The Last Class: How Do We Live Our Lives? – Xiao Han (萧瀚)
China University of Politics and Law Professor Xiao Han （萧瀚）resigned his teaching post after lecturing his students on the “truth” of the military crackdown on democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Professor Xiao gave this lecture on Jan. 4, 2008 in classroom 307 of China University of Politics and Law. The title of the lecture–which he also published on his blog and referred to as “My Last Lesson”–is: “How Should We Lead Our Lives?” (While the essay is no longer on his Sina blog, it is already all over the Chinese blogosphere.)
Xiao Han (a.k.a. Ye, Jing) is from Tiantai, east Zhejiang province. He was Associate Professor at the Administrative Law Research Institute, School of Law, China University of Politics and Law in Beijing (until his recent resignation). His main teaching areas include the history of constitutional law and social theory. He is 38 years old; graduated from Peking University, where he earned his masters degree in 1998.
Here is a partial translation of Professor Xiao Han’s “Last Lesson” to his students entitled: “How Should We Lead Our Lives?” (Thanks to M.J. for the translation):
These are the contents from yesterday’s class, on the last day of this semester. I wrote these lecture notes beforehand, but I didn’t speak from them verbatim. I forgot some parts and spontaneously added others, which I did not include below. But what I spoke about in class fundamentally remains the same as the words below.
The last class: How do we live our lives?
To all those seated, good morning!
I have been at this university for four whole years, and have lectured for four years. Today is the last class of this semester. I have spent a wonderful seventeen weeks with everyone. Including today, it has been a total of 27 hours. In these 27 hours, I had the fortune to journey with all of you back into ancient China, to contemplate how our ancestors lived. All this has moved me profoundly.
Speaking of the last class, we naturally think of the famous short story by Daudet titled “The Last Class”. We are not as tragic as the French back then, but as for this last class, it brings me much sorrow. I do not want to discuss any content relevant to this course, for such talks would be endless. Today, I just hope to truly fulfill the duties of a teacher, to talk with everyone here about the lives that each of us are living right now.
As far back as a week ago, I was already thinking about how I should give this last lecture. In previous semesters, I always gave my own macro-view of China’s history. But I’ve already talked about this in the previous classes, so there’s really no point in going into them again. In the previous semesters, I have committed the serious error of concluding the course by piling on more informational material. Yet, for the past two years, especially this year, I feel increasingly that to serve as a professor in such a manner is very limited, and is never enough. In all my interactions with those here today, I have deeply felt that the concern that you – my friends — have for life’s questions regardless of whether it is by asking others or from my own experience – this contemplation and seeking far exceed the importance of informative learning.
Yes, you are all at your prime. Compared to you, I am much too old, almost twice your age. The year that you were born, if it were 1987, in the beginning of that year, Chinese students for the very first time took initiative to march onto the streets, and with their passion, blood, and utmost sincerity appealed to the government for political reform – but there was no answer.
It was actually worse than having no answers. Two years later in 1989 – when you were only three in early summer of that year, even more university students sacrificed their blood and youth to awaken this slumbering nation. For many of them, their blood stained the square, the square now upon which only one corpse lays. The bloodstains of that year cannot be washed away; it lasts longer than all the tangible tombs standing, just like my friend Hai Zi who stayed [committed suicide] in Shanhaiguan, which became the last poem of his life. The names of these individuals were forever erased from the residential records. We do not even know who they are, and some of you probably don’t know of this event. And yet, for us, for the person that I was then who went through those years, it was the societal event of a lifetime; it has deeply affected my entire life.
In another year, it will have been twenty years since the incident occurred. Why does time pass so quickly? We have not cried, and yet our tears have already dried. We have not remembered, yet remembrance has turned into amnesia. But I know that for all those who have shared that past with me, we will always keep that experience in the depths of our souls. From time to time, we would uncover that past in commemoration. It represents our youth; it signifies the first shattered dream of all the young back then who cared about the world, the failure of a fledgling romance with society. It is impossible for those memories not to have burnt themselves into our very beings.
I have never written a draft for lectures before; today is the first time. Everyone knows that I can’t speak from a lesson plan, or I would stammer and halt. But today I vaguely feel the need to write down these notes. As for whether I will speak verbatim from them I myself don’t yet know.
A person will go through many things in his life, petty and significant, some things happen and disappear as if they never passed, others can never be forgotten. Every person has his own unique reservoir of the unforgotten persons and things in his life. When one journeys to his end, these things outline the shape we call life.
How will you live your life? This must be the question that you are considering right now, and you must also be considering this question with unlimited potential in mind. But no matter what, there is one answer in common regardless of how many you ask: the hope that one may live happily. [Full Text in Chinese]