!). But a lot of students are calling in sick, and one Beijing hospital has had 6,000 calls in the last two days.

Last week, The China Beat ran a post by me about the new generation of young Chinese students – like those I follow on this blog. Here, courtesy of Anastasia Maximchuk, is a longer version of its introduction translated into Chinese.

Oh, if you’re reading this in an RSS, the below might appear (as it does in my RSS reader) as a series of exclamation marks and odd squiggles which looks like a rather beautiful alien language. If you click through to the site itself it should work.






我承认自己具有相同的征兆:我在北京大学过了一年,在危险的、可以传染的这代年轻人中(可能因为自己是西方人,所以对我来说跟本来照样的环境)。“老虎庙”,请原谅我的无礼,让我介绍一下。我同意 – 最新一代隔离国家历史的程度比别的一代高,即使不是最高的。跟以前的一代相比,特别50年代的人,现代的青年更会得到具体信息和资料多得多。要说可乐代替水或者看西方电影变成一种时尚的问题,我本人看不到这中消极影响。尽管文革之中的童年可以给一代的人带来各种各样的精神变更严厉冷酷无情,但是这个压力也可以让人们的思想对某个新的建议更开发。



And for those of you to whom the above, despite displaying correctly, still looks like a series of odd alien squiggles, here is the original English:

China’s New New Youth

In 1915, in Shanghai, Chen Duxiu founded a magazine called qingnian zazhi (青年杂志), or Youth Magazine. Soon after, it was renamed xinqingnian (新青年): New Youth. Perhaps Chen came to feel that the youth of the times had something new to offer China, or that his writers had something new to offer China’s youth. Either way, the magazine and the name captured the spirit of the New Culture Movement which led to May 4th. New Youth aimed to call China out of its Confucian slumber with plain, angry writing by the likes of Lu Xun, and essays promoting democracy. Later, it more heavily promoted Marxism and eventually provided an intellectual base for the Communist Party which Chen co-founded in 1921. The name was iconic for a China fresh out of imperial rule, standing up for a new and fairer future.

The next ‘new youth’ to publicly embody this spirit was the Tiananmen students, who with the same fighting words challenged the very new China which the magazine had helped to create. They failed. But now, thanks not to protests at Tiananmen but the slower crawl of global integration, there is a ‘new new youth’ of around my age: in or just out of university. Zhang Shihe (a.k.a. ‘Tiger Temple’), a 56-year old blogger and political activist quoted in the Los Angeles Times, gives them a less flattering but possibly catchier moniker: “the stupid generation”.

“They were raised on Coca-Cola and Western movies,” Zhang enjoys himself, “and they’re very isolated from their country’s history”. I wonder, Mr Zhang, at the extent of your interaction with this youth. Are you really dismissing nearly a hundred million young people from the future of China? Surely your understanding of this generation is deep, but I only worry if in your immersion amongst them, some of their stupidity has rubbed off?

I must admit to the same symptom in me: I studied in Peking University for a year, in dangerously contagious proximity to this generation (possibly due to it being my own). So forgive my rudeness, Mr Zhang, and let me explain. I agree that this newest generation is isolated from their country’s history, relative to other – but not all other – nations. But relative to the generations before them, including that of current 50-somethings, they have more access in their youth to accurate information than ever. And as concerns Coca-Cola for mother’s milk and a diet of Western movies, I don’t see where that comes into it. A childhood in the thick of the Cultural Revolution can harden a generation, and it can embitter or confuse it. A fizz and Die Hard childhood can open minds to different ideas and places, just as it can turn them into mush.

I’m discussing here only the students who reap the positive benefits of what’s available to them. These, after all, are the ones who matter: change in China, like everywhere else, has only ever been started by a few before it is followed by many. The ‘new youth’ of Chen Duxiu’s magazine weren’t all of the new youth. So if you meant to exclude from your pithy tag, Mr Zhang, the exceptional young Chinese passionate to bring China forward into a new millenium, I’ll retract my complaints and accuse you of irrelevance instead.

I’m in California for a rest at the moment, so technically I’m East of China – but I think West is less confusing and more accurate in every sense except the literal.

I’m also reading Steinbeck’s East of Eden for the first time. I can’t resist quoting this passage, a conversation between Samuel Hamilton and the American-born Chinese help of the Trask family, called ‘Lee’ (“Got more name. Lee papa family name. Call Lee”). This is set in early twentieth century California.

“Lee”, Samuel said at last, “I mean no disrespect, but I’ve never been able to figure why you people still talk pidgin when an illiterate baboon from the black bogs of Ireland, with a head full of Gaelic and a tongue like a potato, learns to talk a poor grade of English in ten years.”

Lee grinned. “Me talkee Chinese talk,” he said.

“Well, I guess you have your reasons. And it’s not your affair. I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t believe it, Lee.”

Lee looked at him and the brown eyes under their rounded upper lids seemed to open and deepen until they weren’t foreign any more, but man’s eyes, warm with understanding. Lee chuckled. “It’s more than a convenience,” he said. “It’s even more than self-protection. Mostly we have to use it to be understood at all.”

Samuel showed no sign of having observed any change. “I can understand the first two,” he said thoughtfully, “but the third escapes me.”

Lee said, “I know it’s hard to believe, but it has happened so often to me and to my friends that we take it for granted. If I should go up to a lady or a gentleman, for instance, and speak as I am doing now, I wouldn’t be understood.”

“Why not?”

“Pidgin they except, and pidgin they’ll listen to. But English from me they don’t listen to, and so they don’t understand it.”

No point here, I just think it’s a fun section. Here are two more tit-bits from Lee, one discussing how the Irish immigrant Samuel wasn’t born in America but is white, so

“… in a few years you can almost disappear; while I, who was born in Grass Valley, went to school and several years to the University of California, have no chance of mixing.”

And another which rings truest of them all in terms of overseas Chinese today:

“I did go back to China. My father was a fairly successful man. It didn’t work. They said I looked like a foreign devil; they said I spoke like a foreign devil. I made mistakes in manners, and I didn’t know delicacies that had grown up since my father left. They wouldn’t have me. You can believe it or not – I’m less foreign here than I was in China.”

No, views of Britain in language textbooks doesn’t make the cut.

The firstcompulsory political thought classes comprise much too much study time – I’ve pretty much covered before. To clarify, my point has nothing to do with what is being taught in those classes. Let’s simplify things by leaving competing ideologies and above all the patronising word “brainwash” out of the debate. I only argue that the long hours students must spend in these classes every week is way out of proportion to their benefit. It’s an unjustifiable waste of study time: if a student spent two hours a month rather than two hours a week studying Marx-through-Jiang, that free time could be put to so much use.

The second: access is far from equal according to where you are and how rich you are.

This is the one criticism which an average Chinese person would agree with above all the others (that’s an educated guess … if you’ll forgive the pun). The money side of it is obvious: besides bribes and so forth, more money (or abused influence) gets your kids into the better schools and the better schools get them into the better universities.

But it’s also unfair by location: a top university like Peking University (PKU or Beida), where I study, accepts different quotas of students from province to province. Take Marie for example, who’s from Yunnan in China’s less-developed south-west. In her subject’s year, she tells me, there are 100+ students from Beijing, 100+ from Shanghai … and only 30 from Yunnan. Mind, I don’t have the figures on these quotas so this is anectodal for the moment. But it’s well known that this inequality exists, and Beida certainly takes more students from Beijing than from countryside provinces. Marie thinks the inequality is only worsening, and assumed things were the same at Oxford – she was surprised and delighted when I told her it isn’t.

Like Leonidas says, “the fact is that students in different provinces and cities have different opportunities to be educated”. He and I both wonder why the government isn’t pumping more money into scholarships and bursaries to address this problem, but I’ve no numbers to back this up so I’ll again zip up for now. I should also mention that we’re not talking about ethnicity here: in fact, students from ethnic minorities in China get an automatic percentage increase on their college entrance exam scores, helping them get into the best universities.

The third is more of a side-note than a productive criticism: the idea that China must educate its population better before it can be democratic. It’s Leonidas’ idea not mine:

“In a country whose population has [a] high education [standard], democracy is good. But if a people’s education is not high enough, it isn’t. If I’m not educated, I don’t know how to choose which opinion is right, which is wrong. … I would prefer to listen to only one opinion, and do it. Now, of course, it’s the government’s opinion.”

I disagree. High standards of education is necessary for a democracy to function well, but shouldn’t be taken as necessary to have a nascent democracy at all. And unless I’m misrepresenting Leonidas, he’s implying that until China’s education gets up to scratch (we’re mostly talking about the countryside here, which is comfortably over 50% of the population), democracy would be create more problems than it would fix. But that’s a great excuse for a single power to postpone indefinitely the ultimate curbing of its power. And surely the bigger stumbling block in choosing which opinion is right and which is wrong is not how educated you are but … there only being one opinion you’re told about.

Of course, the other point Leonidas is making is that education must be a priority for China. He thinks of it as China’s “biggest problem” and better education as the first step to freedom of speech. Well first step or no, freedom of speech tends to be more productive if the free speakers know what they’re talking about.

For the fourththe system and teaching methods it promotes can stifle creative thought – I’ll let an email from Tony suffice to begin with. He’s in America at the moment doing a summer school at Yale, taking a Foreign Policy Decision Making course taught by a Yale professor. I asked him how the experience compared to the teaching at Beida. Here’s his word or two:

There are two interactive seminars each week, quite different from the lectures in PKU, which involves more people and less discussion. In Yale, we have more opportunities to raise questions and debate. …

I appreciate the learning style here. Students step into a specific field of study through reading the first-hand publications instead of learning from powerpoints prepared by their teacher. In PKU, too many courses are squeezed into one semester (7-8 for me, maybe more for students from other schools) so that students prefer to memorize the main points during final weeks rather than read the original writings. And many Chinese students have lost their interest in discovering. They want to know “what it is” or “what it should be” more than “why was that”. I guess the education system is responsible for this. Yet there are many factors standing behind it, including a large population, a planned social framework and a big government, almost equal to the size of the society. I understand that it’s easier to blame this system than to revise it.

But blame – lots of blame – is necessary to convince a bureaucracy to revise itself. Otherwise the system, like many of the over-pressurized and under-stimulated students it seems to produce, will continue to resemble this Ming dynasty civil service hopeful:

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