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Chinese Education after Mao: More Revolutionary or More Academic?

by Theodore H. E. Chen - 1978

Education in China has undergone many twists and turns in recent decades, and the Maoist education that emerged during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1968) was radically different from the system that prevailed in the first decade of the new regime.

A cardinal principle of contemporary education in China is that education must serve proletarian politics. "Politics in command" is a slogan that applies to education as much as it does to economic policy, military organization, and all phases of culture and intellectual life. Since politics is subject to shifts and vicissitudes, corresponding educational changes are inevitable. Ideological-political "lines" often change, and the result may be wide divergencies in educational practice. Even when the same concepts and dictums are accepted, shifts in emphasis and interpretation may significantly change their meaning and the action they produce. Consequently, education in China has undergone many twists and turns in recent decades, and the Maoist education that emerged during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1968) was radically different from the system that prevailed in the first decade of the new regime.

At this moment, as a consequence of the death of Mao Tse-tung and the purge of the radical wing of the Chinese Community Party headed by those now labeled as the "Gang of Four,"1 the educational scene presents a sharp contrast to that of a year ago, when a nationwide campaign against "right deviationism" was in full swing. What do the new developments portend in regard to the future course of education in China? What is likely to happen to the educational revolution that gathered momentum during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and produced a revolutionary program of education after it? What kind of education is proposed by the new leaders under Hua Kuo-feng? This seems an appropriate time to pause to take stock of the educational situation and to attempt to understand the meaning of the changes and even to peek into the future in light of what has taken place.


It is suggested in this article that amidst the changes of the last three decades one may discern the existence of three major models of education. One is the academic model, which in institutional form and pattern of curriculum organization is not unlike the conventional education that holds sway in the Western nations. The school is recognized as the major—almost only—educational agency and the work of the school centers in the classroom. Learning and study are almost synonymous, and study is inseparable from books. The curriculum consists of knowledge and skills arranged in graded sequences, with pre-requisities for advance from one level to another. Examinations and grades make for selectivity in various degrees and lead to the emergence of what is now called an educational elite, but this does not preclude mass education and universal education on the elementary level. The academic model is study-oriented and classroom-centered, with focus on the study of books and the acquisition of knowledge.

On the opposite side is the revolutionary model. It recognizes the school as merely one of the educational agencies in society and the classroom as one of the places where students learn. Learning takes place by engaging in labor, production, and political action. Where study is needed, the teaching and learning materials are not confined to books. The "whole society educates. "The responsibility for education is shared by farms, factories, industrial enterprises, the "mass campaigns," as well as the news media, the theater, the museum, and other vehicles of communication. "Social investigation" by observation of social and political processes and by personal contacts and interviews with the masses, even if illiterate, may be more productive than book study. Such academic paraphernalia as prerequisites for prescribed courses of study, credits and points, examinations and grades, lose their significance. Conventional standards and qualifications are rejected. All forms of educational elitism are shunned. Education, teaching, learning, and related concepts acquire a new meaning. The revolutionary model is action-oriented and society-centered, with focus on abilities and emotional conditioning developed and expressed in productive labor and revolutionary political action.

Between the two opposite models is a combination model in which one observes an intermixture of the features of the academic and the revolutionary models. At different times there have appeared different patterns of combination, with intermixture in various proportions and degrees. There may be a pattern in which the essential features of the academic model are preserved but the methods of the revolutionary model such as the "open-door" operation of the schools or supplementing classroom study with a variety of out-of-school experience are adopted. A variation of institutional form is the work-study program, with scheduled alternation of classroom study and out-of-school experience. Another pattern of the combination model is a dual system of "regular" and new-type schools parallel to each other. The objectives and philosophy of both the academic and the revolutionary models may be reflected in the same model. A combination model may veer in the direction of either the academic or the revolutionary.


The above three models have appeared at different times in the changing educational scene of recent decades. The new regime that came to power in 1949 inherited a system of education that represented a composite of foreign influences and a program designed by Nationalist China to serve as an instrument of nation building based on the ideology of the Kuomintang. To avoid sudden disruption, the new rulers of 1949 announced that the schools were expected to continue operation and the teachers were assured that their service was still needed. Expediency dictated that the old system be allowed to remain in operation until a new system guided by the new ideology was promulgated in 1950. With no time to produce new textbooks, some old textbooks of the Kuomintang period remained in use.2

The old system had undergone significant changes since the beginning of the century. The first system of modern schools was patterned after the Japanese. After the establishment of the Republic of China, the American model supplanted the Japanese and American influence escalated in the years during and after World War I. Dissatisfied with the American tradition of decentralized control, disillusioned with John Dewey's philosophy of pragmatism and student freedom, and impressed by the high scholarship standards of European schools, the Nationalists who came to power in the 1920s turned to European schools as models, and the advice of European educators was sought and followed, just as American educators had been welcomed in the previous decade. Although there were notable differences between the Japanese and the American systems in the types of schools and differences between the American and the European systems in the methods of administration and curricular organization, the Maoists in China have pointed out that education in Japan, the United States, and major European countries is all designed to serve capitalist-industrial society and that modern Chinese education before 1949 was dominated by the ideology of the bourgeois class and designed to perpetuate the values of the bourgeois-industrial social order. This was the academic model the new regime inherited.

In attempting to launch an educational system for the proletarian-socialist revolution, the Chinese Communist leaders did not quite know how to begin. Mao Tse-tung had spoken and written at length about education and culture in general, but he had said relatively little about schools and the problems of organizing and managing schools. There was not much in Mao's speeches and writings that could furnish concrete guidance for the establishment of a national system of education. Resolutely rejecting bourgeois ideology and bourgeois education, he turned to the Soviet Union for guidance. For more than a decade, Soviet experts and educators presided over a complete revamping of Chinese schools from the lower schools to the university. Goaded by the nationally publicized slogan "Learn from the Soviet Union," Chinese schoolmen followed the advice, or instructions, of the Soviet advisers in regard to the length of schooling, the organization of departments and courses of study, and all phases of school management ranging from the adoption of Soviet textbooks and Soviet methods of teaching to the embracing of Soviet theories of science and mathematics, as well as social studies. Soviet academic degrees and titles were imported. In terms of its magnitude, its powerful official backing, and its penetration into all levels and all phases of education and culture within a short time, the wholesale introduction of Soviet methods, content, and ideas surpassed any foreign influence exerted on Chinese education in the past.3 The transplantation of Soviet education was carried out in such haste and with such unquestioning acceptance that no effort was made to adapt to Chinese conditions.4

Underlying Sovietized education was the ideology of the proletarian-socialist revolution and the emphasis on making "new man" for the "new society." Political indoctrination occupied a prominent place in the curriculum. The old civics course and all teaching materials that reflected the Kuomintang ideology were banned. Marxism-Leninism (using Soviet textbooks) was a most important subject of study. Labor and production were themes that recurred in textbooks. "Collective learning" was introduced to prepare pupils for collective labor and collective living. School life was enlivened by numerous meetings for the "democratic" discussion of school problems, the further "study" of politics and ideology outside the classroom, and "thought-reform" activities.

Despite these changes, which in themselves seemed to be radical departures from the conventional program, education under Soviet tutelage did not present a truly revolutionary model. The school remained the major educational agency. The study of books constituted the main activity of the students. Though supplemented by field trips and political activities, the classroom was still the center of the stage. There were new courses of study, but the pattern of organized sequences with defined prerequisites for more advanced studies was unchanged. Examinations and grades were still important. Short-term schools for workers and peasants were established to encompass elementary and secondary education by part-time study in a few years, but the purpose was to enable them to enter the main stream of "regular" schools. For example, the Russian language replaced English as a required foreign language, but the place of foreign languages in the curriculum remained the same. All in all, the basic features of the academic model were not affected.

Two reasons may account for the preservation of the academic model. First, China in the 1950s was borrowing from the educational system then in vogue in the Soviet Union, rather than from the more radical and revolutionary education of the first decade of the USSR. Russia by 1930 had abandoned the daring experiments of the first decade5 and adopted a system designed to produce men and women needed by a nation concerned with development and industrialization. It had established an educational system that in its basic features was not radically different from the conventional school system of Western countries—in other words, the academic model. It was a conservative system with emphasis on systematic learning, though there was more attention to practical application than in Western schools in general. It was what the Maoists attack as "revisionist education."

Secondly, China's schoolmen—teachers and administrators—had been brought up under the academic model. They had been educated in academic schools at home and abroad and gained their professional experience in such a school system. Not only were they unschooled in the methods and philosophy of the revolutionary model, but they were, consciously or unconsciously, skeptical of what they considered to be unsystematic hit-and-miss methods of the revolutionary model. Consequently, even if they might have been in agreement with the general objectives of a revolutionary program of education for a new society, they could only fall back on their own educational and professional experience and try to employ the methods of the academic model to achieve the goals of the revolutionary model. The result was a kind of combination model with a mixture of academic and revolutionary features.


Sovietized education came under increasing attack in the late 1950s. Mao Tse-tung had made comments to indicate his dissatisfaction and the radicals and ideologues of the Communist Party launched an aggressive campaign against what they called bourgeois or revisionist education. The demand for a more revolutionary program of education resulted in the "educational revolution," which its proponents claimed to have been launched in 1958 and which gathered momentum during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and finally brought forth a system of education based on Mao Tse-tung's educational ideas. Thus emerged what we here call the revolutionary model.

The Maoists do not accord recognition to a combination model. They recognize only two opposing camps, the bourgeois-revisionist and the proletarian-revolutionary. Much has been said and written about the "struggle between two lines." Applied to education, the struggle means a choice between the academic model and the revolutionary. We add a combination model because in actual practice the program in effect during most of the time represented a combination or intermixture of the two opposing models.

A major document of the educational revolution is a critical review of educational development from 1949 to 1967 under the title "Chronology of 17 Years of the Two-line Struggle on the Educational Front."6 It appeared in an issue (May 6, 1967) of a publication named "The Educational Revolution" produced by the Educational Revolution Committee of the Peking Municipality. The first section of the document contains the following statement:

In the 17 years since the founding of the nation, there has existed on China's educational front, like on any other front, the struggle between two classes, two roads, and two command headquarters, as well as the struggle between Chairman Mao's proletarian educational line and the counterrevolutionary revisionist educational line represented by Liu Shao-ch'i. This struggle is rather complex, devious and violent.

According to the Maoists, Mao Tse-tung had pronounced the basic tenets of revolutionary education in the early days of the Chinese Soviet Republic in Kiangsi and later in the Shensi-Kansu-Ninghsia Border Region with the city of Yenan as center. These revolutionary principles were ignored or circumvented by the joint conspiracy of ideological revisionists (Chinese and Russian) and "bourgeois intellectuals" who dominated education. They worked to entrench "the bourgeois old-style regularized educational system and ... to transplant the pedagogical plans of the Soviet Union for middle and primary schools as well as Soviet teaching materials for some of the disciplines" (10).7 They minimized political ideological study and student participation in political activities. They gave first priority to the development of the intellect and distorted Mao's policy on labor by equating it with the Soviet polytechnic education. They decried the "chaotic phenomenon" caused by labor and political activities.

The "bourgeois intellectuals" controlled the schools. The successive ministers of education and other administrators were bourgeois scholars who appointed "comprador bourgeois educators" to key positions in schools and universities.8 They convened educational conferences that drafted regulations to reduce the time allotted to political and social activities. Preserving the "bourgeois educational ideology of 'intellect first,' " they disapproved "non-teaching activities inside the schools by teachers and students" (17). They maintained that the purpose of higher education was to produce the specialists urgently needed by the nation (18). They declared that "teaching is the central task which overrides everything else" (17), and the business of students is to study and acquire knowledge, most of which is irrelevant.

"Chronology" cites many instances of how the revisionists and bourgeois educators violated Mao's instruction that politics must be "in command" in education. They wanted students to devote themselves to the study of basic academic subjects, to the neglect of politics. They espoused "two kinds of educational system and two kinds of labor" and left no doubt that they considered the full-time academic schools superior to the work-study schools and labor schools, despite Chairman Mao's advocacy of the latter. Judging by bourgeois standards, they bemoaned the deterioration of "educational quality"; one of them went so far as to say that the contemporary schools "cannot be compared with the better schools of Peiyang warlordism and the Kuomintang era" (39). They wanted to produce an elite class by special schools for selected students devoting themselves to full-time study uninterrupted by labor and political activities.


There was a time when Mao apparently tolerated the bourgeois-revisionist system, supplemented by innovations that reflected his ideas on politics, labor, practical application, and experience. Whether the condemnation of revisionist education that he once permitted was a phase of the Sino-Soviet split or an outgrowth of his ideological shift to the left, it is difficult to tell. There was a time in Yenan when new-type schools of his liking existed side by side with the old-type "regular schools" in almost the same way that the latter-day revisionists advocated "two kinds of education." But by the time the Cultural Revolution and the educational revolution were in full swing, Mao was ready to jettison the old system and start anew. The parallel existence of regular schools and revolutionary schools was no longer acceptable. Existing schools and universities were closed. The school system in the form of well-regulated, ascending levels of teaching institutions actually disappeared. The new schools are only a part of a new educational system, in which out-of-school agencies play a very important role. Teachers no longer dominate the educational process; they are asked to learn from students, especially the ideologically advanced activists among them. Both students and teachers must constantly learn from the workers, peasants, and soldiers, who are deemed more sound ideologically and more devoted to the proletarian revolution by virtue of their single-minded, unquestioning acceptance of the communist ideology and the teachings of Chairman Mao.

The guidelines for school reform were briefly stated in Number 11 of the "16-Point Decision" of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, made public in August 1966. The document has been used to chart the course of the educational revolution. It says, in part:

In this great cultural revolution, the phenomenon of our schools being dominated by bourgeois intellectuals must be completely changed.

In every kind of school, we must apply the policy advanced by Comrade Mao Tse-tung, of education serving proletarian politics and education being combined with productive labor, so as to enable those receiving an education to develop morally, intellectually and physically to become labourers with socialist consciousness and culture.

The period of schooling should be shortened. Courses should be fewer and better ....

The central purpose of education is to turn out "successors to the revolutionary cause." The instillation of the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology is more important than the acquisition of knowledge, the molding of emotions and thought pattern more crucial than the development of the intellect. Good teachers are not the bourgeois scholars of yesterday but ideological stalwarts who are able to guide young people to develop into worthy "successors to the revolution." Knowledge is of no use apart from practice. Book study may be stultifying; it is of limited value, at best, and it can not take the place of what may be gained from actual practice in production and political struggle. In his "Instructions Concerning Educational work" in February 1964 Mao Tse-tung said:

Only T'ai-tsu and Ch'eng-tsu were the two successful emperors of the Ming Dynasty. One was illiterate and the other was able to read not many characters. Later, when the intellectuals came to power . . . the country was poorly run. Too much education is harmful ....

The schools resulting from such revolutionary ideas are radically different from the conventional. Shortening the period of schooling, reducing the number of courses, and abbreviating their content are only minor changes. The very nature of the school and its functions are radically changed. The "open door" means that teachers and students go out of the schools to learn at the production site and the scene of social and political "struggle." "Social investigation" is more fruitful than the study of books. What is done outside the schools and beyond the school hours is a continuation of what the school tries to do. Rebellion against the academic model is underscored by the absence of prerequisites and clearly understood criteria for advance and promotion. Evaluation of student achievement puts weight on nonacademic performance outside the classroom.

Space does not permit a detailed description of the Maoist model of education.9 Besides the changes in the schools, there are unique features of nonacademic and out-of-school agencies that have become integral parts of the educational system. Three are especially indicative of the philosophy of the Maoist revolutionary model: the rustication of youth for reeducation by workers, peasants, and soldiers; the "May 7 schools"; and the Mao Tse-tung Thought Propaganda Teams. All these provisions reflect the policy of dethroning the bourgeois intellectuals and producing a new generation of "proletarian intelligentsia" to assume the role of leadership in education and national affairs.

The idea of sending urban youth and government functionaries to the countryside was originally a part of the plan to give them the experience of manual labor in a rural environment. It was refurbished and expanded during the Cultural Revolution to create an institution that became an integral part of the educational system. Moreover, the rustication program was given a new importance and dignity by the term "reeducation," which is in effect another form of ideological remolding for "intellectuals." The following directive by Mao summarizes the main purpose of the program.10

The majority or the vast majority of the students trained in the old schools and colleges can integrate themselves with the workers, peasants, and students, and some have made inventions or innovations; they must, however, be re-educated by the workers, peasants, and soldiers under the guidance of the correct line, and thoroughly change their old ideology. Such intellectuals will be welcomed by the workers.

The term "intellectuals" is used in a broad sense to refer to all urban youth, the product of the bourgeois schools, as well as scholars and "higher intellectuals." Also included are cadres and functionaries of government offices and party organizations. All have to be purged of their bourgeois outlook and habits and to acquire the proletarian ideology and way of life. The "educated youth" and intellectuals of all kinds are told that they must identify and "integrate" with the workers-peasants-soldiers to become worthy members of proletarian society. Millions have been sent "up the mountain and down to the countryside" to work and live among the laboring masses to raise crops, build roads, construct buildings, reclaim wasteland, and engage in strenuous labor. More often than not, they are sent to undeveloped areas where life is harsh and rough, or areas far away from home to be "steeled" or tempered physically and ideologically.

Ideological-political remolding is a vital part of the program. It consists of daily study of Marxism-Leninism, Mao's directives on reeducation and related topics, and documents of party and government. The urbanites take part in ongoing mass movements, especially the Three Great Revolutionary Movements.11 Workers-peasants-soldiers are to lead in all phases of the reeducation program.

Millions of intellectuals, not excluding physicians and other professionals, have been sent "down to the country side "for such reeducation. The length of stay is indefinite, from a few months to a few years. Recent years have seen a shift of emphasis to encourage young people to settle down permanently in the countryside as the culminating act of integration with workers-peasants-soldiers. Young men and women have been encouraged to reject returning to the cities, to find spouses among the laboring masses and settle down to a life of labor and production.

Another unusual feature of the Maoist model is the implementation of proletarian leadership by dispatching Mao Tse-tung Thought Propaganda Teams into schools and universities to wrest the control of education from the bourgeois intellectuals. Manned by workers, peasants, and soldiers, these teams, under the guidance of government and party authorities, take over the administration of the schools and universities, preside over the ideological-political remolding of teachers and students, decide on the fitness of bourgeois intellectuals to serve as mentors of youth, and enter classrooms not only to supervise teaching but also to give lectures on labor, production, and ideological-political matters. Most of them have very little schooling and some are barely literate, but their knowledge of social conditions and their personal experience with poverty, exploitation, and social-economic inequalities make them ideal teachers to instill in youth and intellectuals a hatred of the old society and a determination to work for the new under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. This is not a temporary measure; it is to become a regular feature of Maoist education. In the words of Mao Tse-tung, the "propaganda teams should stay permanently in the schools . . . and they will always lead the schools."12 This is proletarian leadership in actual operation; it fulfills the stated aim of terminating the domination of education by bourgeois intellectuals.

Among the new schools, the May 7 Cadre School has received the greatest attention. Originally set up as a training school for cadres, it was named after Mao's directive issued on May 7, 1966, in which he said that study should be combined with "industrial work, farming and military affairs" and political work "to criticize the bourgeoisie."13 Subsequently, the school adopted the main features of the rustication program and also stressed integration with workers, peasants, and soldiers as its basic aim. Cadres were joined by writers, artists, and other intellectuals and professionals for periods of training. There are now many May 7 Cadre Schools and hundreds of May 7 schools. Labor, political activities, ideological study, are among the daily activities. Simple living and hard work prevail as in the reeducation of urban intellectuals.

The noteworthy aspect of the Maoist revolutionary model is that all such nonacademic and unconventional provisions are woven together with the schools into a planned system of education. The boundary lines between formal and informal education disappear; all agencies in the entire society are coordinated to serve the same goals. What in the academic model are called extracurricular activities become an integral part of the curriculum. What the students do after school hours and outside the schools is to all intents and purposes a part of the curriculum. Much of the program is managed locally and financed by local resources, but the overall direction and coordination come from the Communist Party through its branch organizations throughout the whole country.


The Maoist model did not work out so well in actual practice. There was confusion in regard to what was expected of teachers and students. Rustication produced disillusioned youth who drifted into cities and brought problems of youthful resentment and delinquency. Even among those who accepted the Maoist theory, many did not agree on its practical application; differences between the moderates and the radicals became more pronounced with the passage of time. By about 1973-1974, the ideologues and radicals who claimed to be the only faithful followers of Mao Tse-tung began to express alarm over what they considered as increasing deviations from the Maoist educational line. To be sure, some deviations were inevitable. Mao's directives and instructions, often expressed in terse statements, were subject to variations in interpretation and application. Furthermore, through his life he had tried to pursue two objectives that often contradicted each other: revolution and nation building. His "Red-expert" dualism was an example of this contradiction. There were times when Mao was more concerned with development and modernization—nation building, or "socialist construction"—and he would speak in favor of learning from other countries, even capitalist ones, and preserving at least the basic features of the academic model in education. He would tolerate some bourgeois intellectuals who were not quite "Red." At other times, he leaned more to the revolutionary side of his thinking, which led him to such adventures as the Big Leap Forward and the communes. He would then move away from the moderate elements in his party and lend support to the radical wing. "Redness" would be given greater emphasis in the Red-and-expert controversy. Before his final days, the radicals and ideologues, evidently with Mao's approval, launched a campaign against the "right deviationism wind." They claimed that reactionaries and revionists had again crept into positions of educational leadership and were working to reinstate the bourgeois-revisionist education that the educational revolution seemed to have crushed.

The campaign was extended to the whole country and reached an apex of heated emotions, accusations, and threats of "counterattack." It was called the "Great Debate in Education." When former President Richard Nixon and Mrs. Nixon visited China in February 1976, the then Acting Premier Hua Kuo-feng said in his toast: "In China, a revolutionary mass debate is going on in such circles as education, science, and technology. It is a continuation and deepening of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution."14 The ideologues and radicals, spearheaded by Mao's wife Chiang Ch'ing and her loyal supporters, were at the peak of their power and in full charge of the campaign. They charged that "old teachers" of the bourgeois-revisionist persuasion had taken advantage of the shortage of teachers to stage a comeback and spread ideas contrary to the Maoist line. The reactivated bourgeois intellectuals objected to overburdening students with labor and politics, leaving insufficient time for academic study. They once again began to stress "basic studies" and the acquisition of "basic" knowledge not immediately applicable to practice. They deplored the injection of politics and the class struggle into every subject of the curriculum. They wanted more selective procedures for admission into higher education. They advocated the "bold use of intellectuals" despite their bourgeois background. They looked down on the workers, peasants, and soldiers and questioned the ability of uneducated laborers to lead the veteran teachers and professional educators.15

The campaign or "Debate" raged with fury through 1975 and 1976. As stated earlier, political tides may change direction abruptly and education goes with the political line. After the death of Mao Tse-tung, his successor as chairman of the Communist Party lost little time in removing his widow and her fellow radicals and ideologues from power and influence. The purge of the "Gang of Four" was carried out with speed and firmness. The "Great Debate in Education" evaporated and a nationwide campaign against the "educational crimes" of the Gang of Four more than matched the anti-rightist deviationism campaign of the previous year in intensity and scope.


With regard to the dual objectives of revolution and nation building (i.e., development), the declarations and initial policies of Hua Kuo-feng give the impression that he is more concerned with the latter. He cannot fail, of course, to give immediate attention to politics and the consolidation of power, but the main thrust of his policy statements seems to be that the elimination of the evil influence and ideological deviations of the Gang of Four is necessary in order to pave the way for the all-important task of "socialist construction." In the short time since he came to power, he has convened two national conferences of strategic importance: a National Conference on Learning from Tachai in Agriculture (December 1976) and a National Conference on Learning from Taching in Industry (May 1977). The keynote for both conferences was the need to set the right course to speed up agricultural and industrial development. In the agricultural conference Hua quoted Mao Tse-tung's words "to mobilize all positive factors ... to build China into a powerful socialist country."16 In the Taching conference he repeated Mao's instruction to "take class struggle as the key link" but he laid stress on production again. "Revolution," he said, "means liberating the production forces."17 Yeh Chien-ying, now the second in command, in the same conference struck an ideological emphasis different from that of the radicals when he said that the transition to communism must be a gradual process to be "fulfilled only step by step and systematically through prolonged efforts."18 This relatively moderate stance is also reflected in educational pronouncements.

The campaign against the radicals (Gang of Four) has produced a sizable literature listing the specific ways in which they distorted Chairman Mao's instructions and advocated educational measures contrary to Mao's educational line. For example, in the Red-expert issue, the radicals are berated for one-sided emphasis on what Mao had said about Redness and for ignoring his recognition that experts and their expertise are essential to socialist construction. Likewise, their indiscriminate attack on bourgeois intellectuals is criticized today as a violation of Mao's policy on the wise use of intellectuals who have been successfully remolded.

Several articles by the personnel of the Ministry of Education are typical of the polemics of the current campaign. One deals with the problem of intellectual education.19 Chairman Mao had clearly pronounced an educational policy to achieve the moral, intellectual, and physical development of students so that they would become cultured laborers with socialist consciousness, to the end that the laboring class would become intellectuals and intellectuals would become laborers. The Gang of Four, however, anxious to turn education into an instrument for the restoration of capitalism, violated this policy. In their view, there were two different kinds of people, the uncultured laboring class and the cultured exploiting class. Chang Ch'un-ch'iao, one of the Gang of Four, once said: "Rather than a cultured exploiter or intellectual aristocrat, I prefer to have a laborer without culture." His words betrayed his concept of working class without culture. Consequently, he and his followers opposed intellectual education of any kind; they propagated the idea that "study is useless" and equated all intellectual education with the bourgeois concept of "intellect above all." They ignored the fact that while Mao criticized the bourgeois concept of "intellect above all" and ridiculed the futility of study in the bourgeois system of education, he was calling for the intellectual as well as the moral and physical development of the laboring class, because intellectual development under the aegis of a correct proletarian ideology is fundamentally different from what it is under bourgeois ideology. By refusing to recognize this distinction, the radicals recklessly hurled the charge of "intellect first" so that educational workers became afraid to talk about intellectual growth and shied from any attempt to bring culture to the laborers.

Another article that came out of the Ministry of Education is a summary of the views expressed in a forum to which were invited representatives of schools and colleges in Peking.20 It held the radicals responsible for an educational program that allowed young people to be corrupted by bourgeois ideology. When delinquent youths engaged in group fighting, Chang Ch'un-ch'iao was reported to have praised them for their courage. Breakdown of discipline led to the smashing of windows and the destruction of furniture in the classrooms. Fearful of being branded as bourgeois intellectuals, representatives of Peking University reported that science departments were afraid to teach basic science and avoided laboratory work rather than risk the stigma of "ivory tower." In defiance of the chairman's policy of reforming the intellectuals, the radicals struck terror in the hearts of teachers by their statement that all the teachers are bourgeois scholars with the bourgeois outlook, unfit to bring up successors to the revolutionary cause. The damage done to education was summarized by Peking Review (February 18, 1977, p. 12) as follows:

If anyone even so much as mentioned "acquire knowledge" or tried to do something about promoting intellectual development, the [radical] gang started throwing charges around like "giving top priority to intellectual development," "putting culture above everything else," "restoration of the old," and "taking the old path again."21


The opposing views in education are reflected in a number of concrete cases that have become focal points of controversy. One is the case of Chang T'ieh-sheng, a student who in 1973 was rejected for admission to an agricultural college because he failed in the final examination, which was to be the last step in admission procedure after proper certification of satisfactory labor and political record. He protested against an admission policy that ignored his good record as a laborer and political activist and put a premium on book knowledge that was not of primary importance in the revolutionary model of education. He had had reeducation in an agricultural commune and had become the head of a production team. With powerful official backing, his letter of protest was published in the prestigious People's Daily and he was proclaimed a national hero whose devotion to the revolution was praised in forums and by news media all over the country. His case was blown up to be a symbol of "the struggle between two lines, two roads." The upshot of it all was that the agricultural college yielded to pressure and agreed to admit him.

Now in the campaign against the Gang of Four, Chang is vilified as a shameless villian and "a concocted hero."22 He is described as a "henchman" of the Gang of Four who failed miserably in his written examination. His letter of protest had been edited and revised by his radical instigators before it was published. The examination in which he failed was not a difficult one, but he scored only 38 points in Chinese language (in a composition on "Serve the People"), 61 points in mathematics, and 6 points in chemistry and physics, with a total of 105 points for four subjects. He was used by the radicals to challenge the official policy of three-stage screening of applicants for entrance into college: two years of production service, certification of political record, and written examination. To decry the examination on cultural subjects was to oppose the government regulation on college enrollment, a veiled attack on then Premier Chou En-lai who had adopted a government policy to carry out Chairman Mao's educational line.23 The radicals were thus charged with anti-party and anti-Mao crimes—the most serious charges that could possibly be made.24

Case Number 2 is "Song of the Gardener." This is the name of an opera that made its first appearance in 1972 in Hunan province, where Hua Kuo-feng, currently premier and chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, was the first secretary of the Provincial Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. It portrayed the activities of a woman teacher who patiently guided a recalcitrant student who scorned study, discipline, and good manners and helped him to become a good student just as a good gardener would take care of her sprouts and plants. The story, enlivened by stirring music, won great popularity and was made into a motion picture "ardently welcomed by the great masses of workers, peasants, and soldiers."25 The glorification of a teacher, however, aroused the opposition of the ideologues and radicals, who were then minimizing the role of teachers generally condemned as bourgeois intellectuals. They attacked the theme of the opera as contrary to the Maoist educational line and propagating the bourgeois educational line putting premium on study, examinations, grades, and intellectual development. The high praise accorded the teacher by the opera downgraded the role of the party as the true mentor of youth and tended to reenforce the bourgeois concept of teacher-centered education. Good teachers are successful because they work under the direction of the Communist Party, and it is the party that should be lauded as the good gardener. Forums were organized all over the country to criticize the opera not only as a bad literary product but also as a vicious assault on revolutionary education in the struggle between two lines, two roads, and so forth. The opera was finally banned.

A slashing attack on the opera was published by the People's Daily (August 4, 1974), then controlled by the radicals and ideologues. It charged that the songs of the opera extolled the Confucian virtue of "respect and veneration of teachers." Toward its end the chorus sang "How can one wage revolution without culture?" thus fully exposing the neglect of politics and the bourgeois practice of giving first priority to intellectual development.26 The opera portrayed the delinquent student as one who neglected study and the good student as one who minded his books. This point of view was contrary to the high status of workers, peasants, and soldiers in proletarian society. The people we ought to glorify, said the radical critics, are the millions of workers, peasants, and soldiers who do not study before they take up revolutionary responsibility but engage in revolution before they undergo reeducation.

Now comes a reversal of the tide. An order to permit the restaging of the opera and the showing of the film was issued by the authorities in Hunan province as soon as the campaign against the Gang of Four was launched. Then followed a rebuttal of the charges made against the opera and film by various writers. In an article published by the People's Daily (November 29, 1976), now controlled by the new leaders of government and party, it is contended that the story in no way violates the Maoist educational line. There is no conflict between politics and culture as long as politics is in the dominant position. With proletarian ideology in command, the study of culture (i.e., academic study) can serve politics and advance the revolution. This study is very different from the bourgeois concept of "first priority to intellectual development." The "Song of the Gardener" does not at all contradict the principle of "politics in command" in education. On the other hand, the radicals' diatribe against the intellect is only a thin veil concealing their belief that the laboring class does not need knowledge and culture and that education for the masses is not compatible with the development of the intellect.

Case Number 3 is the issue of "basic studies." Mao Tse-tung's concept of theory and practice tends to emphasize practice rather than theory. He did not dismiss all theory as useless but he repeatedly criticized the "uselessness" of theory divorced from practice. Within this ideological framework, the relation of theory to practice has been a perplexing problem. When so much stress is laid on work-study programs to integrate theory with practice, and to the establishment of factories to insure close linkage between education and production, the question that baffles educational workers is whether there is room for the acquisition of knowledge not immediately applicable to the solution of practical problems, and where to draw the line between useful theory and "useless" theory. During and right after the Cultural Revolution, the study of theory and "impractical" knowledge was almost entirely crowded out of the curricula of schools and universities. Technology replaced basic science and theoretical science. After 1970, in an atmosphere of general relaxation that opened the way for foreign contacts and "detente" with the United States, educators made bold to discuss the importance of "basic studies" and theoretic science. One of the highly respected scholars who spoke and wrote emphatically on the importance of basic science was Chou P'ei-yuan, a physicist and vice president of the prestigious Peking University. He wrote an article in 1972 in which he expressed full accord with the principle of unity of theory and practice and with the criticism of the old educational practice of teaching much "useless" theory unrelated to practical problems.27 Nevertheless, he argued that science and technology are really inseparable and that scientific advance in history has been made possible by the study and understanding of "basic" theories and painstaking research in the laboratory. He therefore maintained that in order that science may benefit practice and enrich technology, scientific education must pay due regard to the study of "basic theories" and research in adequately equipped laboratories.

This kind of reasoning was not acceptable to the ideologues and radicals, who pounced on him as a symbol of educational revisionism. The story of the harassment visited upon him in the ensuing days is now told by Chou in an article telling how the Gang of Four obstructed the study of basic science in the years they were in power.28 Upon instructions from then Premier Chou En-lai, the two leading universities in China, Peking University and Tsing-hua University, had formulated plans to strengthen their science teaching and pay more attention to basic science. This development aroused the strong opposition of the radicals. They directed their fury against Chou P'ei-yuan and his article urging the study of basic science. By 1974 the Gang of Four had instigated educational circles throughout the nation to join in criticizing Chou's article, which became a target of scurrilous attack. Yao Wen-yuan, one of the Gang, is reported to have said that "Marxist philosophy is the basic theory of the natural sciences" and no more theory was needed for technological advance. Chou was called a "bourgeois authority" and a "right deviationist" bent on restoring the old system of education. Now free to express his views, scientist Chou charges that the radicals held a narrow concept of practice and had warped ideas about the practical needs of production; they scorned scientific experiments; their educational policy was to substitute labor for laboratory experience and to construct factories (for practice) instead of laboratories. Their interference had caused severe damage to science and technology in education, he concluded. According to an article written by a study group in the Institute of Philosophy and Social Science, the biology departments of universities dropped courses in genetics and evolution and restricted their offerings to crops and animal husbandry; medical schools eliminated fundamental courses in physiology, pathology, and anatomy; while other departments eliminated theoretical questions from their course plans and "put research in basic theories in cold storage."29


To what extent the rectification of the excesses perpetuated by the radicals will bring educational changes laying greater stress on academic studies or modifying the revolutionary features of the Maoist revolutionary model, it is too early to tell. At the time of this writing, the nationwide campaign against the Gang of Four is still being waged with unabated fury. As long as this continues, it seems safe to assume that any educational changes identified with the Gang of Four or bearing the stamp of radical sponsorship will be shelved for the present. What positive reforms will be made in the educational system is not altogether clear, partly because the new leaders have not spelled out a new "line" that may be announced as a more accurate interpretation of Mao's educational line. This is not likely to come about until the new leaders have consolidated their power and have had time to assess the educational situation in the light of present-day conditions.

In the meantime, fragmentary changes will be made. They may be harbingers of other changes in the same direction, or they may turn out to be temporary and tentative adjustments subject to modification. Partly to offset the opposition of the radicals to academic learning, some moves will be made in the direction of academic education. Opprobium will be removed from "intellectual development" as an objective of schooling. The study of books and the acquisition of knowledge will not be frowned upon as much as in recent years. Systematic learning will regain some of its lost place in school life. A system of schools with articulated levels may come into being, but they will not be the replica of schools of the old academic model. Curricular materials in graded sequences, with prerequisites for advanced studies, may return in some form.

The most conspicuous reforms currently introduced are the measures designed to strengthen higher education and its function to produce men and women qualified to undertake the important tasks of development and nation building. Students of ability will be selected from middle school graduates to enter higher institutions. They are presumably excused from the two years of labor and reeducation heretofore required. Entrance examinations are reinstated, and, according to announcements so far published, outstanding students will be admitted even though they may not meet the criteria of high production and political record. Educational quality is now stressed. The decline of educational standards in recent years is now decried as one of the major crimes of the Gang of Four.

No apology is made for the fact that the selection of talented students for high-quality education will lead to the rise of an educational elite and that those who are not academically qualified will not be given the same opportunity. The development of the intellect has again become an acceptable aim of education. As a matter of fact, the new developments point to the emergence of "two kinds of education" and a dual system of "regular" schools parallel to other types of schools such as part-time schools and those devoting more time to labor and production—a practice severely condemned during the Cultural Revolution. Schools where students devote themselves to the study of books and the acquisition of knowledge are gaining favor again.

Science and technology are given a new emphasis. The importance of "basic studies" and "theoretical science" is recognized. Some writers have advocated that the first two years of college or university should lay a foundation for advanced study by stressing basic studies and fundamental subjects, and that advanced study should concern itself with the study of theories whose practical value may not be evident for a long time.30 The heightened interest in science and technology is also underscored by the announcement that the government has decided to call a "national conference on science" in the spring of 1978.

The strengthening of higher education and the promotion of science and technology, in fact the entire program of development and "socialist construction," cannot go far without the active participation and support of scholars and intellectuals, who were a favorite target of attack during the Cultural Revolution, even by Mao Tse-tung at different times. Now, without open contradiction of the deceased leader, new emphasis is laid on the policy of "uniting with, educating, and remolding the intellectuals." While "remolding" and "reform" were the chief concern of the radicals, there is now a disposition to "unite with" the intellectuals and allow them an active role in education. Ideological remolding, however, is not abandoned. The demand for the "thought reform" of the intellectuals has not been completely dropped.

It is also recognized that China is way behind the West in science and technology and higher scholarship in general. The anti-foreign stance of the radicals is now a target of severe attack. China, it is said, must learn from other countries, even bourgeois countries. It is necessary to learn foreign technology before it is possible to adapt and, later, to create. We may thus expect to see more contacts between Chinese scholars and scientists and their counterparts abroad, and more opportunity for Chinese students in higher institutions to learn what advances are made in scholarship and science studies in other countries.

These changes do not mean a restoration of the academic model or revisionist education. The basic features of the Maoist revolutionary model will remain. The principles of "politics in command" and combining education with productive labor will be in force, although their application and interpretation may be less narrow and restrictive. Politics will not only determine the direction of educational change, but will continue to be a dominant factor in all phases of education. Ideological-political indoctrination and the remolding of thought, action, and emotions will still occupy central position. While formal education will receive more attention, seemingly reflecting an approach to the academic model, the informal and nonformal educational programs of the revolutionary model will still loom large. Hua Kuo-feng has said that the reeducation of urban youth and intellectuals by workers-peasants-soldiers will be continued. There are strong economic reasons for keeping millions of youth in the countryside for substantial production work and to relieve the urban population. No definite statement has been made about the Mao Thought Propaganda Teams.

The leadership of the Communist Party will remain an inviolable principle. The party controls education through the medium of the Mao Thought Propaganda Teams and a host of mass organizations under the direction of local as well as central party authorities. Intellectuals, relieved of harsh harassment and humiliating epithets of "bourgeois elements" and "capitalist-readers," may feel more inclined to make contributions, but they are not likely to play a leading role in the determination of educational policy. The leadership and authority of the Communist Party will not be diluted by the leadership of professionals. The "domination" of education by bourgeois educators is not going to be revived. The "old teachers" may have a better chance to serve despite their previous academic background, but they will still be required to undergo ideological-political remolding. Teacher training will continue to accent the ideological-political rather than the academic and pedagogical courses of study. In general, the status of the teachers will be improved; the "gardener" may win more respect from students and appreciative parents. After the direct attack currently directed against Chiang Ch'ing's domination of literature and art, writers and artists may feel more inclined to give expression to their creative talents.

The Maoist revolutionary model has made contributions to education by directing attention to the inadequacies and shortcomings of the academic model designed to meet the needs of capitalist-industrialized-urbanized countries, and by stressing the direct obligations of education to help solve the pressing problems of the day. Its revolutionary approaches have helped to break the stranglehold of traditional methods that have not been seriously challenged for too long. At the same time, the needs of nation building, development, and "socialist construction" call for an educational program that must go beyond the revolutionary model in the form aggressively advocated by the ideologues and radicals during the most feverish years of the educational revolution. Experience has shown that some of these needs can best be served by certain proven methods of the academic model in producing the kind of personnel demanded by nation building. Short-term training can produce paramedics and "barefoot doctors" as well as farm and factory technicians to meet immediate needs, but the nation will still need educational programs to produce doctors, engineers, and other experts who meet the standards of modern professional training. The revolution will also need leaders and "proletarian intelligentsia" whose education must include the study of other nations and world affairs if they are to understand the world they live in. The insufficiency of the revolutionary model as it has manifested itself may be attested by the fact that students and parents have at various times in recent years expressed a genuine desire for more academic studies than they were getting.31

This is to say that, after the air is cleared of the fire and smoke generated by emotionalized campaigns and recriminatory attacks and rebuttals, it is hoped that positive reforms and thoughtful planning may adopt and integrate the contributions of both the academic and the revolutionary models. In terms of the alternatives suggested in this paper, the result will be another variation of the combination model. Enriched by the experience of the educational revolution, it will probably be more revolutionary than the model in operation before 1966 but more academic than the model of the ideologues and radicals. A combination model, however, is not a simple or static formula; changing proportions of intermixture call for constant adjustment. Torn between conflicting concepts of opposite models and vacillating between extremes, a combination model may fail to keep its equilibrium or to see its direction clearly. To maintain perspective and keep their direction clearly in view is a most challenging task that will tax the vision and ingenuity of Chinese leaders.

1 The term refers to Mao's widow, Chiang Ch'ing, and her three major associates.

2 "Chronology of the Two-road Struggle on the Educational Front in the Past Seventeen Years," Chinese Education, Spring 1968, p. 10 (hereafter cited as "Chronology").

3 See reports by Ch'ien Chun-jui, then Minister of Culture, in Jen Min Jih Pao (People's Daily, published in Peking, January 12, 1957, and April 18, 1958) (hereafter cited as JMJP); Klaus Mehnert, China Returns (New York: E.P. Button, 1972), p. 26; and also an article by Yang Hsiu-feng, then Minister of Higher Education, in Kuang Ming Jip Pao (daily newspaper in Peking, November 6, 1967) (hereafter cited as KMJP).

4 The slogan was to "transplant first and adapt later." See "Chronology," pp. 8,14.

5 Some of the new ventures were described in Albert P. Pinkeirch, New Education in the Soviet Republic, trans. Nuncia Perlmutter (New York: John Day, 1929).

6 Translation of complete text, with a slight variation in the title, in Chinese Education, Spring 1968.

7 Quotations in this section of the paper are from "Chronology." The numbers following the quotations refer to pages in the translated text.

8 Several presidents of noted universities became targets of attack during the educational revolution.

9 For such a description, see Theodore H.E. Chen, The Maoist Educational Revolution (New York: Praeger, 1974).

10 Peking Review, December 6, 1968, p. 24.

11 They are the class struggle, the struggle for production, and scientific experiments. The last refers mainly to new techniques and tools for the improvement of production.

12 Mao's Directive on Working Class Leadership, Peking Review, August 30, 1968.

13 Translation of May 7 Directive, see Current Background (Hong Kong: U.S. Consulate General), No. 885, July 31, 1969.

14 Peking Review, February 29, 1976, p. 5.

15 Some examples of criticisms of bourgeois-revisionist thinking alleged to have prevailed in education may be found in the following articles: "The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution Continues and Deepens," Peking Review, March 19, 1976; "The Direction of the Educational Revolution Must Not Be Altered," Hung Ch'i (Red Flag), December 1, 1975; Liang Hsiao, "The Struggle between the Two Lines on the Educational Front," JMJP, March 15, 1976; "The Working Class Must Permanently Lead the Schools," KMJP, March 30, 1976; several articles on the Great Debate in JMJP, March 10, 1976; and Chi P'ing, "Compromise Is Revisionism," Hung Ch'i, February 1976.

16 Peking Review, January 1, 1977, p. 32.

17 Peking Review, May 20, 1977, p. 11.

18 Ibid., p. 17.

19 "Chairman Mao's Educational Policy Must Not Be Distorted" (translation from Chinese original), KMJP, November 23, 1976.

20 Report in JMJP, December 19, 1976.

21 The statements in quotation marks are the most frequent criticisms that Maoists have made against bourgeois education.

22 Peking Review, February 18, 1977, pp. 13-15.

23 Ibid.; also "The Political Fraud of a Counterrevolutionary," JMJP, November 30, 1976.

24 It may be noted that the radicals are today the targets of the very epithets—anti-party and anti-Mao—that they once hurled against the revisionst and ideological opponents within their own party.

25 "The suppression of the 'Song of the Gardener' was an act in defiance of the Party," JMJP, November 20, 1976.

26 The word "culture" in contemporary Chinese education usually means academic study.

27 "Views on the Educational Revolution with respect to the Teaching of Science in a Comprehensive University," KMJP, October 6, 1972.

28 JMJP, January 12, 1977.

29 "The Reactionary Character of the Concept 'Theories Are Useless,' " JMJP, January 18,1977.

30 See article by a leading committee of the Chiaotung University (Sian), in Hung-Chi (Red Flag], August 1977.

31 See report on student interest in China News Analysis

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 79 Number 3, 1978, p. 365-388
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1146, Date Accessed: 1/18/2022 5:41:04 PM

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