The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village

Dongping Han’s talk is preceded by Reiko Redmond’s and Raymond Lotta’s introductions.

Dongping Han: I am not just going to talk about my book.  I’ll tell you my love story.  When I teach in the classroom and tell my students that it’s possible for people to work together, to solve their problems, to improve their lives together, most of my students say, “I don’t believe you.”  I say, “You don’t need to believe me, because you and I have different life experiences.”  In America, most people believe that human nature is selfish and that people are all selfish and only care about themselves.  They don’t want to work unless they are forced to work.  That’s what most Americans believe. . . .  When I tell my students that during the Cultural Revolution 17 million people, young people from urban areas, volunteered to work in the countryside with farmers, they say, “I don’t believe that!” . . .  I grew up in the countryside.  Both of my parents were illiterate.  Before I went to school, most of my cousins, and children who were older than I was, were not in school.  During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government empowered Chinese farmers to set up their own schools.  The Chinese elite today tell the Chinese people and the world that the Cultural Revolution was a national disaster, during which education suffered tremendously.  The truth of the story is that actually the Cultural Revolution expanded education to the countryside.  I did my research mostly in my own county, Jimo County, in Shandong Province.  Before the Cultural Revolution, there was only one high school in my county.  There were 750,000 people in my county at that time.  And the high school had only two classes each year.  Each class had 30 students.  So, each year, only 60 students from the entire county were able to go to high school.  In the 17 years before the Cultural Revolution, that high school only graduated 1,500 students.  800 of them left the countryside to go to college, and 700 others mostly went to work in urban areas.  There were 1,050 villages in my county; most of them didn’t have even one high school student at that time.  During the Cultural Revolution, during the ten years of the so-called national disaster, my county built 89 high schools.  From one to 89 in ten years’ time.  Before the Cultural Revolution, we had seven middle schools in the county; by the end of 1976, we had 249 middle schools, every village had a primary school, everybody was able to go to school, free of charge, without exams.  It became an entitlement: every body was allowed to go to school for free.

Dongping Han, who was a farmer and manager of a collective village factory during the Cultural Revolution, is a professor of history at Warren Wilson College and the author of The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village.  This talk was delivered at the symposium on “Rediscovering China’s Cultural Revolution: Art and Politics, Lived Experience, Legacies of Liberation,” University of California, Berkeley, 6-8 November 2009.  Video by Set the Record Straight.  The text above is an edited partial transcript of Han’s talk.

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