The Great Helmsman’s Castaways

This story comes from the Chinese language program I’ve been attending these past two and a half weeks.  The program is part of the reason I’ve written less that I had hoped, but it should also provide some interesting material for future posts—stay tuned.

But here’s today’s story—or rather, yesterday’s.  It’s a story I feel should be told—an example of how people who have lived through great historical events, people whose personal experience is so valuable, get thrown away by smug, egotistical politicians and bureaucrats.  We all knew this, broadly, of course, but it’s still shocking and heart-rending when you experience it directly.

I should explain that this program is both for teachers and for students.  Teachers started a week earlier, and are divided into two tracks: a language track for those who are teaching Chinese to discuss methods, and a culture track for those who don’t teach or know how to speak Chinese.  However, we were assigned to groups—two culture track teachers, and two language track teachers—to give a cultural lesson to a class of high school or middle school students.  These students have mostly been learning the language, and they have a lead teacher who was present for the culture lesson, but did not participate in it.  The lead teacher for this class (whose name I don’t even know—we’ll call her Mrs. Hong for the sake of this article) is in her mid-50s and looks exactly like my grandmother, had she been Chinese and not Swiss.  That made me partial to her from the beginning.

My part of the lesson was to discuss Confucius and Mao as icons of China.  OK, let’s face it, I know very little about China, really, except politics.  And even then, not tons.  I just wanted an excuse to talk politics.  There it is.  The other three teachers had presented before me, and to be honest, none of us were great.  We did a lot of talking at the kids, and though I’m guilty of that in my regular classroom, it’s also true that I interact with my students, and that I really can’t teach strangers.  I have to get to know my students before I can teach them.  I believe quite firmly in the theory of multiple intelligences, and particularly the category known as “interpersonal intelligence”, and the students who are interpersonal learners.  I discovered in this lesson that I’m an interpersonal teacher, quite fundamentally.

So I began by asking the students if they identified with various political tendencies that I was about to discuss.  They were confused by the notion of “monarchist”, all for “traditional values”, enthusiastically “capitalist”, and once again confused by “communist”.  All, that is, except Mrs. Hong—who raised her hand and explained that she was in a Communist youth group.  Wow.

I went on to explain what little I know of Confucius, the Mandate of Heaven, the context of the fall of the Qing Dynasty amid imperialist plunder of China, the formation of the first Republic, the inspiration of the Russian Revolution, the betrayal of that revolution by Stalin who also betrayed the Chinese Revolution of 1927, Mao’s role in the Long March and the 1949 Revolution, the Great Leap Forward… You followed all that, right?  To be honest, as much as I’m critical of Mao and Maoism, I found myself in a position of explaining just why it was that Mao thought what he thought, why it was that he acted as he did, and why it was that he was supported so strongly by the Chinese people, even if the revolution did not give them real power.  The critique of bureaucratic state capitalism as applied to revolutionary regimes such as in China, Cuba, and Vietnam, is not a moral critique, but a solidly class-based critique that must be made with a fair amount of sympathy for the plight of the people of these nations and their suffering.  That’s why they supported Mao, Castro, and Ho Chi Minh, even with all their contradictions.

Then came the Cultural Revolution.  I recommend reading books by Simon Leys, in particular The Chairman’s New Clothes: Mao and the Cultural Revolution.  The Cultural Revolution was a highly complicated phenomenon.  In brief: Mao, upset at having been made into a powerless figurehead by Deng Xiaoping & Co., decided to get back some of his power by accusing them of being “bourgeois traitors to the Revolution” and calling on the youth of China to form Red Guards and rebel.  This opened the floodgates for young people and workers and peasants to wage an armed civil war against their petty bureaucratic exploiters in the Chinese Communist Party.  The conflagration was massive, and completely disrupted Chinese society (including all schools, which were closed) for three years.  Part way through the “revolution”, Mao realized that his own power base, the bureaucracy, was in serious danger, and so he rehabilitated the “counterrevolutionary” petty bureaucrats as “real proletarians” while the students suddenly became “bourgeois counterrevolutionaries”, etc.  As a result, the thing ended up looking like an episode of mass insanity; in point of fact, there were real reasons for it, real passions and real anger, and real disruption and destruction of ordinary peoples’ lives.

So I start to explain this in the most basic terms I can find to a room of American teenagers.  My attempt at an explanation of a phenomenon I’ve read about (albeit a few years ago) is interrupted by Mrs. Hong.  She was in middle school when the Cultural Revolution erupted.  Her older brother and sister were both Red Guards.  She remembered very clearly reciting parts of the “Quotations of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung” (known here, somewhat pejoratively, as “The Little Red Book”), and could still recite passages and poems from it.  And here I was trying to explain this incredible history that she lived through.  Humility is the type of virtue you learn when it kicks you in the derriere.

I found out more later: when she graduated from high school, having missed her middle school education, she was appointed to a position as a middle school teacher.  This was actually advantageous for her, as she was then put on the fast-track for university admission—without having to curry favor with the political establishment.  Her husband, Mr. Hong, also lived through it.  He was teaching another class down the hall.  He is perhaps one of the most light-hearted, jovial aging men I’ve ever seen.  I imagine that as a teacher, he puts his students immediately at ease, that he understands them well and communicates with them superbly, that he is an excellent teacher and a really good person.  He was in high school at the time of the Cultural Revolution.  He fled to the countryside and worked on a peasant farm for the duration, teaching himself the material he should have learned in a classroom.  He also eventually made his way to the university, and became a teacher.

The two of them came to the United States in 1999.  I don’t yet know the part of their history between the early 1970s and the late 1990s.  I’m very curious about why they left China, especially in 1999 and not, say, 1989.

In “real life”, i.e. during the school year, Mr. and Mrs. Hong are teachers in the Providence Public Schools.  Mrs. Hong teaches Mandarin at the elementary school level—and fortunately, was hired back.  Mr. Hong is a Regular-in-Pool.

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About riredteacher

I'm a foreign language teacher and socialist in Rhode Island.
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