A few months ago, I went to a conference held at East China Normal University about visual histories of Shanghai. One of the presentations that stuck out in my mind was about representations of "Ah Fei" or the quintessential "Chinese Hooligan." I found this presentation interesting because I had never seen this stereotype before, and I also found it amusing that representations Ah Fei often looked like John Travolta in Grease.
While doing research in the past few days, Ah Fei once again reared his ugly head, this time in documents about self study habits. This new topic I have been exploring has brought to light some important topics in the study of education and the study of culture in the PRC. In this document about the importance of self study, the author claimed that filling up workers' time with supplementary learning and self study habits will keep them from becoming Ah Fei. Similarly, another document mentioned that self study practices are important for keeping people from hanging out and doing nothing on the streets. In American terms, basically, teaching kids to study on their own keeps them "off the streets." However, it is more than keeping kids off the streets, simply because Chinese workers (those participating in self study) had a lot less free time than school children in America today. One document outlined the average schedule of a Chinese worker, filled with 12 hour days and self criticism/pary politics meetings. The government, however, was still concerned with fillin the one free evening these workers had with self study practices. Thus, the control or influence the government has on free time is much larger than what we see in America.
This is not the only reason that the PRC encouraged its citizens to self study. One of the main topics that came up both in documents and in newspaper articles is the problem of students who do not 升学， or "move up in school" (I guess would be the best translation). Basically, according to statistics from Shanghai, there are only so many places in high school after graduation from primary or middle school, and there are more students who have graduated than can continue on. Thus, the government came up with a series of plans that put these graduated students into various programs that would efficiently use their productive capabilities. One of these plans is self study small groups, allowing those who could not continue in school to continue their education. As a young girl whose success story in self study landed her in the Peoples' Daily claimed, if you can't 升学, self study is the next best thing.
Self study also solves other problems for the government. There were a series of people who graduated from elementary school or high school before the revolution, and therefore did not receive the political education that those who were growing up post 1949 received. Therefore, the government encouraged workers to take "free time classes" or "supplementary classes" to not only improve their knowledge in areas like math and science, but also improve their political and cultural knowledge in light of the new Chinese government. More practically, self study allowed these people to learn practical skills, namely Mandarin Chinese. I had a chat with a professor who grew up in the late 1950s and early 1960s. While her reasons for self study were due to the Cultural Revolution rather than being to old to receive a post 1949 education, she actively used radio programs to improve her Mandarin. She told me that her Mandarin today is quite good because she took it upon herself to study it from radio broadcasting.
Another reason that the government advocated self study in the 1950s is that it encourages or cultivates the self study "attitude" or "desire." For a government highly concerned with productivity, an attitude of going above and beyond expecations would certainly be beneficial. Many of the government documents mention the importance of the "自学心" or the "自学性," although not much more detail is given. However, other government documents purport that a certain amount of independence, especially in overcoming hardship, is important because "China's problems are big, Shanghai's problems are also big, and individual problems are comparatively small." Therefore, an individual's ability to take his destiny into his own hands is important in a country in reform, which inevitably leads back to the "self study attitude."
We can extract a few major themes from this premilinary evidence. First of all, the government is highly concerned with filling up people's time so as to increase productivity and development. The self study radio broadcasts and other materials focus on two main classes: Mandarin and Math. One implies a desire to create cultural homogeny, and the other implies a desire to improve engineering and technical development among the work force. However, even while a "national language" creates a certain amount of national adhesion in a theoretical and emotional sense, it is also practical: if a country's people can all speak the same language, national production is that much more efficient. Another document clarifies this objective further. Self study classes in Mandarin should promote literacy and putonghua; algebra classes should teach knowledge relevant to factory and labor production; and natural science classes should teach information relevant to agricultural production. Clearly, the government wanted to use these classes so as to improve productivity in every way possible.
At the same time, however, it is important to note that the government encourages the "self study attitude" within the bounds of government control. The government is not encouraging people to simply go out and study as they wish with whatever materials they can find; instead, the government created a series of options from which people can choose: radio broadcasts, government published materials, and self study small groups or supplemental classes. Thus, what we see here is not a continuation of the early 1900s May Fourth self created Renaissance Man-like thinkers, but instead a very narrow field within which people can explore their own talents. This is not the only narrative, but it is the main one. There are times where the government emphasizes that it is lacking in its responsibilities in education, and that individuals must pick up the slack. Therefore, there is this balance between individual work ethic and government help (a balance we are struggling with in the US right now)
I must note, however, that the above view may be slightly biased, since the only places I have looked for evidence is state controlled newspapers and government documents. It is natural, therefore, for this evidence to focus on state created material rather than independent scholars and self created experts. Perhaps interviews or personal testimonies would tell a different story.