I met the most remarkable woman by chance at a holiday party. Mrs. Zhao is a retired professor and researcher from UCLA. She was friendly and sociable and when I asked her what she did, she started to unravel her story for me. Realizing that I am familiar with Chinese history and culture, she told me more than would normally be expected in polite conversation.
In the 1960s she was a Professor of Physics at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangdong, China. This was during the Cultural Revolution when Mao Zedong shut down all the universities because they were considered elitist and not revolutionary. When her university was closed, she was sent to a farm to be educated in the ways of working farmers. She plowed fields for three years as she was being “re-educated.” All day long the workers had to shout “long live Chairman Mao” as they plowed. At night she taught the farmers to read and write.
During these years she never protested or complained, because to do so meant sure retribution including being denied meals, beatings and the infamous “struggle sessions” where people were forced to confess their “crimes” against the revolution. This was a difficult time in China, particularly for the well educated people and those in traditional arts. These people were viewed as proponents of the “old ways” and counterrevolutionaries. She told me that her colleagues were beaten and starved for disagreeing with the communist party bosses. Many people died in prison or from beatings after struggle sessions, if they did not confess.
When the University reopened, farmers were sent there together with the previous students. No matter their educational level or experience, everyone sat in classrooms together to learn from Mao’s Little Red Book. No other books were available for any subject because the books had all been burned by the Red Guard.
In 1982, a former colleague invited her to come to America to continue her research in microwave physics. She came to UCLA, where she continued her research and teaching for 25 years.
I know other people who lived through the Cultural Revolution and they will say that the period of struggle and change was worth it for China to emerge as the power house it is today. They will say that Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong, and that he brought China through a metamorphosis and into its industrial age. But Mrs. Zhao’s story and the way she told it to me touched a very emotional chord.
While China came out of the Great Famine and Cultural Revolution stronger, the effects are still apparent today. People in China are reluctant to talk about the government and its policies. China’s education system is rigid and structured around a fixed curriculum. Students are not taught or encouraged to think critically. A back-door culture has developed where things get done behind the scenes or through the “back door” and where priorities are set according to who you know and what influence you have. As a result, creativity and innovation have suffered over the past 30 or 40 years, which has resulted in a copy-cat business environment. Only now, with talented engineers, scientists and business people being trained in China’s top universities and in America and Europe, the historical and exceptional creativity and inventiveness of the Chinese is being renewed. The Chinese have a long history of invention and now it is blooming again.
There are lessons we must learn from history in China, America and other countries. We must do all possible to protect our education systems for all Americans at all levels. We must not allow the elites or political parties in power to dismiss or reduce funding to our schools. We must defend the objectivity and teaching of the sciences. We must be vigilant in maintaining high standards for STEM education. We must support and defend teachers and researchers. These people are building our future through our children and grandchildren.