Posts tagged Cultural Revolution

Thoughts about China in the late 1980s

The following is a two part series, today and tomorrow. I had just come back from China and was enrolled in Dr. Robert Beck’s education class at the University of Minnesota on the Minneapolis campus.  I wrote this essay the winter of 1989. The Tiananmen Square incident was waiting to happen in the spring. I had two years of teaching in China and did not know what was going on under the surface for many of my university students as well as all throughout China.  See what you think might be similar or different from Kazakhstan and their teaching methodologies.

During my two years of teaching English in China, I learned a lot about my own teaching. Of course I had taken courses in college to learn “how” to teach as all good American teachers are taught to do.  However, when I went to China, it was not uncommon for American teachers to compare notes on “how” the Chinese teachers taught. So close yet to the years of the Cultural Revolution atrocities, these Chinese teachers had been programmed by the Communist party on “what” to teach. Many of the older teachers in my Foreign Language Department had taught Russian before. Now they had learned English as yet another foreign language and were expected to teach that. They were affectionately termed “Russian Retreads” by a fellow American teacher. I lived in Harbin, China which is close to Russia and had been pioneered and industrialized by the Russians less than 100 years ago. The White Russians who had fled from Russia after 1917 were very influential in Harbin.

My teaching experience in Harbin may be uncommon to most other parts of China in many ways, but the same Chinese method of teaching was used in all the classrooms. The following quote from one of my writing students last year will show that he noted a difference in methods of teaching. I do admit it is complimentary to me and that is why I copied it from his journal to mine. But I use his own words because the difference in teaching had not escaped him and I am sure he had not been taught that there was a difference in our methodologies.

“I feel happy and relaxed when we have foreign teacher’s class. I don’t know the reason; perhaps their method of teaching is success[ful]. I am used to the custom of Chinese; the total feeling is the serious, lack of humor. Maybe because of this, the young students lack an inventive ability. So I think we not only learn knowledge from foreign teachers but learn the bright and cheerful disposition.”

I will give a brief overview of the difference between the Chinese and American methodologies of teaching. First of all, instruction in the American classroom is student-centered. The teacher learns how to elicit thinking by asking the students questions and validating each response as a valuable contribution to the class. For the Chinese instructor, the me-centered responses and judgments made by the students are irrelevant. In China, education is teacher-centered and only the teacher has valid judgments. The teacher gives out pre-packaged information. According to John Dewey, supposedly the father of western education, he believed that teaching was a way of stimulating students to do their own thinking. The learners are encouraged to discover answers on their own after the teacher has facilitated in making the information available to them to process.

This was obvious to me after I would ask a series of questions about the material and have my Chinese students’ faces turned down, too afraid to respond. To try to get a discussion going was not easy, in fact, near impossible. They were so ready for me as the teacher to pour the information into their opened heads.

The second difference that I saw which goes along with my first point is that I would seek differing points of view only to get the prevailing party line. In China, the teacher has absolute authority, because in the States the teacher encourages a diversity of opinions. I would have my students give speeches on different subjects and soon I heard the same political statement over and over again. If I, as the American teacher, was not going to be the absolute authority, what came through in their speeches was pure, party doctrine. According to Clark Kerr and what he wrote in 1978, the Chinese government has taught them since they were in day care centers and kindergarten what to say and do.

The third view that I saw prevalent in the classroom which was different from what I was accustomed to was that any given body of knowledge is finite. The Chinese have had thousands of years’ experience holding to a very rigid and narrow scheme of scholasticism, according to Ho Yen Sun in a book printed in 1913.  The mark of the best educated man in China was the one who knew the classics inside and out. It was not theirs to question or analyze by practical application, but this finite body of knowledge was there to memorize. Memorize they did, the Chinese have memorized their culture.

My suspicion is that this memory of the classics dates back to 231-201 B.C. when Mencius and his philosophy had many schools of thought contending for power. It was when Emperor Shi Hwang Ti ordered that all the ancient books be burned, including those of Confucius, that the existing system of education was ended.  Supposedly this tyrannical ruler had also ordered 460 scholars be burned alive along with their books.

When Emperor Kao-Ti came into power during the Han dynasty, he realized the importance of education. As a reversal to the earlier order, he called for a search of the lost writings. Old scholars were prevailed upon to remember, old walls were razed to find old books concealed in them, according to Ho Yen Sun. Perhaps this can explain the source of how the textbook became so revered by the Chinese. It continues to be the central focus in the classroom setting.

In my teaching experience, I was assigned a textbook to teach from in my writing class. There were chapters that I chose and printed up in a syllabus. Knowing that skipping around in the textbook was going against the sensibilities of my Chinese students, I kept reminding them that we did not have time to cover all the points in the book, we were just going to hit the high points. I did not hear any objections directed to me about this but I did feel guilty because I knew of the importance of the WHOLE textbook.

The passion to learn the entire book according to the Chinese system results in some problems where the students amass a great deal of book knowledge but then they are not able to analyze and tackle problems. Practical application is what I kept driving home to my writing students; no amount of memorizing was going to help them to be better writers. I wanted them to keep writing in their journals so I could find out where they were. Learning everything by rote also inhibits the students from being creative. That is a necessary attribute when applying researching skills in the new areas of science and technology, according to Gu Mingyuan.”

(to be continued)

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More examples of “Guanxi” in China

 

Guanxi is an important word in China. It includes a lot of information for history, culture and relationships among people. The Chinese think guanxi is so powerful that it can help them to get a lot of unfinished things accomplished. First of all, a definition of “guanxi” according to Eagan and Weiner (2007) is the following: “…a way to get ahead is to know someone who can help provide a better opportunity…to know someone in a position of power willing to help you.” (p. 63) Perhaps Americans hold to a similar concept of “networking” where we try to meet as many people as possible to maybe help land a job. Maybe for the more outgoing and gregarious, Americans like to have many acquaintances and “friends.”

Over twenty-five years ago, as an unsuspecting American, I had never experienced the power of the word “guanxi.” After living in China in the late 1980s, it was interesting for me to learn more about it.  I believe most westerners may have an idea about what it is like, perhaps akin to “I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine.”  However, as I learned from my living and teaching in China for two years that it was much more powerful a concept than a random scratch to an occasional itch.  I will provide several examples of when guanxi was used in my experience and how maybe we as Americans might have something similar in principle or practice while being totally unaware of it.

At the time, I did not know why Carolyn (her English name) who was one of my Chinese students, knitted a beautiful green, cabled wool sweater for me. I bought the sufficient amount of skeins of yarn at the store and she did the rest.  Harbin, in the northeastern part of China is known to be very cold and she knew I needed to wear something warm for the oncoming winter.  I do not know that I did anything for her except have her over to practice English.  Later I found out that perhaps I was supposed to help her gain entrance to a university in the U.S.  I wonder about Carolyn these many years later. Every time I had put on that sweater I thought good thoughts about her.

Another instance of how guanxi was used in my case was when Stephen (English name) wanted to practice doing an oil painting portrait of me.  I still have the painting today but I don’t recall doing anything for Stephen except sitting and posing for him for several hours. He told me through his friend that he wanted to practice painting western noses (Dai Baize = BIG nose)  Stephen, as an artist, had been sent out to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution and so he had not learned how to speak English. He had been penalized for his talent. Fortunately we were able to communicate through his Chinese friend who was one of my engineering students.  So maybe Stephen wanted to be close to the power structure of my university at Ha Gong Da.  I also still wonder why Stephen went to Dalian with me and my sister and another student to help transport my 3 meter by 4 meter carpet for me that was put in a crate that was about the size of a coffin.  I was never able to repay Stephen for his service mentality of helping me. I never got him a job or found him other people he could paint for profit.

My young Chinese friends, Carolyn and Stephen’s expectations were that I help improve their lives in some way.  According to what Eagan and Weiner (2011), they claim with the beginning of communism, people of authority may not have been paid much in high salaries, but they had prestige and authority given them.  With these privileges of helping others, the senior ranking government officials could amass more power by gaining respect and trust of others under them.

I believe that Americans may be confused by this concept of “guanxi” because we have a different value orientation in place where westerners may do acts of kindness for others without any expectation of it being reciprocated. The following anecdote is what one of my Chinese students wrote about his experiences in China concerning this:

“I have seen many examples of how Chinese depend totally on “GUAN XI”. I have a friend who hadn’t high enough scores to study in high school. And his father found an officer who is a manager in education. Now my friend studies in a famous high school. Also I met a businessman who was ready to apply for a project but he had many opponents. He had a friend who is in the management for this project. Obviously, he got this project at the end.”

 

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More Travel Memories of East Coast China

Continued from yesterday’s blog post:

One particular January in 1988, my American friend and I started our trip to Hong Kong by traveling the east coast of China.  Our first stop was Shan Hai Guan, the beginning of the Great Wall of China situated on the Bohai Sea.  Interesting to take pictures of the frozen swirls of the tide.  Looking at old pictures of this part of the amazing structure, you know why it is called the “Head of the Dragon.”

Both being single at the time, we sat on a famous rock with Chinese characters engraved into it reading: “Woman Waiting for Her Husband.”  We learned of past horrors visited upon the Chinese people while men were building the Great Wall.  Perhaps this rendition is more legend than true story, but just the same, I’m sure many men did die as they built this edifice that can be seen from the moon.  Here is the summary:

Some newlyweds were about to enjoy their wedding night together when came a rude interruption.  The groom was seized and ordered by the emperor to put in hard labor at the Great Wall.  After his wife had waited for his return, she remembered that he did not have enough clothes to keep him warm in the colder weather.  When she arrived with an extra bundle to where he was working on the Wall, his co-workers told her that her husband had already died.  He had been buried alive under the rubble of the Great Wall.  When hearing this tragic news, the young wife began to cry and the heavens opened up and it began to rain.  It rained so hard that part of the Wall broke loose to reveal his remains.

Sad story yes, so my friend and I kept traveling south convinced that singleness might be better for us after all.  We next traveled to the seaport city of Shanghai.  We could hear a lot of the boat traffic on the river especially along the famous boulevard, the Bund.  We were told that during Chairman Mao’s tyrannical reign, his wife was even obsessed with the power he had.  Whenever she visited Shanghai, she would order that all river traffic stop so that she could sleep at night.  Each boat gave its own toot, bellow, horn or whistle. What a welcome relief for the Chinese when Mao’s wife was sentenced to imprisonment for her many crimes against the people.

I always liked to listen to the music of the people who knew how to play their traditional Chinese instruments. The haunting, lilting sounds of the peepaw (my spelling) and the erho (er=two and ho= strings) instruments were so unusual to my western ears.  We left Shanghai for Hengzhou, said to be one of the most beautiful cities in China.  I was also informed that the most beautiful women were found in Hengzhou.  Or was it Suzhou, obviously I wasn’t looking at women and I was still waiting for my husband…

I digress; we enjoyed seeing West Lake and also going high atop North Peak.  At that time there was a cable car to give us an overlook of the sites of Hengzhou.  My friend and I went to the famous Linyin temple where many brightly colored and freshly painted Buddhas were worshipped.  Fortunately, from a tourist’s perspective, this temple was NOT destroyed because of all the history behind it.  The Cultural Revolution found many Red Guards tearing down building structures and these vandals destroyed much other of their own Hengzhou history.

We were not allowed to take photos of the 50-foot statues of the Buddhas. Also, there was no way of capturing and bottling the smell of burning incense at the altars.  The whole place was filled with an overpowering, thick smell of incense from years and years of worshipping the big guy sitting on his haunches.

We were fortunate to take a tour of the largest silk factory in Asia when we visited Hengzhou.  At that time this factory employed 6,000 workers, using three shifts that worked around the clock.  We were shown the cocoon that the silk worm uses. I still have the ones I bought as decorative pieces which were cut into small tulips on a stem.  Our tour guide told us that the cocoons were boiled for 12 minutes before the girls gather eight together to spin into a single thread.  They make sure that the single thread does not break before it gets on to the big spindles that kept rotating.

Trivia we learned: Did you know that it takes 700 cocoons to make one skein of silk?  The thread is silky soft and pure white.  This pure silk thread is dyed in different colors and put on smaller spools.  What we observed was that a pattern like a computer punch out card was used with the appropriate color punched through the hole on the bolt of the red fabric. Whew, I wonder how many modern-day slaves are actually being used to do this manual labor or maybe it has all been mechanized by now.

We left Hengzhou to take a train to Xiamen or what had been formerly known as Amoy.  We stayed on the island of Gulangyu, which is adjacent to Xiamen. Cars and motorcycles were prohibited on this place, not even bicycles were allowed. How nice to not have to worry about being run down by anyone while walking on this island. We were told that on the peak, you could see Taiwan on a clear day.

I felt like I could really relax at this place which used to be a resort island for the Europeans.  One particular guesthouse on this tranquil island was a beautiful mansion in its day.  It looked like it had earlier served as a private dwelling judging by the gate on the outside. It may have been owned by a British family with their family crest at the top of the gate, but you could only see the traces left that it had been built in 1935.

Naturally any other reminders of European habitation had been scratched out.  We understood from the locals that the Red Guard had defaced many stately buildings and this particular mansion was no exception.  The Cultural Revolution during 1966-76 was a dangerous time for any foreigner who remained in China.  The buildings the Europeans left behind took quite a beating, I’m wondering how the former foreign owners of this building fared.

By the end of our trip with our destination as Hong Kong, we took another overnight 17 hours on an ocean liner from Xiamen. We had already logged in 70 hours by train from Harbin with all our other touristy stops along the East Coast of China. I can’t remember much about our return trip to Harbin but I’m sure it didn’t take as long if we took the direct train route from Guangzhou to Beijing and then from Beijing to Harbin.  I DO remember that taking this trip one January was like doing a 100-degree drop in temperature almost from Harbin to Hong Kong.

(to be continued with my trip to China in 2000 and 2001 – what a change!)

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Friendships Built in China and Cultural Revolution Memories

The following is a continuation of what I have started to write the last several blog posts. You see, I’ve been going through my old notes of my teaching experience in China.  It has nothing to do with Kazakhstan or human trafficking but if you read towards the end you can see how inhumane man can be against man.

Back in the 1980s when I lived in Harbin, the Chinese people were very aware that in order to build up their society, they must have good friendships with the western world.  Even though their customs are different from ours, they are trying to change rapidly.  One sign I had noticed in keeping with that theme was:  “Do Well in Sanitation – Build up Socialist Civilization.”  That was a case where the authorities were strongly advocating a new, no-spitting policy. They fined people who were caught spitting in public.

My job description as an English teacher in China was to build friendships while China kept building apartment complexes with red brick and bamboo poles.  The men would bring their heavy burdens to the top of six story buildings singing together in rhythm to lighten the load.  There would be teams of eight men who would haul heavy beams of cement while the leader would call out commands of which way to walk and when to stop together.  The bamboo poles were propped up on the sides of buildings to catch falling bricks OR men.  The piles of cement bags were either brought in by mule and cart or by truck. The men would work their way down the six stories of building by cementing the sides and securing the balconies.

Such hard, manual labor, I hope these men were paid well for their long hours in the hot sun under such conditions…but that was back in the 1980s. I hope working conditions have improved.

Like I mentioned earlier, my job was to build up relationships with the Chinese people at my university. I met some very fine people like Lu Bin.  She was responsible for finding me at the Beijing Intl. airport and taking me to Harbin by train.  Her father’s name was Mr. Lu. They invited me to their place to enjoy eating jiaozi which is like a meat dumpling.  To eat this delicacy, it must be dipped in soy sauce and vinegar.  Yes it is considered among the Chinese a great social activity, perhaps comparable to our pizza parties.

Sadly, at the age of 10, my new friend Lu Bin had been separated from her intellectual parents and was not reunited with them until ten years later.  The stories I heard about the Cultural Revolution started sounding the same.  With each sad story I learned from each different family, it spoke volumes of the lunacy that the whole country of China underwent from 1966-76.  As a result, Lu Bin, lost out on a chance for a good education.  She knew little English while I knew as little Chinese. We got along great!

Lu Feng, Lu Bin’s brother was younger than her so he was not affected by the Cultural Revolution.  Fortunately he was able to learn English and went to Canada to study.  For the time I was in China teaching English I enjoyed being with my highly motivated students.  They worked hard for me because they wanted to pass the national examination that would determine who would get to go abroad for more study. Many of my university students were older and were doctors, teachers and managers of factories.

To pass the time when we weren’t teaching, my teammate Rich would give tours of the city of Harbin.  He was totally absorbed in the history of the city and showed us the sites, even to where the old foreigners graveyard was outside the city limits of Harbin. A few of the gravestone markers had porcelain pictures of the deceased still in tact.  Most of the faces, however, had been chipped away by vandals during the Cultural Revolution.  About in the 1960s the prestigious grave stones and their coffins were moved from the center of Harbin to the countryside.

Back 85 years from this present date, Harbin was living in the heyday of the White Russians who had fled Russia after the 1917 revolution.  They made a lot of money in the timber business and as a result, many of the Russian made buildings were well built and are still standing in Harbin today (at least that was true 25 years ago).  Some of the places that Rich liked to take us on his tour were several Russian Orthodox churches still in existence. One church had only a handful of the original Russians who had lived in Harbin in the 1920s and 1930s.  The Meatov brothers from Poland still regularly attended services with the chanting of the liturgy from the main priest.

At the time I lived in Harbin, there was only ONE Protestant church still open and known as the “Three-Self Church.” Though splitting at the seams because so many attended this service, it was tightly controlled by the communist government.  The architecture reminded me of an old German or Norwegian Lutheran church. In the old days it perhaps seated about 200 people, but when I went to visit it there were seats up the stairs in the balcony and main floor, all to overflowing.  I would guess that 600 people attended a Sunday morning service because people sat outside the windows of the church or sat in the basement or fellowship hall.  Oh for such fervency of faith that the Americans should have with their well manicured and coifed churches. The people recited the Apostles creed together and even sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” in Chinese.  Imagine MY thrill to hear something so familiar yet in a different tongue.

Another onion-domed church situated close to the market was a landmark in Harbin. It had been closed soon after it had been built in the early 1920s and used as a warehouse instead. I had been told that the acoustics were great and on some rare occasions, Rich was able to get inside the old church and go to the top.  The front entrance was bricked up and blocked with “stuff.”  Maybe things have changed from 25 years ago, maybe this particular church is in use for its original purpose of worship. I’d like to think so. Someone from Harbin, China will have to let me know if there are any Chinese who read this blog. One other church was used as a light industry factory to make clothes. Yes, many changes have taken place since the Russians dominated the area.

Finally, I got to know several of the Chinese who had English names…they each had interesting stories.  Shiela told me that during the Cultural Revolution, her parents had been separated and set to work in the countryside in different provinces.  She was only four years old at the time and was taken care of by her 6 year old brother.  She remembers crying every day for two years. Her family had since been restored together and they each had high positions in their city.

Not only did the intellectuals suffer during the Cultural Revolution, but the artists did as well.  Stephen had been sent out to the countryside to be re-educated for about four years. Stephen painted a portrait of me because he wanted to practice painting western noses (they are considered BIG compared to their Asian noses).  The sign of beauty for a Chinese woman is to have big eyes, small nose and small mouth. I suppose Stephen tried to compliment me with that same prescriptive look.

I heard many troubling stories about the Cultural Revolution, but maybe most of today’s Chinese students don’t know this sad era in their most recent history.  I’m wondering what the Kazakh students know of their history.  What do American students know of theirs?

Stay tuned for more about my adventures in China!

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