Formal education was something frowned upon during the Cultural Revolution, but it may have caused people to realize its importance
Donning a dark blue sweater over a white shirt, 62-year-old Chen Riqiang carries himself with an aura of poise and composure. Combined with the pair of frameless spectacles he wears, he looks like a professor that just walked out of a lecture.
Judging by his looks, one’s perception of Chen would rarely deviate from “a very knowledgeable man”, that is until he asks them to read the words on products at supermarkets, or when he has the attendant fill in an application form for him.
Chen isn’t blind, he just cannot read or write as a result of the disrupted education system during the Cultural Revolution.
“There were no schools open and I had no time to catch up,” he said.
On May 1966, Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution through a conference by implying that the enemies of the party were within the party itself. And in August that year, he shut down schools across the nation and mobilized red guards in order to destroy the “four olds”- old customs, culture, habits and ideas.
Only 13 years old when he lost the opportunity to go to school, Chen’s knowledge was extremely limited. On top of that, like many other students he was sent to work in the countryside so that he could be “re-educated” and learn about the importance of the working class in Mao’s political agenda.
As a result, the only words that Chen can write with much effort are his name. His illiteracy may come across as a shock to the younger generation, but in the 70s, only 53% of the Chinese population was considered as literate according to statistics from World Bank World Development Indicators and Unesco Statistics of Educational Attainment and Literacy.
During the Cultural Revolution, basic education was emphasized and intellectuals were heavily frowned upon, turning many away from pursuing knowledge. Moreover, students were encouraged to rise up against authority, causing many to denounce their teachers.
On August 5 1966, Bian Zhongyun, a deputy principal at the Experimental High School Attached to Beijing National University became the first victim of the cultural revolution when she was beaten to death with wooden sticks by her students. Subsequently, over 142,000 in the education circle was killed throughout the course of the Cultural Revolution.
For several years, China’s education system basically halted. Colleges and universities were closed until 1970 and most of them did not reopen until 1972, stripping many of the opportunity to learn. To make matters even worse, 17 million of China’s youth were sent to rural areas like Chen and in the countryside, where there were no opportunities for higher education.
To flee from China’s dire situation, Chen came to Hong Kong in 1980 hoping for a better future. But then his illiteracy became a problem because the only jobs he could get were hard labour and it wasn’t paying very well.
The jobs that paid better required a much higher level of education than Chen had and though he wanted to pursue education because of this, he was living on a very tight budget without the funds to pay for school. And with work taking up all of his time, he could never
The party may have constantly reinforced the belief that education as undesirable, but Chen’s tough time in Hong Kong as an illiterate person has made him realize the importance of education.
“I cannot do anything to help myself now, but I can help my son.”
Chen’s son, Chen Yau-wah graduated from the University of Hong Kong several years ago with a degree in Social Sciences. He recalls his father being very concerned about his academic performance all the time and as a child, he was constantly pushed to perform better.
“My dad had very high expectations for me and was always very strict,” the younger Chen said.
Yau-wah says that he was required to study for at least two hours every day, and placing below the top five of his grade was considered as unacceptable.
Chen explains that his insistence for his son to be well-educated derives from his own regret over having only an education that is useless in an evolving society.
Under Mao’s regime, students were not taught anything similar to modern education. The education system during the Cultural Revolution was geared towards teaching students practical skills that could help in various forms of production with the ultimate goal of benefitting the economy.
Although formal education was despised during the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s intent to spread basic education brought seemingly positive influences to China.
Prior to the revolution, less than half of China’s children had completed primary education; After the revolution, almost all completed it.
Prior to the revolution, only 15% had completed junior middle school; After the revolution over two-third had completed it.
On the surface it may seem that more people are being educated, but that came at the cost of a falling education standard and reduced schooling years.
Chinese history teacher Judy Wong says the upward trend of educated individuals could not make up for the decline in quality. She explained that during the revolution, actual academics, scientists and educators were persecuted and forced away from their professions. During which, selected students were chosen as “teachers” to educate the youth, the elimination of qualified teachers ensured that the education was nothing but inadequate.
In addition, she said that after the Cultural Revolution, many scholars fled, leaving China’s education in even worse conditions.
Qin Haoling, who was born into a farmer’s family in the countryside before the Cultural Revolution was given the opportunity to learn because of Mao’s focus on the lower working class.
“Education was not a top priority in our family,” Qin said.
Before the cultural revolution, Qin was born into a farmer’s family where education was not a top priority. During the Cultural Revolution, the fortunate were bullied and stripped of any opportunities to study but peasants like Qin, were given the basic education Mao emphasized.
At the end of the Cultural Revolution, Qin thought she was ready for a bright future because she was “educated”, despite having very limited knowledge. In fact she never thought her inadequate education would become a problem until she left with her husband to the city in the 90s.
Because she no longer could farm and the couple was financially struggling, Qin decided to look for a job only to find herself in the same position as Chen.
The lack of education limited her options and her options did not pay well, but to be educated Qin would have to pay for school. Like Chen, Qin ended up in a hole that she could not dig herself out from.
Unlike Chen, Qin does not push her son as hard. But she too believes that the next generation need proper education.
“ I do not want him to be stuck in my situation, so I always encourage him not to give up studying,” said Qin.
The Cultural Revolution may have disrupted the education system and caused the inadequately educated youth of that generation to suffer, but it certainly has made them learn the importance of education to prevent their next generation from the same fate.
Formal education may have been seen as a negative during the Cultural Revolution, but even the party acknowledged its importance when Deng Xiaoping began introducing educational reforms.
Deng reintroduced entrance exams for universities in 1977, and began to improve academic standards at all levels of educational institutes. Consequently, the literacy rate reached 66% and today it stands at 87%.
The Cultural Revolution has certainly alerted people to the importance of education, but with one whole generation of people inadequately educated, China has a long way to go to make up for this loss.