November 2016

When physical labor was still on the curriculum

“劳动是必修课”!——复旦大学外国留学生《守则》、《考勤制度》、《生活制度》等(1975年)
(click on the title to view the document)

Higher education is no longer what it once was, neither here nor there. In the West some four, five decades ago, inquisitive students may still have asked a former lecturer “When you were experimenting at Harvard, did you find that students were less prepared to go out of their minds?” Today, faculty rarely have to come up with answers to questions like that. Maybe it has something to do with Google – I don’t know. “When you were a liuxuesheng in Mao’s China, what was it like?” I may be asked over post-seminar fika. My pathetic response will usually foreground synonyms of the word “different.” Perhaps I will end with a plug for Frances Wood’s wonderful Hand-grenade Practice in Peking or a similar title in another language.

One of the countless changes I had until recently forgotten about may be illustrated with the rules and regulations that students from friendly capitalist countries had to abide by when they arrived on Chinese campuses in 1975. No, it is not the one that said there must be no listening to loud foreign music or radio broadcasts: how could one possibly forget the disappearance of that stupid dichotomy that equated everything good with Chinese and everything bad and ugly with foreign cultures? What had quietly slipped down my memory hole was instead how differently higher education in the PRC once viewed physical labor. As you will see when you read the present Document of the Month, unless a Mao-era liuxuesheng had a really solid excuse, he or she had to take part in physical labor. Working with our hands, it was understood, constituted a critical part of the well-rounded intellectual’s education. Ah, beware millennials: you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone…!