Research notes: the extent of hopelessness

As I have been reading documents about self-study practices, more often than not the subject comes up in the context of not being able to continue schooling after elementary, middle, or high school (that subject is a very succinct phrase in Chinese, 未升学的初中毕业生). This problem is very grave in the 1950s, often to the point where students in this situation in Shanghai feel they have no choice but to go to "Huangpu River University" which, according to later clarifications, is a fancy way of saying suicide. Especially among heads of households, a lack of higher education to them equals socioeconomic suicide. However, by the 1950s, the government had not yet been able to expand public education to the point of guaranteeing everyone a place in high school and college, and therefore had to find alternatives for these students to "keep them off the street" (see my earlier post).

One of these options is to join the work force. Obviously, one would not need a high level of education to work in a factory, and as the government worked towards higher and higher productivity, laborers were needed. This posed a problem, however. As the government consolidated factories and brought them under state control, there was a surplus of factory workers who found themselves unemployed. Ironically, a lot of these laborers ended up working as teachers, as Eddie U pointed out in his book, as of all the jobs in the PRC, teachers were in the highest demand. It would be interesting to find out if a lot of these 不能升学 students ended up being recycled right back into schools.

A very long article published in the People's Daily sought to solve this problem. They claimed that, indeed, factories in cities were being overrun with people, but the countryside could always use help 种地. The article explained that all of the attitudes towards a future in agriculture in the countryside were false: it was an honorable future with a lot of potential (as the main complaint was that such jobs had no future). In fact, those with some schooling from the cities could bring their knowledge to the countryside, thus making the entire country better.

Another option for these students is to self study, a subject I have brought up quite a bit in these last few posts. There are quite a few government documents and newspaper articles about this, and that a person can actually have a very bright future in the world of self study. Another article in the People's Daily pointed out that many experts in many fields never went to college and still made a difference to the field and to the country. For more on this topic, see the post below.

Along with self study, and self made experts, the government put together a series of supplemental learning options together, called either "work education" or "free time education." Another document includes nearly 200 pages of schedules for workers of different companies, demonstrating when they could partake in this freetime education and what kinds of classes they can take. These will usually be "skill" classes related to their work, but others also included culture classes. According to the People's Daily, culture classes (文化)are crucial because it contributes to the improvement of the socialist country and contributes to the betterment of production.

Even with all these options, this problem is a huge problem. It also raises the question of government responsibility. Of all the newspaper articles that address this subject (and there are quite a few) almost all of them begin with: "the education system after liberation has improved quite a bit, but there is still work to be done. In the meantime, what do we do with these students who cannot go on in school?" This statement implies that it is the government's job to figure out how to solve this problem. At the same time, other personal testimonies of people in this situation imply that it is the person's job to take it upon himself to better the country by learning and studying more. For example, an article in the People's Daily tells the story of an illiterate old man who learned to read all on his own by memorizing a few characters a day. This story, and the way he is portrayed as a hero, seems to exalt self motivation and learning during private time, with absolutely no governmental help. This is a tension that should be addressed in all studies about the communist era: the role of the government and the place of the government as opposed to the individual. I think we often believe that the communist government did everything it could to be in constant control of everything, that it found everything within its rights. However, after reading Eddie U's book, I think we need to accept that a lot of our assumptions about both Communist policies and their efficacy are quite false.

However, at this point, this is a difficult measure to make, not only because of a lack of data but also for a lack of measuring. I just think it is an important point to bring up among all these other points. I also think it will be interesting to explore what was going on in this arena before 1949. I found some self-study help books, which mention things like self study groups, often organized by book stores. But this seems to have less of a feel of learning basic skills to increase production, and more like the way we see book clubs in the states today, as embracing personal interests on ones' own. As I read more, I can find out the accuracy of this generalization.


Research Notes: What do we do with hooligans?

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.


China's often forgotten SAR

When I was in Hong Kong a year ago, there was a great art exhibit called "Made in Hong Kong." The introduction began by debunking a common assumption: "Made in Hong Kong" always refers to Hong Kong's important economic status as a deep water port and the center of production for the Pearl River Delta, but is often considered a "cultural wasteland." Still today, I hear many people (often from the mainland) refer to Hong Kong as a cultural wasteland. The preface to this exhibit claimed that this assumption is false, and that in many ways, Hong Kong is a very unique place with a very unique local culture. It is Asia's most "international city" but in some ways is "more Chinese" than mainland China itself since it managed to escape the Communists' assault on all things traditional. The exhibit included sculptures, paintings, photos, and installation art inspired by living in Hong Kong. This included sculptures of all the people one would meet on the subway (including children with backpacks with Japanese characters, or the stereotypical salesman going to and from Shenzhen with the giant red plaid bags), photos of people who still live in those 10 square meter apartments, and traditional Chinese paintings about local Hong Kong news, such as the alligator swimming about the pearl river that no foreigner could catch. My personal favorite was a series of paintings in which the author had copied scenes from movies that he thought represented Hong Kong culture; one scene he painted was a Jackie Chan movie where a bunch of men were playing cards, and the subtitles read "all I know is that I have six passports."

For the past few years, ever since I lived in Hong Kong, I have always been fascinated with Hong Kong identity, especially in relation to mainland China. I've read a few books and articles, but more than anything, I've made my own observations about how Hong Kongers see themselves based upon conversations with locals. I once read a theory (I can't remember where) that Hong Kong is a unique place because they "missed out" on nationalism; while the rest of the world was solidifying their own national identity, Hong Kong was solidifying its place in the global market. This is where Hong Kong remains today: the center of the market but outside the world of national politics. Yet there is more to Hong Kong identity than just its place in the world economy. A recent speech I heard in Hong Kong at a conference addressed this issue. The speaker, a local Hong Konger, asserted that Hong Kong became what it was because of the failure of the mainland in the past half century, and therefore their own sense of identity is centered around how they are not like mainland China (mainland China is the "other" if you will). We can even see this in the way that Hong Kong people approach public health: we don't want another SARS scare like we saw in the 1990s due to the failure of the Communist government. I was actually surprised at the blunt way the speaker called the mainland "backwards" multiple times throughout the speech as he made distinctions between the mainland and Hong Kong.

The next day at the conference, however, we set off for Macao. While its gambling institutions have made it world famous, still oftentimes we forget about Macao, lost in Hong Kong's shadow. At the conference, we were given a "crash course" about Macao's history, economics and politics. One of the presenting professors said, in passing, that Macao has often had closer ties with the mainland, both culturally and politically, than Hong Kong had ever been. In a private conversation afterward, the professor elaborated on this point. He explained that because of Hong Kong and Macao's diverging history, their relative connection to the mainland has manifested quite differently. While Hong Kong had their great migration from the mainland in the 1960s, mostly people escaping the Cultural Revolution, Macao didn't see its large Mainland migration until the 1980s, thus making Macao's new immigrant population much closer to the mainland. And furthermore, since these immigrants were not escaping political persecution, they did not have the same desire to stay as removed as possible from politics like those escaping to Hong Kong in the 1960s.

Another reason for these digressing trajectories is their relative colonial histories. Both were European colonies well into the end of the 20th century, some of the last territories to gain their independence from Europe. However, while Britain took a very large interest in the general welfare of Hong Kong (such as health care and education) especially throughout the last half century, political turmoil in Portugal left Macao largely forgotten. Hong Kong found their identity in their own burgeoning economy and status as a world economic hub, Macao had to find their own way without the help of their colonizer, and naturally they looked to the mainland.

Obviously, this is an incredibly short and inchoate explanation as to why Hong Kong stays politically alienated (purposefully so) from the mainland, embracing their national identity only when it is positive for them (for example: "Oh we are so proud of being Chinese during the Olympics" but "Oh that habit is so dirty, must be those mainlanders) and why those in Macao seem to feel a closer tie to their now "nation." But as the 2003 protests show (and various conversations with local Hong Kongers) Hong Kong people are quite opinionated when it comes to fear of political domination from their neighbor. I think this would be a fascinating topic to address. Perhaps a comparison would be too ambitious, but a deep analysis of the history of the relations of Hong Kong, Macao, and mainland China throughout the last half of the 20th century could tell a lot about their populations today. I have always wanted to explore Hong Kong identity, as I find it a unique place due to its economic development but loss of national identity. But the truth is, Hong Kong is not unique, as Macao followed a similar history. If I don't get the chance to explore these ideas, someone should.


Research Notes: The Chunjie problem

I have a Fulbrighter friend who is doing research on the return of migrant workers in Beijing back to their home rural villages. Originally, he had planned to research why certain workers decided voluntarily to leave city life for their families in the countryside, but due to the current economic crisis, he has instead switched his project so that he could focus on forced migrations back to the countryside because of unemployment. Similarly, another friend who looks at migrant education was fascinated to find out how many of the migrant children would return after Chinese New Year, since many of them, after the holiday, had no jobs to come back to.

This migration back and forth, from urban Shanghai and Beijing to the rural west, has been a concern of the party since 1949, although for different reasons. While the current concern of the movement of migrant workers is tied to the economic crisis and the threat of unrest among the population, concern in the 1950s was tied to the psychological effect of moving between city and countryside. A long document in a series from the Shanghai Communist Party branch discussed the possible effects of the chunjie (Chinese New Year) migration. It included statistics of how many migrant workers moved back and forth in the year 1955 for the holiday (their estimates are 225,000 people, about 25% of the working class population) as well as the possible risks of allowing this huge migration. Their fears included the possibility that when the migrant workers return, they may not have the same "energetic spirit" that they had before chunjie. Furthermore, when they see life in the countryside after seeing life in the city, they may have one of two reactions: one may be further faith in the revolution, but another may be disappointment. Many of these concerns are related to a possible lapse in productivity, but also echo a fear of revolt or a loss of faith in the party. Nevertheless, the documents come to the conclusion that as far as 1955, the effect of the chunjie migration was nothing but positive; productivity did not decrease at all, and it seems that there is even higher participation in party sponsored meetings and activities.

What this points to, besides a continued concern about rural/urban migration, is a Communist party concern with the private lives of Chinese people. It is considered perfectly acceptable to worry about workers going home for the holidays and to take record of possible effects a holiday family visit could have on the psyche of the entire country (imagine this in America: documents about the possible effects of Christmas breaks on the success of the government). There is also an assumed responsibility of the government to control the free time of its people. This is furthered by the fact that this document is in a larger set about the problem of laborer's "free time." The documents include research about how workers spend their free time as well as how to fill up that free time with more party activities.

A professor and I were discussing this "free time" issue, and he told me that he had come across an article in the People's Daily about the "free time" issue. The article concluded that free time was state owned, and given to the people. The concern of the government with chunjie holidays seems to point to this conclusion as well, as any free time could feasibly contribute to the failure of the revolution. And while we may attribute this to Communism itself, I'm not sure that this issue is not necessarily a universal one. We even have daylight savings time so as to increase productivity, implying government involvement in our free time (what if I wanted more time at night?). This will be an interesting problem to explore.

Research Notes: Radio schooling

While I was taking a cab in Harbin, the driver was listening to a radio program I found quite funny. It began with an advertisement about how "we must make our country and our city proud by studying English very well!" A friend in the car made a joke about how this was so important for us, but the cab driver listened quite intently. He then practiced with us, telling us "nice to meet you" and "it is very cold outside" (an appropriate English phrase considering the weather in Harbin in February).

In America in the last 20 years, "video killed the radio star" but educational programs in China still overwhelm the airwaves, and they have for nearly 60 years. Because of a tip from a reliable source, I have been looking into informal education practices in the 50s and 60s, or "self study" practices. This is important not only because no one has really looked at it, but also because during China's turbulent 50s-70s, this type of education became more and more important. The Communist regime attempted (more successfully than most governments) to attain universal education and universal literacy, but because of practicality, oftentimes the official schooling system was quite lacking. Eddie U's book about bureacracy in China and the USSR showed the failures of teacher recruitment in Shanghai in the early 50s: as factories consolidated and became state-owned and the number of students in school increased exponentially, there was a shortage of teachers; in order to deal with this shortage, the government recruited just about everyone to become teachers, including housewives and laborers with little to no education, and even people who had been repeatedly fired from old jobs and had forged their qualifications. Even a friend at the archives told me that his mandarin teacher could hardly speak mandarin herself, causing a lacking in the education system. Furthermore, by the time of the cultural revolution, formal education stopped completely, forcing studious youth to create their own ways to learn new skills. This became crucial come 1976, when the college entrance exam was reestablished.

While these self study practices relied largely on students, they were highly encouraged by government through radio programs. I came aross a series of documents from 1954 which outlined radio shows to teach students who had already graduated from elementary and middle school about language, politics, math, and science. As far as the language lessons, the documents explain that the purpose of these documents is not only to improve reading skills and speaking skills, but also to nurture the "self study attitude." The lessons were also not only political, but also talked about nature, famous artists, and foreign countries (from Moscow to China).

The natural science classes were meant to teach basic geology, chemistry, health, and biology. It was also meant to teach listeners about the fundamentals of science and the scientific method. The math classes were meant to teach "practical" math, and also to cultivate "self study practice." (According to Eddie U's book, while it might be hard to teach math over the radio, this class could be important; he reported from interviews some of thes untrained teachers writing on the board "41 x 1 =1"). The math class over all others seems to focus on giving laborers and the workforce "practical knowledge" that could serve to "increase productivity."

The documents on the politics class seem to, more than the others, address the intended audience for these radio shows. The documents explain that previous classes in politics, under the KMT, didn't give students a full understanding of the true political system or their place within it. Therefore, they couldn't understand the politics classes. These classes seem to have the goal of teaching former students educated under the KMT a proper understanding of the political system of their own government. Obviously, the communist party had many other institutions in place to address this issue, but this also emphasizes the role of the listener to engage in his own learning.

I hope to write more on this issues of self study practice, as this is just one part of it. Since currently I am looking at government documents, and self study implies practice outside of traditional institutions, I have not yet explored the full picture. I hope to, through other sources, delve deeper into this.