Scholarship and education

Object lessons in human cruelty


Wu Fei (吴非), a secondary school teacher and frequent op-ed contributor to various Chinese newspapers, keeps an interesting blog that revolves around issues in contemporary education.

Wu has edited or contributed to a number of secondary school textbooks. In the blog post translated below, the incorporation of the script to the film Schindler's List in a textbook is the starting point for a discussion of the need for kindness and understanding to be part of childhood education: students should learn about the great tragedies of human civilization and the horrible things that people are capable of, but those lessons should be taught in such a way that the cruelties of the past are not repeated in the future.

Unendurable Brutality

by Wu Fei

The script to Schindler's List has been selected for inclusion in a middle school textbook.* From the standpoint of both language arts and humanities education, this is a necessary step forward. Secondary education should make students aware that the history of human civilization contains such instances of violence against civilization and humanity.

However, I've heard that there are teachers who have watched Schindler's List ten or more times, and this is something that I can't understand. I've watched it once, and although there were some plot points I wasn't too clear on, there's no way I'd watch it again: I don't want to put myself through another round of emotional torment, and my health won't allow me to watch it again, even if it is a modern classic. Massacres, beatings, abuse, stripping people of all their dignity, forcing them to live like domestic animals, all came out of the same nation that produced Goethe and Beethoven. The desecration of human dignity and mockery of civilization in that human tragedy is truly breathtaking. For me, the movie is unlike other classic art that I can revisit over and over without tiring.

I detest war and detest killing, and hate even more when killing is turned into some kind of game or entertainment. I've never been interested in watching a decapitation, even one that is necessary to soothe the people's anger. In China, watching a decapitation may not be a way to "soothe anger"; more often, it is a demonstration of — or a training in — disregard for life. I believe that one who is not a professional engaged in that line of work or a scholar researching it should not repeatedly watch that sort of film. I have long expressed my ire at the TV stations, under the control of propaganda departments at all levels, that continually broadcast bloody, violent shows.

In 1983,* Network News aired the execution of an official's son in Hangzhou: a shot rang out, and a man crumpled to the ground, yet this clip did nothing to placate my "anger." Instead, it shocked me: how can you let children sitting in front of the TV see real scenes of someone being killed? Fortunately, from then on there were no similar news clips. In Iraq under Saddam, and in other authoritarian countries, children are compelled to watch executions in person in what is apparently called "education." In China, it used to be "kill one to scare one hundred," public decapitations, and heads hanging atop the city wall. Just one hundred years ago, the capital's execution ground could still be placed in a bustling place like the Caishikou vegetable market, and the entire city crowded round to watch. But a people that delights in watching decapitations has no dignity, nor does it have a future.

The "learn from Lei Feng" campaign in 1964 had a whole set of slogans, and one that remains in my memory went, "Treat the enemy as ruthlessly as the bitter winter." Then came the Cultural Revolution, during which I witnessed all kinds of "ruthlessness," in which not a single one of the targets was the "enemy" of those holding the guns. And when you recall those decades of bitter experiences, you will discover that in all kinds of "campaigns," most of the "enemies" that were exterminated in the flesh - the vast majority, even - were innocent people, or at least not deserving of death.

Our education, particularly early education for children and young people, should do as much as possible to imbue them with kindness and charity; whatever happens, we cannot let our children become excited at the scent of blood. Educators ought to keep this in mind: the next generation must keep in mind that human history contains all of those abominable pages. If we have no education in humanity, humanitarianism, and human conscience, if we do not reflect on our own people's history of education, then the barbarism will repeat itself in all kinds of different ways, regardless of how many years of so-called glorious civilization your nation has. I recently had a discussion with professor Du Wentang, a scholar of German history, about how a period of Nazism took hold of Germany, of all countries. Du said that this was precisely the issue: a nation that believed its people to be superior, its culture far too grand, and that looked down on all other peoples, was what let so many ordinary Germans be bewitched by Hitler.

I am not evading that bloody, fiery past - I couldn't avoid it even if I wanted to, for it plagues me like a nightmare. Iris Chang's suicide is understood by very few people, I suspect. A woman who had put all of her energies toward investigating the Japanese invaders and the Nanjing Massacre was unable to rid herself of the images of barbaric cruelty. Perhaps she could not believe that such evil could exist in the world, and that utterly destroyed her formerly peaceful life. Their cruelty went beyond simply killing people; they smeared their cruelty onto people's memories. To defend justice, the upright had to pay an enormous price. This is the reason we must abhor fascism. Every time I see people online clamoring to "kill the Japanese," "bathe Tokyo in blood," and on and on, I get the sense that humanity and humanitarianism is lacking in education. In the 20th Century, militarist Japan and Nazi Germany left behind for humanity a shameful memory, and other totalitarian states have likewise trampled on human dignity. Fascism will bring harm to humanity wherever it exists. No matter what, we cannot permit another page of barbarism in the pages of Chinese education, we cannot have further education in heartless cruelty.

Mo Luo wrote a short piece called "Those People Have Become People,"* a story that includes a reflection on rationality and a call to conscience. The short piece has touched many young people. This is the kind of education we need. After the Second World War, people did not adopt the methods of the Nazis or the Japanese invaders to pay back the war criminals, an eye for an eye, for while ruthless beasts stood on one side, humans were standing on the other.

So that no one will be subject to "ruthless cruelty" ever again: this is the educator's mission.


  1. Here's a sample supplemental lesson plan from Shanghai Yuannan Primary School.
  2. I was unable to determine which "official's son" from Hangzhou was executed in 1983. Zhu De's youngest grandson Zhu Guohua was executed for rape in Tianjin during that year's "strike hard" campaign (Xici link). A major case occured in Hangzhou in 1979, when General Xiong Yingtang's two sons, Xiong Ziping and Xiong Beiping, were charged with gang rape. Xiong Ziping was executed, his brother committed suicide in prison. The "two Xiongs" case was the first case after the Cultural Revolution in which the family members of an upper-level official were subject to the law (link).
  3. Contemporary essayist and poet Mo Luo wrote a short piece, inspired by Yevgeny Yevtushenko's autobiography and Bukharin's last words, titled "Turning Enemies into People" that contains the line Wu Fei quotes. A translation of that piece can be found here.
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There are currently 9 Comments for Object lessons in human cruelty.

Comments on Object lessons in human cruelty

This is really excellent - and obviously, much broader in its scope than mere Chinese education. The implicit critique of Spielberg's violence is point-on, and one that I wish critics in western countries would be willing to consider, at least.

Beautiful piece.

A very good post. Thank you for bringing it out for us, Danwei!

I wonder what Chinese essayists and social critics thought of "A History of Violence", which is (as far as I know) the only recent serious and thought cinematic treatment of the same subject?

I think that ChinaSMACK is more of the same dehumanization, and I know that there is some bitter online debate about this in China - but only in Chinese. But the thing is, people wrap things up in the "news" cloak, granting it all the glories (false and real) of the fourth estate, and what do you get? A nation ready for it's first televised execution. The question is, which nation will be first?

Oh wait, we have already done it here in the U.S.

I am curious, is "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, popular in China?

I haven't seen A History of Violence myself, but there seem to be some nice reactions on the Douban page.

The Lottery is floating around online (not sure when the translation was done). I'd imagine that the immediate similarities between the story and certain periods in China's 20th Century history may make for quite a different reading than it receives in the US.

What I meant was to say: You can't really expect to teach whatever in school. It's all b.s. It's both cultural and human nature. You can pay lip service to whatever, when the root of the problem may be much, much deeper.

Whatever Danwei suxs anyway.

I would have loved to praise this article, for it brims with good intentions and a schoolmaster's intellectual earnestness. But I can't. Well-meaning cliches aside, the author seems to have a very confused mind.

"I've heard that there are teachers who have watched Schindler's List ten or more times, and this is something that I can't understand. "
- Huh? What's wrong with THAT?
I admire Schindler's List. Although I have not watched it so many times as to raise an alarm in the mind of the author, I wouldn't mind revisiting the film. The valuable reminder here is that of the "banality of evil", the inner beast that we all have to constantly guard against, and such matter-of-factedly cruelty from a race that produced Goethe and Bach ---that's precisely the point, isn't it? To confuse such calls for vigilance with a relish of cruelty suggests a curious ignorance of human psyche, and is deeply offensive not only to the film-makers, to Iris Chang (the author didn't seem to see the implied self-contradiction there), but really to any thinking man. Mr. Wu looks foolish on the soapbox as the village atheist attempting to preach to village idiots.
There is a difference between morality and moral queasiness, and one doesn't necessarily warrant the other. The fact this author cannot tell the difference hardly reflects poorly on those who can.

"In China, watching a decapitation may not be a way to "soothe anger"; more often, it is a demonstration of — or a training in — disregard for life."
- Granted that many Chinese in the last century, and some in this, demonstrated a sickening fascination with gory spectacles (I read a crowd pleaser in late Qing was "凌迟"); but an analysis of the psychology behind it, especially in contemporary society, needs to be done carefully. First of all, anyone who has read Dickens, Dosdoyevsky or Mishima would know that this fascination is hardly unique of Chinese. Secondly, without more data from socialogists and psychiatric professionals, I would hesitate to pinpoint it as "a demonstration of disregard for life", let alone something cheaply sensationalist like "a training in" that disregard. Equally, if not more viable, hypotheses can include a remnant blood catharsis that is still common in shamanistic societies, and/or an instinctive pursuit of restoration of the "comparative normalcy" of one's own distressing fate, etc.
I am not saying that in China there is not a comparatively low regard of human life (that includes one's own, if drivers' behavior is anything to go by) , and that I am not frequently shocked by callous remarks from my co-workers here. But that leads merely to an indifference, and does not fully explain the fascination.

Relentless self-examination is good and much needed in our over complacent society, but it'd better not be done with such obvious intellectual sloppiness.

Recently, the netizens have been protesting against the "light" punishment of the addled youth behind the wheel of that famous pedestrian-killing machine in Hangzhou. As Joel pointed out, in the same city, 30 years ago, General Xiong's sons must die to redeem themselves for the horrible crime of sleeping with consenting adults. I have the feeling that the Angry Youths would have caught on that comparison as evidence how far down their society has fallen, and would have approved of the "just restitution" sought and granted on the mighty and privileged, in a by-gone era.

So, let's take a look at the Good Old Time, of the yan-da ("severe crackdowns (on crimes)"), in the late 70s and 80s.

Get that box of kleenex; it's the hour of nostalgia: link

For those of you who are less comfortable reading Chinese, a few selected translations of 1983 cases:

- Crime: a woman slept with 10+ men. Punishment: death sentence. Before her execution, she said: "Sexual freedom is a lifestyle choice for me. It is ahead of time now, but people will think different 20 years from now." She turns out to be right. Avant gardism in China is often paid in blood.

- Crime: a young man took pictures of his girlfriend thinly clad. For this transgression he was executed, and his girlfrind was sent to prison.

- Crime: a young lad in Sichuan had a wager with his pals that he'd kiss a random girl passing by. He did. Punishment: death sentence.

- Crime: a village lad jokingly threw himself in front of a young woman, on a public street during the day. Punishment: death.

- Crime: a Beijing lad saw a Western woman in a street brawl (!), whose breasts fell out of her bra. He stepped up and touched them. Punishment: death.

yan-da is pretty much a wide movement with counter-revolutionary are replaced with a criminals. (often petty criminals, but many aren't so petty) Keep in mind back then these really isn't much "law enforcement" in the western sense and even China today. But then, on the other hand, all these "sex crimes" all carried death sentence in China for at least a thousand years. (and of course you won't fare too well in Europe around the same time too.)

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