Posted by Eric Mu on Friday, May 21, 2010 at 9:47 AM
Yuan Tengfei: The most awesome history teacher, photo sourced from weektime.banzhu.net
Yuan Tengfei is a Beijing middle school teacher whose charisma and controversial history lessons that circulate as online videos have won him the nickname "most awesome history teacher".
He recently appeared in a video after a long period of silence. In the video, he disavowed the widely-circulated rumor that he has been arrested: "I am very well. As to the online news and rumors, I thank my friends for your concern, but I have no intention to get involved in another verbal fight." In his idiosyncratic, mischievous tone, he concluded, borrowing a political slogan: "I trust the Party and the people's government, and believe that the law will bring me justice... Aren't we constructing a harmonious society? Every one please just chill out, concentrate on your own business." (See the video on Tudou)
Yuan' first became famous when a series of video recordings of his lessons were posted to the Internet and attracted a large following. His pugnacious, sometimes acrid comments about Chinese history, especially the late leader Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution strike a chord with many people who feel bitter about the past era or unsatisfied with the status quo. After Yuan became well known, he was invited to appear on CCTV's Lecture Room, a program which is usually reserved for prominent professors and established scholars. He also got a book deal.
After looking through the footage of his lessons that are still available online, my impression is that what Yuan has to say is interesting, but what is most interesting is that he uses his teaching job as a channel to disseminate an alternative view of history. He is one of the new breed of Chinese teachers who start to make classroom their soapbox, leaving behind their traditional social role of helping kids to swallow down the doctrines without much reflection. Don't all parents send their kids to school expecting them to get good grades to go to good universities? But the loony who compares Chairman Mao's reign to Hilter's Germany and Stalin's Russian seems just want to turn them into rebels.
Yuan's flair for language, comparable with a xiangsheng (Chinese stand up comedy) actor's is probably the thing that saves him from his not so convincing assertions. After all, what he says is not really original: His views are held by many revisionists or rightists who are pro free market, and pro individual rights, with a nationalist streak when it comes to China's relationship with Japan. That said, for students who don't get much exposure to real political arguments, Yuan opens an exciting world where establishment views can be doubted.
There is no shortage of dissenting voices even inside China, but most are either dissidents who don't get much space to spread their views or anonymous online commenters. Though it is still a political taboo, talking about Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution is quite common among the Chinese people: As long as you keep the audience small enough, it is allowed. But it's a different matter when you express your opinions in a video which is viewed by tens of thousands.
Yuan's choice of using Internet video as medium to reach out to a wider audience, his high-profile defiance leads many to lavish praises on him for his courage to "speak the truth". In today's China, either one argues that Mao was a great leader, or otherwise, a devil, he should have no difficulty to find his own camp. Usually praising Mao is a sign of someone who sucks up to the government while reviling Mao establishes a person as having a superior moral compass, at least to a certain part of the population.
Did Yuan Tengfei want to martyr himself to be a hero? Or is he too stupid to be aware of the risks? Yuan recently stated that it was not his intention to publish the video and what he expressed in the video was years ago and looking back from his current perspective, not very mature. He even pleaded for more privacy, arguing that what is done in a high school class room should go no further. Presumably, he didn't anticipate eventually the video would get him.
Then how did the video get out? Yuan himself didn't make it clear but many believe Yuan was back-stabbed by his publisher, who released some of the more controversial clips after their book deal went awry. And the reprisal seems work quite well: aside from the Internet outrage, the school Yuan taught already received complaints from people of weight. Yuan is reportedly "under pressure" according to his lawyer. Yuan Tengfei, by now must have a better idea what game he is playing, probably have drawn a lesson from his own piece of history: controversy makes you famous, but there is a line you cannot cross; and when you figure out where it is, it is usually too late.
Links and Sources
Jobs in China
Henry on The Eurasian Face
Caroline W on Big in China
Michael on Julia Lovell on translating Lu Xun's complete fiction: "His is an angry, searing vision of China"
Brandon K. on Clueless academic takes on popular fantasy novels
China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
Books on China
The Eurasian Face : Blacksmith Books, a publishing house in Hong Kong, is behind The Eurasian Face, a collection of photographs by Kirsteen Zimmern. Below is an excerpt from the series:
Big in China: An adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.
Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
Front Page of the Day
A different newspaper every weekday
From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Korean history doesn't fly on Chinese TV screens (2007.09): SARFT puts the kibbosh on Korean historical dramas.
+ Religion and government in an uneasy mix (2008.03): Phoenix Weekly (凤凰周刊) article from October, 2007, on government influence on religious practice in Tibet.
+ David Moser on Mao impersonators (2004.10): I first became aware of this phenomenon in 1992 when I turned on a Beijing TV variety show and was jolted by the sight of "Mao Zedong" and "Zhou Enlai" playing a game of ping pong. They both gave short, rousing speeches, and then were reverently interviewed by the emcee, who thanked them profusely for taking time off from their governmental duties to appear on the show.