Higher Education Reform During the Cultural Revolution – A Milestone in the Advancement of Our Society
Written by Si Lan
Translated by Pao-yu Ching
Translator’s Note: One of the most vicious attacks on the Cultural Revolution was launched against the Higher Education Reform that Mao Zedong proposed in 1968 and carried out for a few years during the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s proposal to reform higher education had two main focuses: that university learning had be closely linked to the needs of agricultural and industrial production, and that students who entered universities should be selected from the ranks of workers, peasants, and soldiers. Mao highly valued learning that combined theory and practice, or “learning by doing.” He was concerned that the expanded university education since the establishment of the People’s Republic kept a growing number of students apart from larger society and limited them to classroom learning for too long. As a result of this kind of higher learning, Mao feared that universities would create a new tier of elites who considered themselves above ordinary workers, peasants, and the broad masses. The concrete reform as it was carried out during the Cultural Revolution abolished the college entrance examination, which put great emphasis on book learning. Such examinations had been rooted in China’s feudal past. They favoring young people from intellectual families and put the children of workers and peasants at a great disadvantage. After abolishing the entrance examination, most high school graduates went to work first, and the work place (factories and mines, units within the agricultural communes, and military units) was given the responsibility to decide who would be sent to study in universities. The expectation was that after graduation they would then return to their respective units to work.
Education reform in universities faced strong resistance from many directions. The most important concern was the quality of graduates. Since the entrance examinations selected the ”best” students from the “best” schools, college professors and administrators believed that doing away with them would lower academic standards. Soon after Mao died, his vision of educating workers, peasants, and soldiers to be new leaders of the socialist society was denounced. The new “reformers” charged that worker, peasant, and soldier students were not suited for college education, and they lacked the cultural background to become the educated. They charged that China had wasted ten precious years during the Cultural Revolution by not educating its brightest and most talented youth. In 1977 the college entrance examination was reinstated. The Education Reform instituted during the Cultural Revolution was repudiated and abandoned.
The author of this article was selected from the countryside to attend the Central China Normal University for teachers. She majored in mathematics. In the article she writes about her life experiences, including how she got into the university, how they studied and learned, her life on campus, and what she did after she graduated. She also gives an overall evaluation of education reform during the Cultural Revolution. I think this is a good article for people who are interested in many of the newborn things launched during the Cultural Revolution and their significance in creating a new society even after its demise. For this reason I translated this article into English for a wider audience – PYC
In July 1968 we were celebrating the successful completion of the Ninth Party Congress and our nation was covered with the joyful color of red. At this historical juncture Chairman Mao issued the important directive on how we should revolutionize our university education. He said, “We need to continue to build our university education. I am mainly referring here to the science and engineering programs in universities – however, we need to shorten the duration of these programs. We need to revolutionize our education. …University students should be selected from workers and peasants. After a few years of study in universities they will then return to production.”
Chairman Mao’s directive brought spring and rain to nurture the seeds of an education revolution, which were planted in the soil of socialism. Soon after the “July 21 Directive” workers’ universities, communist laboring universities and other new types of universities sprouted up everywhere. Waves of peasant, worker and soldier students poured into universities all over China from the countryside, from factories and mines, and from the military. They came to the new battlefields of continuing revolution, pledging never to disappoint the Party and the people who sent them there. They came with the determination to receive education, to administer the universities, and to use Mao Zedong Thought to reform and change the universities.
I was born and grew up in a village in Hubei Province. Our family was very poor. My mother died young and my father was a member of the production team. When I was young I had to quit school for three years in order to help out at home. Then in July 1968 I graduated from junior high school and returned home to work as a farmer. The same year I was elected to become the accountant of the production team. In the spring of 1972 I was elected to attend Miaoling High School in E-cheng County, and there I was elected as the Party Secretary of the student body. I graduated in 1972. Miaoling High School and the regional Party Secretary nominated me to attend the Central China Normal University for teachers, where I majored in mathematics.
On a bright sunny morning other students and I marched in the door of Central China Normal University accompanied by the song “Peasant, Worker, and Soldier Students”. Teachers and upper level classmates welcomed us at the door. The Party Secretary of the Mathematics Department had a big welcome party for us, and the Chairman of the department and other teachers came to visit us in the dormitory. As part of the festivities there were basketball games and arts and evening culture performances. The University also organized field trips for us. We visited Chairman Mao’s old home and where he gave talks on agriculture. We also visited Wuhan Steel, Wuhan Heavy Instrument, and Wuhan Exhibition Hall. The new students then took a test so we could be divided into different teams. My team had 28 students and the composition was as follows: 30% were students just graduated from high school, 10% of whom came from the best high schools in Wuhan area. The others were students who came directly from agricultural production, and most of them had teaching experience in the elementary and high schools of their brigades and/or communes.
There were four basic criteria used for selecting young people to attend universities: political consciousness and behavior to demonstrate it, love for physical labor, a good academic foundation, and good health. It is also important to point out that there were potential problems associated with how students were selected by their work units. It was obviously not an easy procedure, because those who were in a position to make such selections might play favorites. It was also possible that people who had political clout could influence decisions. However, if decisions were made unfairly, in most cases, sooner or later people would find out and those who made them would be criticized. It was an open system and the overwhelming majority of people tried hard to do the right thing.
Although we came from different backgrounds, we got along very well. We treated one another as comrades. From our daily lives to going to classes, participating in debates, doing homework, and training in athletic programs, we did not feel there were any differences or any barriers among us. In 1974 when my grandmother died, a classmate sent 15 RMB to my family. My classmates helped me in other ways too. One helped me make comforter, another helped me copy articles I wrote for our class literature journal. Some classmates also came to my home village to visit. At that time we did not pay any tuition for our education. Worker and soldier students continued to receive their wages from their units. Others received 13.5 RMB worth of meal tickets for our food, enough for the whole month, and another 5 RMB monthly allowance. With our student IDs, we received free medical care and free entrance to the school’s bathhouse.
At that time students had very active lives on campuses, and we kept a tight schedule. We got up at 6:00 in the morning. At 6:30 we gathered together to do morning exercises and then morning study. Classes started at 8:00. After lunch we rested until 2:00 pm then the afternoon classes began or we studied on our own. At 5:30 our extracurricular activities started. At the ringing of the 5:30 bell the whole campus suddenly filled with activities of various kinds. We went running, played basketball, badminton, or volleyball. We took turns cleaning our classrooms, dormitory, bathrooms, hallways, and the yard. Some of us did calligraphy and painting and we also wrote stories for our wall journals. Some sang and danced. My two classmates and I joined our departmental orchestra, so we used the time to practice. We had political study every Thursday morning, and we all gathered in the auditorium to listen to lectures and reports. Afterwards we were divided into small groups for discussion. Every Saturday afternoon we went to South Lake Farm to participate in agricultural production and when we were there we often had the chance to observe woman soldiers doing their training and/or rehearsing their cultural programs. We had the best time on Saturday evenings. We usually ate supper early and then moved our chairs from the dorm rooms outside to secure places in the open field chatting and waiting for the movies to start.
Sunday was a day of rest. We did our chores, went to the library, wrote articles, went strolling on the streets outside our campus, or stayed behind, enjoying visitors from home. For the autumn and spring festivals and also during New Year celebrations, we had the Provincial Dance Group, Provincial Chorus Group, Wuhan Dance Group, and Wuhan Acrobatic Group, come to give performances. On other national holidays we published special editions of our school journal and the university sent representatives to cities and to the different districts to participate in activities there. I participated in different activities to celebrate significant events in Wuhan a few times. I also wrote quite a few articles for the special editions of our school journal. During the one-month summer vacation some of us stayed in school to study, some of us went home, and others participated in production. Every year during the Chinese New Year we had a 10-day vacation to celebrate with our families.
The curriculum of the Mathematics Department was set up by following Chairman Mao’s direction on university education and according to what was needed for teaching math at the high school level. The objectives of our study were to serve industrial and agricultural production. The emphasis was placed on students’ thinking methods by learning mathematical theories and practical skills. We were required to take general education courses in philosophy, political economics, history and geography. In philosophy we studied Engel’s Dialectics of Nature, and Marx’s writing on mathematics. The study of history included the development of mathematics in Chinese history. For mathematical theory we studied: the Study of High School Mathematics (2 volumes), Mathematical Analysis (4 volumes), Advanced Algebra (2 volumes). Applied Mathematics included Mathematical Statistics, Geometry and Methods of Mechanical Graphing, Surveying in Agricultural Villages, Methods of Teaching Math, Mathematical Method for Calculating Optimum and Applied Mathematics in Agriculture (1 volume each). We also studied the relationship between mathematics and quantum mechanics, electricity, and radio.
The way we learned was we first prepared the lessons on our own then we went to class to listen to the lectures. Afterwards we had discussions and did our exercises. Additionally we went to the school’s factory and farm and its experimental station to practice what we learned. Then we went to the schools that were set up by factories, mines and agricultural communes (and brigades) to listen to lectures and participate in something called “Three-in-One” teams to tackle difficult problems. The benefit of this kind of hands-on learning was that the students were not only were able to grasp theory and knowledge but also to integrate them with practice. In addition to learning the theories, we also did physical work. We learned how to do certain calculations, how to graph, survey, drive tractors, and how to set up radio equipment and so forth. The most important thing was that we were able to keep our characters as laboring people and were not separated from the laboring class.
The chairman of our department and some teachers established long-term relationships with the technological departments of several enterprises in our province. In the last semester before we graduated, we did our internships at these places. Before leaving, our teachers gave us more lectures on applied math and then sent us in teams to different places to study and learn. Our team had nine people and I was the coordinator. We had our advanced algebra professor Zhou accompany us for consultation. We first went to the Red Star Leather Enterprise on Xin-hua Road in Hankou to help improve the quality of the leather by solving the problem of finding the right formula for the leather coating. Then we went as interns to the agricultural machinery factory of Cai-dian Commune, the Hongsu Brigade, and the Cai-dian High School to learn. We learned from the workers, peasants and teachers about production experiments and teaching methods. During the day we participated in production and teaching. We studied together with the technical teams in factories and in agricultural production teams on how to improve technology. We wrote articles and posted them in their wall journals. During the evenings we held discussion sessions to critique bourgeois rights and to rehearse our cultural programs. We also did performances for people we worked with. During that semester we also went to a meteorological station in Huang-bo County to help analyze data on weather, and we also completed the survey and design of the Hong-su canal for the Cai-dian Commune.
Academically I was not at the top of my class. I was about in the middle. However, I had a solid foundation for teaching mathematics to students who majored in math or engineering. After graduation I was asked to be in charge of the Corresponding School of E-cheng Normal School for high school teachers. Within a month after I arrived we received a notice from the County Educational Bureau to start our first experimental class in training math teachers. We soon started the class with forty students selected from several commune high schools. The students included team heads of math teachers and other selected teachers. For this class I taught five days of mathematical theory. Another teacher from E-cheng Normal School taught applied math in the fields. This first experimental class immediately caught the attention of those in the field of mathematics in E-cheng. Then two other communes, Ding-zhu Commune and Xu-guang Commune, started their own teacher training classes. Each commune had more than 30 teachers from junior high and high schools participating in the training classes. Every Wednesday and Saturday I went to teach a whole day class at each of the communes. The subjects of the classes included Mathematical Statistics and Methods of Teaching Math. Students in these classes gave very positive evaluations and feedback of my teaching. By 1977 the university entrance examination system was restored. I was asked to help students review their high school math to prepare them for the entrance examination. I did the same to prepare the 1978 and 1979 high school graduates to take their college entrance examinations. I was elected to be the model math teacher of the whole county.
In 1980 I also took the entrance examination to enter the graduate school of China’s Social Science Academy. The subjects of the examination included: English, Fundamental Theories of Marxism and Leninism, Historical Dialectics, Sociology, Advanced Mathematics, and Statistical Theory. I passed the examination and became a Researcher in Sociology at Hubei Academy of Social Science. By that time the worker, peasant, and soldier university study program disappeared just like all other newborn things in the Cultural Revolution. They disappeared from the red earth of China like falling stars. However, even though the education revolution was defeated, its glory continues to shine – just like the Paris Commune. The education revolution was a successful attempt for workers, peasants, and soldiers to occupy the sphere of ideology. It was an unprecedented milestone in human development on the long road of human emancipation. After it was first born it flourished but was then defeated.
Our socialist system was the consolidation of Marxist and Leninist Theories with our own historical cultural traditions. The socialist system was able to absorb the experiences of our long struggles in the revolutionary bases with the experiences of socialist construction in the Soviet Union. Up to this day our socialist system is still the highest political accomplishment in the length of human history. The essence of our socialist system was based on the public ownership of the means of production and a system of distribution according to how much labor one contributed. On that basis we built a government that served the people and a government that recognized that the people were the masters of our country. We were able to develop our production according to the growing material and cultural needs of our people and also to develop all kinds of social enterprises that benefited the people. That was one of the fundamental characteristics of our socialist system. On the other hand our society grew out of an old exploitative society and political system. Therefore, it still carried the birthmarks of the old society, such as business operations by individual families, individual family farming, old village politics, and extensive control held by the head of the family, and so forth. That was the other fundamental characteristic of our society.
The revolutionary communists tried to find the most appropriate forms of organization to meet the demands of our country and people. They went through many experiments – some succeeded and others failed. However, by 1965 the basic structure of our social structure was solidified. In agricultural production the three-tiered ownership of production (the commune, brigade and team) was set up in the communes with the team serving the basic unit of production. The ownership of the means of production in industries belonged to the whole people. These two kinds of ownership existed side by side with ownership by all the people playing the dominant role and collective ownership playing the supplementary role. The productive system of agriculture, industry, mining, commerce and trading was built on the co-existence of the two types of ownership.
The system of distribution according to the amount of capital one had was replaced by distribution according to the amount of labor one contributed. In the military the ranking system was abolished and the new system of equality between officers and ordinary soldiers was established. The lesser status of women had a long history in Chinese feudal society so it was a hard struggle to oppose gender discrimination in all spheres of the new society. However, gender equality was almost reached. There was still a ways to go in both ideology and in action before people could in fact become the masters of our country and to institute a government that could serve the needs of the people. For example, should the cadres make the major decisions or should it be the people who make them? Should medical resources and medical personnel be placed mainly in the urban centers or there should be a balance in allocation between the urban and rural areas? Should higher education, culture, literature and art serve the elite or should they serve the broad masses? After almost twenty years after the revolution these were still unanswered questions. We needed another revolution that allowed us to look deeper into our souls so we could continuously search for ways to perfect our society.
Then came the first three stormy years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1969), when our souls were baptized. The most obvious change during those years was the rising consciousness of the broad masses. They became fully conscious of the fact that they should be the ones in charge of their own destiny. In the process of this change the broad masses not only paid closer attention to national political events, they also became concerned with what was going on. They believed that they had a right to criticize the government if the government did something wrong. During the Cultural Revolution the masses had the opportunity to be part of the three-in-one leadership teams in handling political affairs. They also made writing big character posters as a way to expose any wrongdoings of the cadres. Thus, big character posters became a tool to supervise the cadres. Through the process the cadres transformed themselves. Instead of looking upward to the policy makers and then simply issuing orders to the masses, they began paying close attention to how the masses were responding to the policies.
The revolution continued after the first three years and during the next seven years the critique of bourgeois rights went on. At the same time the system of sending intellectual youth to the countryside to receive education from poor and lower middle peasants was first established and gradually improved. There was also the program of sending cadres to the May 7th School to receive re-education and training, along with the program of sending medical personnel to the countryside. The direction of art and culture was also transformed to focus on creative works that recorded the accomplishments of workers, peasants, and soldiers. All of these changes were aimed at building a system of organizations that would fit well with industrial and agricultural production. The system had mechanisms that served the workers and peasants in their tasks of managing production and in the related fields of technology and culture.
The socialist agricultural and industrial productive system not only provided the training ground for worker, peasant, and soldier students to study and lean; it also provided places for graduates to work and to use what they had learned.
In villages, worker, peasant and soldier student graduates filled many positions in organizations that directly served production and provided services to the peasants. At the county, district and commune levels: graduates worked in medical clinics and hospitals, taught elementary schools and high schools, and did art and cultural work in cultural centers. These graduates were also furniture makers and retailers in stores and food centers, and worked in agricultural machinery/farm tool workshops. At the commune and brigade levels they worked as teachers, barefoot doctors, sales personnel, and arts and cultural propaganda workers thus providing various services to large numbers of peasants. Many also worked at farms, forests, farm animal stations, construction, transport, agricultural and forestry technological stations, veterinary stations, plant protection stations, irrigation stations, and stations that were responsible for designing and planning farmland construction work that required special skills. These graduates also worked at the brigade and team levels aimed at raising the quality of management. They served as financial planners, team accountants, and storage managers.
In cities and townships, these graduates also provided services that served industrial production, workers and other urban residents. They worked in departments of research and design, technology, production and supply, finance, transportation, and quality control in large, medium, and small industrial enterprises. They also worked in places that served the urban masses directly, in medical clinics and hospitals, stores, banks, schools, cultural centers, radio and television stations, newspaper and magazine publishing houses, public welfare organizations, bus transportation, police stations, people’s court, and water and gas enterprises. Graduates from universities were able to improve the quality of management in industrial enterprises and raise the political consciousness in mass organizations.
In 1977 the government restored the university entrance examination system and ended the worker, peasant, and soldier university study program. With the demise of the Education Reform instituted during the Cultural Revolution, the connection between various work units and graduates of universities also fell apart. The technical network of industrial enterprises also became dysfunctional. Many top enterprises in China today are monopolized by foreign capital and no longer hire Chinese workers to fill their high tech professional positions. Many university graduates now complain that graduation means the beginning of unemployment. At the same time the best of China’s university graduates find ways to study abroad. Some have commented that our higher education system has become a prep school for foreign universities.
By the time the Cultural Revolution began, the socialist cultural situation had reached a higher stage, so it became possible to reform higher education. Consequently higher education reform also became a force that continually pushed socialist development forward. The Education Reform made three major contributions toward advancing socialism:
One: The Education Reform helped workers, peasants, and soldiers establish their dominant positions in the socialist system superstructure, thus strengthening their role as masters of our country. After Liberation workers, peasants and soldiers overturned the old exploitive system and transformed themselves from slaves of the old society to the masters of our country in the spheres of agricultural and industrial production as well as in the building of our national military defense. However, in the sphere of education and culture, where the intellectuals played a dominant role, the position of workers, peasants, and soldiers was only marginal. The Higher Education Reform that enabled workers, peasants, and soldiers to attend universities was a breakthrough in changing intellectual domination in higher learning. It was a very important reform that helped transform the structure in the ideological sphere. Only through such a transformation it was possible for universities of the old type to become the place where workers, peasants, and soldiers received their education to become new working class intellectuals. The new working class intellectuals were then the dominant force in the superstructure sphere in transforming workers, peasants, and soldiers to become masters of their country. The focus of higher education in those years was “Serve the workers, peasants, and soldiers.” Workers, peasants, and soldiers were in universities to receive an education at the same time they were also the main forces to reform education. The reform in education was not at all like what later was said about it. It was not chaotic. We did not launch random attacks on others. In fact we paid great respect to our teachers. The main focus of the reform was to transform our own world outlook. Through disciplining ourselves in political studies, helping our classmates, volunteering our labor, and doing small tasks such as cleaning our schools and doing small chores, we transformed our thinking and how we related to others. The transformation of ourselves came first and then came the critique of bourgeois rights and feudal relationships, and making suggestions on how teaching and school administration could be improved. The emphasis was on encouraging self-motivated transformation in our own world outlook. The Education Reform was a newborn thing that attempted to make a fundamental break with traditional thinking and old habits. Making a fundamental break with the past was the reason why it was attacked from both the Right and the Ultra-left. They did everything to discredit the Higher Education Reform. They launched vicious attacks on the quality of education and charged that worker, peasant, and soldier students lacked the cultural background to receive university education.
Two: The Higher Education Reform provided a distinguished system that organically integrated education with proletarian politics, production, and research. The reform answered some fundamental questions such as: what kind of education system should a socialist system have? Who should this education system serve? It is very clear that if the education system did not serve socialism or the people, it would serve imperialism and the exploiting class. During the Cultural Revolution the universities made use of Marxism, Leninism, and Mao Zedong Thought to revolutionize students so they would be able to be think critically. Students at that time were very clear about the direction of our revolution and how to distinguish right from wrong. That was in sharp contrast to today’s students who are unable to distinguish what on the surface seems to be correct but in fact is not.
The curriculum in universities during the Cultural Revolution was closely tied to the goal of serving the people and serving production. Universities used tremendous amounts of resources to organize teams of teachers to write and edit teaching and research materials to build a solid foundation of special fields by expanding and deepening their content. Knowledge of these special fields was tested through production and teaching. Through many years of experimenting the teaching materials continued to be improved and perfected. This was again in sharp contrast to how teaching materials are put together today. Professors in today’s universities write and edit textbooks for the purpose of earning extra income and to acquire promotions. They put out books according to the “market demand.” They do their work without any serious research, mainly by copying work of others. In the past teaching methods were revolutionized to integrate teaching with production and research. Research was aimed at advancing production and building the foundation of knowledge. That approach to education transformed the ivory towers into frontiers where enthusiastic students learned to become the new educated laboring class who had both the proletarian outlook and also special knowledge and skills.
Three, in the past 30 some years a large number of graduates from the worker, peasant, and soldier university study program have made important contributions to our society. During the Cultural Revolution universities and colleges in China enrolled seven classes of worker, peasant, and soldier students for a total number of 2.3 million. In addition there were another 2 million students who graduated from “July 21st” universities established by large and medium industrial and mining enterprises and other laboring communist universities established by counties. Among the graduates of worker, peasant, and soldier students 70% returned to the work units that had sent them, and the other 30% were assigned jobs to work in different branches of the governments. The graduates of “July 21st “ universities and laboring communist universities have worked in factories, mines. Some also worked in communes and brigades until they were dissolved. After 30 years many of these graduates now hold important positions in many fields including in leadership positions in both the central and the local governments. Many graduates are now accomplished scholars, writers, and journalists.
Among the twenty-eight graduates of my own class, twenty have been teaching math at high schools, normal schools for teachers or other occupational schools. As for the other eight, one went to study at a graduate school in the United States and returned to become an accomplished mathematician, three are now professors in universities, one has become a researcher at the Social Science Academy, one works for the human resources department of an university, another one has become the head of a county, and one is the vice-chief of a provincial department.
At the same time we recognize the positive contributions made by the Education Reform during the Cultural Revolution, we also need to recognize the mistakes made in instituting the reform. For example we glorified Zhang Tie-shang entering into university by handing in a blank piece of paper during the entrance examination without carefully studying his background. As a result we let those who opposed the Education Reform use this example to discredit the reform. According to Zhang’s academic records in high school and his abilities serving as the heard of his production team, he had the qualifications to be admitted into the university. When we ignored facts about his background and only emphasized his blank examination paper, we lost the chance to defend the Education Reform.
Educational reform during the Cultural Revolution was the third reform in higher learning after thousands of years of the private tutor system under the feudal system. The first was the reform at the end of the Qing dynasty, abolishing the national examination system, which selected civil servants for the imperial court. The second was a higher education reform in 1952, soon after the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The direction of Education Reform during the Cultural Revolution was very clear and it was towards advancing human society. The theory of the reform and its practices are significant and they are treasures of China and even of the world. Looking back at the process of carrying out the reform many mistakes were made. However, before there was time to learn from these mistakes and to further improve the new higher education system, it died in its infancy.
＊The paper was published in the Utopia Website (xyzxsx,com) on July 19, 2001
 A wall journal consits of articles and reports and is usually posted on the back wall of a classroom. Wall journal has had a long history in China’s schools, work units, and neighborhoods.
 Mathematic Method for Calculating Optimum was a subject that taught how to use mathematics to figure out using the least amount of resources and achieving the highest return in production
 There were many different kinds of three-in-one teams. For example in the factories the three-in-one team consisted of workers, engineers and cadres. Other three-in-one could be teams consisted of the young, the old, and the middle aged.
 Zhang Tie-shang handing in blank examination papers was a famous case. It was used to show university entrance examination was not a fair system to select students. By making his case known, it was a way to support Zhang for the right to oppose the unfair system. However, according to the author “handing in blank examination papers” might have been used the wrong way to indicate that no book learning was necessary.