Yuan Tengfei: A Free Spirit in Darkness
The most famous maverick teacher in China.
If you were to attend one of Yuan Tengfei’s history lectures at Beijing’s Haidian Teachers Training College, you might think that you’re in the United States, Taiwan, or Hong Kong, where freedom of speech and research are guaranteed. For example, Yuan might say: “During the first 20 years or so of the People’s Republic of China the Red Terror cost more than 20 million innocent lives” or “The Mao Mausoleum in Beijing should change its name to the Holocaust Museum, for there lies a man whose hands are stained with blood.”
- During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison till 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
- Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.
During his lectures Yuan speaks quickly, in a strong Beijing accent. He is humorous with a love of onomatopoeia. Before starting his lessons he always writes this Chinese proverb on the blackboard: “The speaker is not guilty, the listener learns the warning.” He teaches history like baking cookies, forming the material into sweet dough to feed his students with.
The “most famous maverick teacher in China” as the New York Times correspondent D.K. Tatlow has called Yuan, was born in 1972, though he wasn’t always so famous. After graduating from Beijing Normal University he started his teaching career in the 90s while moonlighting at a cram school to help students pass the university’s entrance examination.
It wasn’t until 2008, when his students at the school posted videos of his lectures online, that Yuan Tengfei became a famous figure. Videos of the eloquent and vivacious teacher attracted public attention and fans, as well as numerous opponents who posted comments about his critical or “traitorous” views of Chinese history. Within a short time the hits on his videos reached millions.
Astonishingly, as a consequence, the official CCTV invited Yuan to be a speaker on the popular history program Lecture Room. They even allowed him to give extended lectures on the Song dynasty and the contemporary history of the PRC—an extremely sensitive topic.
But Yuan mixes official textbook content with his own interpretation and speaks the truth in a frank and joyful way. For example, in his July 2011 lecture on Mao Zedong, he compared Mao to Hitler and Stalin and described the Cultural Revolution as the darkest era in human history. “Mao Zedong’s greatest contribution was his death in 1976,” Yuan said. “Should he have died in 1949 or even 1959, history would look totally different.”
Yuan has also told his students that Mao’s scientific knowledge was at the level of a 4th grader, adding that people could cheat him with all kinds of lies about agriculture and steel production. Furthermore, according to Yuan, Mao was an IBM—“an international big mouth”—who said that 95% of China’s 600 million citizens were good; only 5%, or 30 million people, were bad and needed to be eliminated.
It’s hard to say whether Yuan’s teaching helps his students pass their examinations, but he does inspire young people to think undogmatically. He tells his students that both the textbooks and People’s Daily are mostly lies. The latter will only be quoted by the media in two countries: North Korea and Iran. As for the history textbook, since he was involved in editing it, he knows what he’s talking about.
Certainly, it’s incredible that Yuan has not been arrested for his “anti-party, anti-state” speeches, although he has drawn attention from officials and was threatened by some “patriotic, enraged youth,” who claimed that he defecated on their beloved “motherland.”
After he became famous in 2008, Yuan published two history books: Wind and Cloud of the Two Song Dynasties (Shanxi Normal University Press, 2009) and History is Just a Game (2009-2010), which is about contemporary China. He was accused of plagiarism and was involved in a lawsuit. Still, he earned much money through his royalties and is now on the list of the wealthiest people in China.
Yuan is a product of China’s chaotic, yet creative society. His knowledge and education are not perfect; even his straightforward critiques, although honest and inspiring, are not always tenable. Nevertheless, it is a positive sign for China that a teacher such as Yuan Tengfei can maintain his position disseminating free spirit in the dawn of darkness.