By Jue Chen
Early in May, Yuan Tengfei, a history teacher from Haidian Teachers Training School in Beijing, became one of the most controversial figures on the Internet. This came as a surprise even for Yuan, who hadn’t anticipated that his students would record his class lectures and upload them to Internet. The first clip of his lecture appeared on Internet in 2008. Over the next two years, his history lecture videos gained millions hits and won him various titles like “The most awesome history teacher ever.”
Who is Yuan Tengfei, and why has he become such a phenomenon? Reading his profile, he seems to be a regular middle school history teacher whose record of selfless hard work has been officially recognized and rewarded. In 2009, he was invited to give a speech on the “Vicissitudes of the Two Song Dynasties” in CCTV’s “Lecture Room百家讲坛”, the most famous mainstream TV program featuring scholarly speeches in China. His book, with the playful title Where’s the Novelty in History? （历史是个什么玩意儿）, is on China’s list of best-sellers.
A Non-Mainstream Teacher
However, Yuan’s approach of teaching history is considered “uncommon” in Chinese schools. Western audiences may regard him as a professional stand-up actor, with a Beijing accent! Yuan’s historical narrative was often enriched by vivid anecdotes and mild sarcastic comments on current events. Many students said it was the first time they were wide awake in class, and some of them began to consider majoring in history in college because of Yuan’s class. For many young students, Yuan was an extraordinary history teacher, who dared to speak frankly of what he believes. But for others, especially the older generation, Yuan was almost intolerable. They believed Yuan’s narrative of modern Chinese history defied former Chinese Communist Party leaders and Chinese socialism, served to destroy social harmony, and violated the constitution. A pro-Mao website called “Utopia乌有之乡” has been active in criticizing Yuan. Apparently, any topics relevant to modern Chinese history, which are often labeled as “sensitive materials”, will upset some Chinese.
However, this time Yuan’s story is becoming more interesting than simple ideological competition between the anti-Mao and pro-Mao campaigns. In a CCTV interview, Yuan said his “unusual popularity” bothered him and he felt awkward with his current over-publicized image. He repeatedly emphasized that he is just a middle school history teacher, not a pop star or history scholar and that the catchy title “the most awesome history teacher ever” has exaggerated his achievements. It is true that among the entire group of history teachers in China’s middle schools, Yuan is probably not as unique as some people believe him to be. In a Southern Weekend report “Those ‘Idiosyncratic Eggs’—How Non-Mainstream Teachers Survive那一小撮特立独行的‘蛋’—非主流老师的生存技巧”, it was shown that Yuan is not alone in today’s China, although this group of “non-mainstream teachers” is not large in number.
Internet Plays Again
Yuan considers his popularity “unexpected”, which implies he has underestimated the Internet’s role in China today. A key issue that most Chinese media neglect to emphasize is the impact of modern communication technologies, such as the mobile phone and Internet, upon young students and teachers, as well as the overall function of the traditional classroom. Yuan’s students belong to the younger generation, adept at using new technologies. While Chinese media focus solely on the Yuan’s speeches, they somehow forget the role of these young students, who served as the catalyst for this phenomenon. What Yuan’s case reveals is an emerging new classroom in China, to which both teachers and students must adjust. So far, it is unclear whether students’ recording and uploading behaviors have received official permission; if not, it may bring to light other arguments on intellectual property. Despite this factor, there is a prevalent enthusiasm among young students on Yuan’s “online classroom”. Since in-class discussions and debates are rare in Chinese schools, this phenomenon has been characterized by an unprecedented level of passion among students to acquire greater knowledge of history. Students organized themselves into an online community with a name of “Tengzhi (twig)”, where they share thoughts on Yuan’s speeches or simply show affection and express support for Yuan. Some students have become hardcore defenders of Yuan against critics from “Utopia” and the older generation.
Yuan is quite supportive of his students’ actions in recording and uploading Yuan’s lectures. Yuan said in his interview that he “enjoyed watching his lecture videos online”, as in that way he could “find out his mistakes and correct them next time.” As a matter of fact, Yuan was not “idiosyncratic” at all in terms of teaching. The style of his performance today is adapted to the younger generation. One time he told students the story of a Chinese hero—Deng Shichang(邓世昌), who died in the Sino-Japanese war in late 19th century. His students’ reactions appalled him. He told students that when the Chinese vessel was sinking, General Deng decided to commit suicide, but his dog tried to drag him back onboard. But, eventually Deng dragged his dog into water and both died. “Poor dog,” some of Yuan students commented. Yuan said he was trying to evoke students’ sense of nationalism and respects for General Deng with this story; so his students’ nonchalance made him almost furious. In retrospect, Yuan said he could understand students’ reactions. “You can’t blame these kids; we live in different times.”
Has He Been Blocked?
Yuan said that he was always cautious of where “the line” is drawn in terms of public speech, but he also understands that living as a “celebrity” grants him less self-determination. Since early May, rumors that he had been detained by police started to spread on the Internet, which the Beijing police station later denied. According to Southern Weekend’s report “What Are History Teachers Guilty Of?”, Yuan received an official warning from his school’s administrators, and he was commanded to conduct “a serious self-examination” of his “wrong” speeches. A few days later, Yuan released a short announcement video online, saying that “I am fine now…Friends, don’t worry about me… please trust the government, trust the Party ; they will judge us fairly.”
At this moment, arguments about Yuan changed direction, focusing increasingly on the right to free speech. More people joined the “twig” group to defend Yuan’s right to speak. In an anonymous commentary “Why Do We Block Yuan Tengfei?” the author wrote: “For western media, blocking and censorship is usually the last resort…compared to reasoning and evoking readers’ compassion…but why do blocked information and censorship seem to be the only solution in China? I am not a hardcore fan of Yuan Tengfei. But because none of his opponents’ arguments make sense to me, I am sorry to say I still agree with Yuan…”
Internet censorship is a “public secret” in China. Certain “sensitive materials” harmful to social stability are not allowed to be published online. The tricky part is: Where is the line? What does the term “sensitive materials” mean exactly? Are topics that were sensitive ten years ago still considered sensitive today? What Yuan’s case reveals is another round of public negotiation over where “the line” should be drawn. While China is undergoing social and economic transformations, people are changing their mindsets too, either incrementally or dramatically. Chinese people are changing their attitudes to “sensitive materials” and are negotiating with authority over their their right to discuss these materials. This time, it is the Internet that has tremendously magnified the intensity of the debate, as it has involved people from widely divergent demographic backgrounds. The conservatives who are adamant guardians of Mao’s teachings and cold war ideologies stand face-to-face with the new liberals demanding free speech on the same Internet platform.
A few months ago, Google tried to make the same argument: liberalizing China by promoting free speech. But when Google announced its retreat from China using this reason, the message didn’t resonate with many Chinese, even among young liberals. The first reason is that Google is first of all American; secondly, Google is a private company. Chinese are predominantly nationalistic; any reasons for criticizing China, be they “democracy” “freedom” or “human rights”, become ineffective “excuses” once they are delivered by foreign entities. What was said matters less than who said it. Meanwhile, the majority of Chinese have adopted a pragmatic way of thinking. They were inclined to believe Google’s decision was primarily out of business and market considerations, rather than from an adherence to moral values. Chinese media also tended to frame Google’s exit as “an over-politicized business case”. Compared to the Chinese public’s mixed feelings about Google, their attitudes to Yuan’s case are more clear-cut. In a survey on the China Election and Governance (Chinese) website, out of 1984 votes, 46.07% voted for “I agree with Yuan’s ideas; like his style”, and 45.45% voted for “I defend the right of free speech; reject stereotypes”.
History is Chinese People’s Religion
Many Chinese agree that Yuan’s major contribution lies in leading them to read history again. “History is Chinese people’s religion,” wrote Chinese scholar Yu Shicun in his article “How Do We Read History Today?” “For Chinese, history is not only about ‘the past’, it lives with us every day; it becomes our nutrition, the most precious legacy for us and our future generations.” But how do today’s Chinese schools teach history to students, in an environment in which critical opinions are not appreciated and personal views are subdued by standardized answers? If history is considered as the ethnic core of the Chinese people, what does the young generation need to learn from history, and how they learn it in a technology-driven society? These are some questions that are not asked in history tests; but Chinese public do need to think about after various debates about Yuan having be made.