The Mao-Era School Shutdown That Forever Changed Education in China - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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Staying at home when school is shut is a breeze compared to what a generation of Chinese students had to suffer.

The handwritten poster was painted with large Chinese characters and was plastered on the public bulletin of Peking University. It was May 25, 1966. Just a few days earlier, China’s leader, Mao Zedong, had purged senior officials from the country’s Communist Party, accusing them of being bourgeois traitors in disguise.

But the poster went a step further. Written by Nie Yuanzi, a rising education administrator, it accused the university administration of blocking revolutionary acts by students and professors on campus. Mao endorsed the denunciation and had the poster republished in People’s Daily, the party’s publication.

It was the opening shot of the Cultural Revolution — the most destabilizing decade in modern Chinese history — when Mao unleashed unprecedented violence against political rivals, academics and intellectuals. But as the movement spread across the country, it also had another impact that has parallels with the present.

From the U.S. to large parts of Asia, Africa and Europe, millions of school and college students are today at home, their campuses closed amid the coronavirus pandemic. Yet more than five decades ago, the Cultural Revolution forced a very different educational shutdown that devastated a generation, hobbled their opportunities for life and has shaped China’s approach to schooling ever since, say experts.

The Cultural Revolution has to be one of the biggest disruptions to education in the modern world … anywhere.

Albert Park, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

More than 1 million schools and China’s 43 universities at the time were made to stop classes in 1966, soon after Nie’s poster. Schools reopened only in 1969, and colleges in 1970. A total of 107 million school students and 534,000 college students were impacted, according to Julia Kwong, professor of sociology at the University of Manitoba in Canada and author of the book Cultural Revolution in China’s Schools, May 1966–April 1969. Then, as now, China had the world’s largest education system.

“The Cultural Revolution has to be one of the biggest disruptions to education in the modern world … anywhere,” says Albert Park, professor of economics, social science and public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Unlike students navigating school shutdowns today, many of China’s high school teenagers and college kids were recruited for what effectively became Mao’s own private street army — as the so-called Red Guards. They were tasked with abusing and thrashing professors, bureaucrats and political leaders identified as “capitalist roaders,” or bourgeois apologists. Nie herself fell afoul of the authorities and was sent to a labor camp in 1969 — she was later also sent to jail by Mao’s successors for her excesses during the Cultural Revolution.

Classroom for Shanghai Educated youth, where they learned

More than 1 million schools and China’s 43 universities at the time were made to stop classes in 1966.

Source Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty

Mao’s reputation and the unparalleled power thrust into their hands — at least initially — drew many youths to the movement. Others played along just to survive. As one respondent told Kwong while she was researching her book, “Who was not a Red Guard at the time?” Victims during the Cultural Revolution were often paraded publicly, placards hanging around their necks with forced apologies for their alleged crimes against Mao’s version of socialism. Red Guards would beat them with slippers or shoes. More than 10 million urban college students and recent graduates were sent to rural China in what was known as the “Down to the Countryside Movement.”

But there would be long-term consequences — for China and its education system and, most of all, for a generation whose education was sacrificed at the altar of Mao’s revolution.

The Cultural Revolution led to a decline in high school and college completion rates by the age of 25 by an estimated 7.1 and 6.3 percentage points, respectively, according to Park’s research with colleagues John Giles of the World Bank and Meiyan Wang of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Even after schools and colleges reopened, many students whose classes were disrupted either didn’t return or couldn’t complete their education. The generation that would have graduated from high school between 1966 and 1968 — but couldn’t — came to be known as laosanjie (which means “three old classes”).

When China finally reintroduced a merit-based entrance examination for higher education after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the impact of the lost years became even clearer. In 1977, only 5 percent of the 5.7 million people who took the exam — called the gaokao — gained admission to college, compared to 70 percent who pass nowadays. “Lower educational attainments had long-term consequences for their ability to earn,” says Park. Among the few who did clear the test in 1977 was current Premier Li Keqiang.

As China liberalized and tried to move past the horrific memories of the Cultural Revolution, it focused on taking an approach as far removed from the chaos of those days as was possible. The first major step was the introduction of nine years of compulsory schooling, say researchers Zhongjing Huang, Xiaojun Li and Tina Wang in a 2016 paper on China’s post-1976 education reforms in the journal Policy Futures in Education.

No home schooling was allowed — and though some are trying it today, the practice remains illegal and finds negligible support in a country where a generation was forced to home-school or forego education for years.

Instead, families and the education system prioritize formal schooling, high scores and competition. That isn’t surprising, Park points out. “Even dating back to imperial times, there was an enormous emphasis on merit-based education,” he says. “It returned with a vengeance after the Cultural Revolution.”

More than 40 years later, it stays that way. The scars on China’s education system haven’t vanished yet.

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