• Trying to Teach English Literature in the Wake of Mao’s Cultural Revolution

    Kim Echlin on Morality, Mythology, and the Double Life of Totalitarianism

    My assignment was to offer a survey course on the history of English literature in northeast China. I was paired with a young American teacher sponsored by the United Nations who was to teach phonetics and oral expression. We taught six days a week, and every Wednesday afternoon our students attended a class in political studies that we were not allowed to observe.

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    My teaching style was Western, based on reading, reflection, and discussion—no rote learning. I intended to teach what we called in those days a “Beowulf to Woolf” survey course. I brought with me a class set of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology to teach the foundations of English literature while I organized the readings for the rest of the year. It was 1985, nine years after the end of the Cultural Revolution. The libraries were still locked up. Photocopying machines were rare. Ink rarer. People in the countryside were still hungry. Cabbages provided our Vitamin C, peanuts and tofu our protein. A two-story statue of Chairman Mao stood in the center of campus.

    My students’ first papers were on The Odyssey, and most of them wrote “revolutionary” interpretations, declaring that the story helped us to admire “the relentless spirit of the heroes” and that Odysseus’s quest teaches us to “praise labour” and to “search out revolutionary principles.”

    I was intrigued and surprised, and I handed back the papers and asked the students to think about how the myths made them reflect on their own lives. This was a new way for them to read and to be taught, but within weeks these extraordinary students were grappling with complex English-language stories, analyzing language and themes, and courageously bringing personal interpretations to their reading. For a few it felt very dangerous. For others it was a time of intellectual excitement.

    These students had been forcibly sent to work throughout a country caught up in the revolution’s violence and politicized social breakdown. They had endured lives of turmoil, starvation, and upheaval in their families and communities. They had been forced to participate in public criticism sessions, and some had witnessed the humiliations, even deaths, of their teachers. They had lived the dangers of a system that purported to shed the shackles of the past to liberate the masses. They had memorized the three red banners: trust science, rely on the collective, establish socialism. Mythology was forbidden.

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    My students knew in their flesh how dangerous their own thoughts could be. Everyone had personal memories of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Some of my students had been Red Guard. Most had lived and worked in the countryside with peasants. Now they were married, with a single child, and had been sent away again from their homes for a year of intensive English training with a foreign teacher. They were part of China’s intellectual elite and were highly educated in other disciplines—Russian language, engineering, science. They had been selected to turn their formidable intellectual skills to the quick acquisition of the English language in order to prepare the next generation for China’s new “Open Door” policy for trade with the world.

    These students had been forcibly sent to work throughout a country caught up in the revolution’s violence and politicized social breakdown.

    At that time in China, teaching English was a low-status profession, accompanied by low pay and poor housing. Everyone was assigned their place of employment and their apartments by the government. When I asked my students how it felt to be asked to switch from engineering or biology to English language, to leave homes and families for a year and live in crowded, cold dormitories they smiled, shrugged, and said, “We have no choice.”


    The unheated classroom grew colder, the days shorter. We began at 7:30 each morning in order to use morning’s light and warmth because all of China was on the same time zone. Brightly colored warm undergarments peeked out below the hems and sleeves of their gray Mao suits. We hurtled past the Greeks, through Donne and Shakespeare toward the stream of consciousness of James Joyce and into the short stories of the 20th century.

    That year, I read the best paper on Molly Bloom’s monologue I have ever received from a student. In linguistics we studied cultural relativism from Sapir and Whorf and generative grammar from Chomsky. During our breaks, which we called “Cultural Studies,” we listened to Western rock music from my collection of cassette tapes. I remember the laughter of the female students the day we deciphered Helen Reddy’s lyrics “I am woman, hear me roar,” and they cited Mao’s proclamation “Women hold up half the sky,” to which they added, “More than half!” This group of adult students worked harder than any I have ever taught. It was exhilarating to see how much they would absorb, and each morning I could not wait to get to the cold classroom and work with them.

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    I was 29 years old. I had studied in Canada and Europe and traveled in Poland, but I had never lived in a Communist or post-totalitarian state, and I was on my own cultural learning curve. In the late afternoons, before heading back to my rooms to mark papers, I walked through the collective farms around our campus, navigating past big holes in the ground: root cellars full of the cabbages stored for the winter. I studied Mandarin from a book that taught the characters using Maoist slogans, and practiced my spoken Chinese with Lao Pan, the old doorman who sat at the gate of the foreigners’ living quarters. Each day on the path to my residence I walked past a wooden mailbox nailed to a tree that had been used during the Cultural Revolution for anonymous “criticisms.” I tried tai chi, to my students’ amusement, and studied traditional Chinese mythology with a student who soon became a friend. His grandmother took him on her visits with a Taoist nun, and he loved the old stories. I learned from him that my gift of Edith Hamilton’s books had caused confusion and conflict the very first morning. The students were delighted to be given a new book. But mythology? What did it mean? Under Mao, all mythology was forbidden as superstition, a tool to “deceive the masses.”

    Periodically, prisoners were driven through our campus in the backs of open trucks, their crimes shouted through loudspeakers. One day as I stood in a crowd watching the spectacle of shaming, a student pushed in beside me and told me, unsolicited, that displaying them in this way was “less hypocritical than in the West, where prisoners are hidden.” During spring break, while traveling across the country, our train slowed outside a middle-sized city of several million, and I saw a row of dead prisoners laid out by the track. A young man tried to guide me away from the train window, murmuring, “They put them there as an example.”

    Partway through the third month, a handful of students rejected my American colleague. They did not like her casual style or her “disorganized” teaching methodology. They said her teaching of William Blake was offensive. A class leader demanded her removal, and the university officials concurred. They announced to us, without discussion, that my American colleague would be kept on campus until the end of her contract but she would no longer teach. I was informed by the authorities that it was now my “duty” to take over her classes. I was not to teach William Blake. I was to teach less literature.

    I did not admire my colleague’s style, but I respected that a number of the students learned well with her and had been inspired by her love of literature. The excitement for learning in our class plummeted. The students changed their seating arrangements, revealing ruptured friendships and new alliances. I decided to protest, alone, when the university officials refused to talk about the teacher’s dismissal and I sat in my room for a few miserable days.

    Partway through the third month, a handful of students rejected my American colleague. They did not like her casual style or her “disorganized” teaching methodology. They said her teaching of William Blake was offensive.

    Then I was summoned to the top floor of the administration offices. I was seated at the end of a long table. At the other end, a university official sat with our translator. Outside the window, a two-storey statue of Chairman Mao dominated the commons.

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    The interview began with a customary speech about our governments’ friendship. After the preliminaries, the official said, “You did not know this teacher in North America. Why would you try to defend her?”

    I answered that I was not defending her. I was defending my freedom to teach literature as I had been hired to do.

    He said, “But you can teach anything and the students will like you.”

    “But I was brought here to teach your students literature. I myself am learning Chinese by reading literature.”

    He shook his head, and progressed to the threat. “If you refuse to teach what you are told to teach,” he said, “you will be criticized over the campus loudspeakers.”

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    I did not understand what provoked me to resist. I am neither naturally defiant nor brave. I felt like a tiny snake spontaneously standing up to face an enormous prodding, taunting stick.

    I said to the translator, “Please tell Comrade Q. that I do not care if I am criticized over the loudspeakers.”

    She looked frightened. I urged her to interpret. After she spoke, the official examined me carefully and shook his head. I was dismissed from the meeting.

    I did not understand what provoked me to resist. I am neither naturally defiant nor brave.

    The night after the interview, a brave student dared to slip past Lao Pan to warn me that the class knew about the meeting and what I had said. There had been terrible turmoil among them and they did not want to lose this important year of study. They had suffered in those years in the countryside. Lost years of their lives. They had hidden shames and secrets. The student’s face in the darkness still burns in my memory. She said, “You do not know what we have been through. Some of us have done terrible things to our professors. Don’t get involved with us. We’re not worth it.” As I watched the sorrow in her eyes, I saw how daily tyranny scars individual confidence and creativity and moral imagination. This was the student who had written so beautifully about Molly Bloom. This was a woman whose life had been changed by reading literature. And now she was courageously defying authority simply by talking to me.

    “Yes, you’re worth it,” I said. We are all worth it.”

    Then I began to dream a dream that recurred for months. Each night I fell asleep and dreamed that my passport was being handed to me but my picture had been hacked out of the page. The passport no longer proved who I was; I was without identity in the world. I awoke night after night in a sweat, got up, and stood alone by the window looking across the dark campus. Northeast was North Korea, northwest was Siberia.

    A week later, the university and I came to a compromise. My colleague would be allowed to teach an “optional” class and I would teach everything else. We would all get back into the classroom and finish the year. The student leader who started the “criticism” did not return and his chair stood empty in the middle of the classroom like a bit of leftover poison. I never discovered why he left. I would have liked to talk things over with him.


    Years later, I read Albert Camus’s The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. It was an old paper back from a second-hand bookstore. The cover was torn. This passage lifted off the page:

    In every act of rebellion, the rebel simultaneously experiences a feeling of revulsion at the infringement of his rights and a complete and spontaneous loyalty to certain aspects of himself.

    I finally understood what happened to me sitting at that long table looking out the window at the statue of Chairman Mao. I had experienced a spontaneous loyalty to literature, and to my need to freely read it and to teach it. I had spent my entire life reading, studying and teaching literature, but I had never been forced to articulate my joy in this activity. What I felt about its importance had never been tested. I learned that to resist invokes a moral value. I was compelled to act. And it was, indeed, spontaneous.

    I had experienced a spontaneous loyalty to literature, and to my need to freely read it and to teach it.

    I rebel at being considered a rebel for loving what I love.


    Now I began life in earnest in the Chinese system of 1985. If I had left, my students would have been sent home with no extra credentials, no opportunity for better housing or income. Worst, their wide reading would stop. I did not want to leave. I loved them, and our explorations of literature had been the most exciting of my life. My workload doubled now, and my students’ initial joy in our free exchange was much dampened. It was a small and protected encounter with totalitarian resistance to freedom of thought but it chastened all of us.

    Something insidious happened to me as I prepared my classes. I began to fear how my selected readings might be interpreted as counter-revolutionary and might endanger my students and cause them more misery. I hid my diaries and avoided contact with my former friend Lao Pan, the doorman, whose job I now understood was to report on each student who came to visit.

    The work was bearable largely because of a courageous student whom I am still afraid to name, irrationally, 35 years later. He offered to work with me on a translation of an ancient collection of mythology The Classic of Mountains and Seas, or Shan Hai Jing. He wanted to practice his English and he knew I loved myth. We met in secret because we didn’t want any more “trouble.” He created interlineal translations, and together we rewrote the texts into literary English. We bent over our translation work with the same fervor that younger students on campus practiced dancing to rock music behind locked doors and paper-covered windows. This is the double life of totalitarianism. Each day I looked forward to an hour or two of escape into an archetypal world of strange one-winged birds and lovers in the Milky Way. Reading these stories with that kind and brave student, I could escape, for a moment, being “the other” in China.

    It was easy for me to take a stand; to this day, I admire the three students brave enough to attend my American colleague’s optional class. They were forced to attend criticism sessions. They risked their jobs and housing, prolonged separation from their families, public denunciation. Three of the 30 were dissidents. And they continued to read William Blake.

    On Christmas Day, in a cold classroom, my students put together a generous banquet of seafood and dumplings. There were ceremonial speeches, and one student bravely praised our literary studies. As I got up to respond, newly accomplished in Orwellian double-speak, I experienced a complicated blend of anger, loyalty to certain students, shame at my compromises, and commitment to going on. Though I had spent most of my 29 years immersed in literature, never had I experienced its risks or its use to shame.

    It was easy for me to take a stand; to this day, I admire the three students brave enough to attend my American colleague’s optional class. They were forced to attend criticism sessions.

    This is not a story of arrest or torture, of re-education or prison. But even this mild encounter with state authority impressed upon me the destructive double lives that an authoritarian regime imposes upon people. It took only a handful of days to reduce me from an independently minded, self-critical citizen to a person looking over her shoulder and second-guessing her own teaching. I experienced shame as I grasped how easily I could be made to disappear. I experienced shame as I figured out which students I could trust and which I could not. I experienced sadness walking by my old friend Lao Pan without really stopping anymore. What I thought of as spying, he thought of as part of his job. When the public life is compromised, the private life is also conducted in compromise. My dream life was haunted by a loss of soul.

    My well-being, my sanity, was saved by reading some of the oldest myths in China. But mythology was banned.


    In “The Power of the Powerless,” Czech playwright and politician Václav Havel describes the opposing aims of life and a post-totalitarian government. “Life,” he writes, “moves toward plurality, diversity, independent self-constitution, and self-organization, in short, toward the fulfillment of its own freedom.” Post-totalitarian systems, on the other hand, demand “conformity, uniformity and discipline.” Havel describes how such a regime becomes captive to its own crust of lies: “It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.”

    When I was working with the Chinese translator of my novel The Disappeared she told me that she would change in her translation certain historical “facts” I suggested in my novel.

    Which ones?

    A few things, she said, like saying that the Vietnamese “liberate” Cambodia rather than your English word “invade.”

    Oh, I said. But that is not what I wrote.

    I have to do this, she said, because it will be changed by state censors anyway.

    This is not a story of arrest or torture, of re-education or prison. But even this mild encounter with state authority impressed upon me the destructive double lives that an authoritarian regime imposes upon people.

    We went for a walk in the mountains and she explained that by not drawing attention to politics in her translation, there would be less tampering with the rest of the language. She considered these politicized decisions to be part of her “translation choices,” much as other translators decide between metaphors or similes, assonance or consonance.

    Oh, I said. You are a fiction writer as well as a translator?


    What is your fiction about?

    Internet dating, she said.


    Six years after I left China, I learned that the translation of The Classic of Mountains and Seas that I made with my student in that cold classroom was published by the Beijing Foreign Languages Press under the title Dragons and Dynasties: An Introduction to Chinese Mythology. Around the time of publication, my student and co-translator was leaving China, and he was never able to get a copy of the Chinese edition. Then, two years later, my brother called and asked why I hadn’t told him I had published a book about Chinese mythology with Penguin Books. I told him I didn’t know anything about it. Apparently, all the contracts with the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing were legal, even without my consent. That’s life. My first book was published without my knowledge.

    I was excited to open it when it arrived in the mail. An anonymously written introduction had been added to our otherwise unaltered text. The writer asserts that, among other things, the value of mythology is for “praising labour,” “admiring the relentless spirit of the heroes,” and “glorifying the common people’s resistance to dictatorial rule.”

    Very amusing.


    During the 1989 Tiananmen protests, I watched newsfeeds of the students beginning to gather, and listened to senior editors discuss whether what we were seeing was going to be important enough to dispatch a reporter and crew to China. I was an arts producer in our national news show. An editor from Belfast, Bob Culbert, was first to recognize what we were seeing.

    “Send a crew,” he said. “When you get that many people together demonstrating, something is going to happen.”

    A few days later the tanks rolled in and the Goddess of Democracy toppled. The world watched the iconic footage of the solitary student who has never been identified face down a tank.

    No novel has given me greater imaginative access to those protests than Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma. This novel breaks through the crust of lies; of course, it is banned in China. Its genius is in its detailed descriptions of historical events and our experience of the “creep” of history from the point of view of a student, Da Wei, an intelligent and romantic, practical and sensual young man who lies in a coma.

    That’s life. My first book was published without my knowledge.

    In the first scene, Da Wei feels his blood warming, the muscles around his eyes quivering, as he remembers how he came to participate in the democracy movement. We watch fearfully as students begin to plan demonstrations that will lead to the moment when tanks will crush them. We witness the students’ bewilderment at how their protests unfurled into violence. We watch their struggle with sound equipment and scaffolding around the Goddess of Democracy statue. We hear the government loudspeakers tell everyone to leave Tiananmen Square and the rumors of police arming students with guns so they can later blame counter-revolution and armed rebellion.

    The crowd swells with workers, and the student leaders no longer know what to do. We watch them struggle with how to lead a revolution, and we watch them worrying about where their girlfriends are, about mismatched shoelaces, about trying to keep their hair looking good. The exits to the square are blocked by soldiers and tanks. And when—shockingly—we hear the first gun shots, we experience the same disbelief as the students.

    Ma Jian’s fiction takes me inside the mind of that protest, and into the censored chaotic hours of trying to record the names of the uncounted injured and dead. When Da Wei is in the square, facing down tanks, his feet bleed and his friends die and he remembers his girlfriend, naked and smiling at him before she walks into the bathroom. He is shot in the head, and from his coma he thinks of the shadows and light in his dorm, the softness of his girlfriend’s skin, the timbre of his mother’s voice. This fiction allows me to imagine the real white-shirted student who faced down a tank alone, whose name we have still not learned.

    Inside his coma, Da Wei soothes himself by thinking of myths from The Classic of Mountains and Seas. He especially loves the bird that has one wing and one eye and must pair with its mate if it wants to fly. Anxiously he asks what it means to awaken from history’s continuous coma of forgetting. Tyranny speaks in slogans and in repetitive ideologies and the thin language of advertising. Tyranny refuses to tell the truth, to create from inner freedom, and to share confidently with others.

    Ma Jian’s novels are banned in China.

    Kim Echlin
    Kim Echlin
    Kim Echlin's third novel, The Disappeared, won the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award and was published in 20 countries. Her new novel, Speak, Silence (March 2021), is a fictional account of The Hague's ground-breaking war crimes trials in which rape in war was defined as a crime again humanity . She has worked and lived around the world, and currently lives in Toronto.

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