Why Is Prof. Yang Shiqun Being Investigated? Read His Class Syllabus

Yang Shiqun (杨师群), a professor of ancient Chinese language at East China University of Politics and Law in Shanghai, has become a target of a police investigation after his students informed authorities about the content of his class. He was questioned by university authorities, who informed him that his students had reported him and the Shanghai police were therefore investigating the case. Professor Yang wrote a blog post about this encounter (translated by CDT), which caused heated discussions in Chinese cyberspace and the domestic media. See also an opinion piece in China Daily. A day after he posted it, the blog post was taken down, and the Shanghai Public Security Bureau denied to journalists that they were investigating Yang.

During a meeting with the school authorities, Professor Yang asked why students needed to report him rather than just dropping the class if they were uncomfortable with his teaching. He was told that the students who reported him were taking a non-elective class. From that clue, Professor Yang deduced that the students were in his Ancient Chinese language class. What did Professor Yang teach in this class that shocked some of his students and caused an official investigation? A slideshow of the syllabus outline for the class appeared in Chinese cyberspace, generating more discussion among netizens. In order to facilitate the online discussion of this issue, an online volunteer calling himself Dr. Tang rewrote the slideshow content into complete paragraphs. Here is “Dr. Tang’s” introduction to the rewritten syllabus outline, excerpts translated by CDT’s Linjun Fan:

From “Dr. Tang”:

First let me make clear where I stand on values: expression is nor crime; freedom is precious; rights are a hard rare thing; truth, justice and reason are fundamental and ever-lasting.
From the burning of books and burying alive of scholars [in the Qin Dynasty] to the suppression of scholars for their writing [in the Qing Dynasty],thought crime has always suppressed our nation and caused it to lose is vitality and innovation.
Times have changed, and the wave of the Internet is especially washing out those poisonous thought crimes in our society, returning more sunshine.
All autocracy and its dark secrets are being torn apart in this age.
I have read the Class Slides posted in Moyan by Xiaohe1120. I felt that much of the online discussion was too general, and we should read what he actually taught in order to grasp the meaning of this event. The following is my version of the rewriting of the slides. Total 20 lessons, for everyone’s reading and thinking. (18:35, Saturday December 6, 2008)

Lesson 1 Introduction to ancient Chinese language
 古代汉语导论 大学语文第一课的漫谈

Lesson 2 The major difference between studies at college and middle school

Discussion: What are your expectations for college life? How do you think college studies should be different from those in middle school? What are your expectations for the spiritual traits of college teachers?

You’ve become half an intellectual by entering college. What does an intellectual mean? What kind of person is qualified to be called an intellectual?


Lesson 3 What’s the purpose and value of education?

Students should not be simply regarded as an empty vessel that passively receives information and doctrines. They should be seen as a free and growing human being. The purpose of education is to help them grow freely.

Teachers’ responsibility is to provide the students necessary basic knowledge, truthful information, cultural nourishment, and professional skills.

Teachers could also share with students what they’ve experienced: the pains and joys, the struggles and endeavors, the risks and anxieties, the despair and hopes, etc.

Teachers should respect the personality and freedom of the students, and instruct them how to develop themselves and benefit the larger society.


Lesson 4 What does education for all-round development, the so-called “quality (Su Zhi) education” mean?

What is the most important quality of a human being? It’s the spirit of integrity and independence. An education with real quality should aim to cultivate the spiritual independence and wholeness of students. It is the basis of human development and creativity. It’s the goal of human growth. From it comes the joy of learning, the happiness of striving, and the fruits of creativity. The meaning of life lies in self-discovery, self-improvement, and creation of splendid spiritual and material wealth.

Do not be a slave to society, to knowledge or to life. Be the master.


Lesson 5 Independent and Critical thinking

“The primary mission of college instructors is to teach students how to think independently, and cultivate their habit of critical thinking,” said the President of Yale University at a forum of Chinese and overseas university presidents in October 2006.

“A university becomes one due to one primary reason — it is the center of critical thinking,” said the President of the University of Chicago.

Why do we need to think independently? Why do we need to have a habit of thinking critically?
Have you ever thought about the relations between critical thinking and human development and social growth ?


Lesson 6 Introduction of book, “How to Become a Real Intellectual?” by Taiwan scholar Yin Haiguang.

An intellectual is not someone who has read lots of books. He must possess the spirit of independent thinking and originality.

An intellectual is a critic of the society he lives in, and an opponent of the established value system. Like Socrates, he takes it as his mission to criticize his contemporary society and its values.

It’s not rare that an intellectual goes against his era for the truth he believes in. He even dies for it sometimes.

  台湾学者殷海光 《怎样才算是知识分子》

Lesson 7 Why do we need to study ancient Chinese literature?

Haven’t you had studied it already in middle school? Why do those students who don’t major in the Chinese language need to read classic Chinese literature? Because ancient Chinese literature offers a tool to understand China’s history and culture.

Students of any liberal arts discipline need to understand history, and the history of the development of the discipline. It’s a basic tool.

It could be quite difficult to master this tool. The classic literature is a carrier of all major knowledge accumulated in ancient China. It appears to be mysterious and obscure. Our ancestors have made it so.


Lesson 8 Understanding the major concepts in classic Chinese literature

There is a system composed of various vague concepts (in the classics):
Ren (kindness), Ren Zheng (benevolent rule), Li (reason) in Confucianism;
Tao (the Way), Qi, and Tai Ji in Taoism;
Tian, Tianzhi, Ming Gui in Mohism;
Fa, Shu, Shi in Legalism;
Yin-Yang, Wu-Xing, etc.

Those are the key concepts in Chinese traditional culture. It’s not easy to understand them. You can not conduct further studies of the literature if you don’t have considerable knowledge of the language and the culture.


Lesson 9 Be brave to think and to ask questions

Why did Chinese pre-historical society become such an autocracy? Why did it have a profound and lasting impact?
How should we evaluate the historical process of unifying China by Emperor Qin Shihuang? Does the unification of the country necessarily mean progress?
Why isn’t there any concept of “human rights” in traditional Chinese culture? Or very slim awareness of it?
Why did China have a splendid history for thousands of years but become backward and get beaten up by other countries in recent centuries?
Why does the United States criticize China’s human rights problems? What don’t we translate the bill on the issue and show people how the “American imperialists” are trying to damage China?


Lesson 10 Students should cultivate the ability to learn by themselves in college

The difference between college instruction and middle school instruction: The purpose of learning is not memorizing what’s in the textbooks or the standard answers to test questions. The purpose should be encouraging independent thinking.
The purpose of studies is not just to learn what’s already there, but to raise questions about them.
This requires you to have the ability to learn by yourself. Reading and writing are among the basic capabilities.


Lesson 11 There are no correct answers in liberal arts disciplines

Teachers should not indoctrinate students with correct answers, or instruct them to memorize them. Instead, teachers should tell the students their perspectives on issues, and the process of how they reached their conclusions. Thus the students are illuminated. They are inspired to learn more. In this process the students get trained in methods of doing research and stretch their creativity.

Students should not simply expect a conclusion from the teachers. They should explore to find the answers by themselves, and develop themselves through independent thinking.


Lesson 12 Dare to suspect all

“Suspect all” is a motto of Karl Marx’s. People tend to accept answers rather than to examine the process of searching for answers. Many simply accept other people’s conclusions. They don’t think hard about how the conclusions are reached and whether they are valid. Thus the knowledge they get is superficial, or might even be fake.

So to understand a complex issue, you need to get a large amount of information, and carefully consider it, especially when it contains opposing opinions.You also need to be ready to challenge the way of thinking indoctrinated by traditions and the education system.


Lesson 13 We Chinese people don’t have profound spiritual pursuits

“The Chinese and the Jews are two tragic peoples. The former has a body without a soul. The latter has a soul without a body.” — Quoted from a Jewish writer.

Although the Chinese have the concept of “soul,” it has a very different meaning. It means a vital breath of life, or a virtual body of awareness. It doesn’t have the aspects of faith or reason. It still belongs to the larger body concept.


Lesson 14 Peace and stability are valued above all in Chinese culture

This tendency to preserve peace makes the Chinese people passive in fighting for our rights. We tend to accept the political status quo. As long as a government can maintain stability, the Chinese people would allow it to impose its will on them and to represent them.

It’s hard for many Chinese to comprehend and accept the idea of fighting for individual rights on the basis of equality, as they are exercised in western countries.


Lesson 15 The Chinese are a practical people

Heaven lies in the food, as an ancient Chinese saying goes. The Chinese value sensual pleasure. They seek practical benefits and attach great importance to eating.

Among the knowledge accumulated in the past several thousand years of Chinese history, practical political tactics and skills of life enjoyment were extensively covered. However, there lacked spiritual pursuits for a world beyond. Thus the Chinese intellectuals easily kneel down before those in power, and subject their thinking to the influence of power.

The Chinese can’t understand the spiritual culture of the west, such as the belief “For my love I will sacrifice life, for liberty I will sacrifice my love.”

Lesson 16 Introduction of the book The Underlying Structure of Chinese Culture, by Sun Longji

The Chinese are the people in the world that attach most importance to “unity.” They are also a people that are most likely to persecute their own members.

In political struggles among the Chinese, players on both sides would often pose themselves as the representatives of the whole group, and accuse the other side of being partisans.

They pretend to be nice to each other, but harbor grudges in their hearts. They fight against each other under the fake facade of “unity.” They stay together and inflict pain on one another. Like incessant maneuvering between mothers-in-law and sisters-in-law in a big family, each party becomes either sadistic or masochistic.

孙隆基 《中国文化的深层结构》

Lesson 17 It’s the basis of social science studies to analyze in-depth the cultural genes of the Chinese society

There are various aspects that the studies could be conducted on: economic operation, social organizations, authoritarian rule, legal culture, etc. Ancient Chinese literature is the basic tool.

In the meantime, we should take universal values of the modern era as the criteria for our studies, such as liberty, equality, democracy, human rights, rule of law, etc. The goal is to fulfill the difficult task of transforming our cultural gene and modernizing the society in its ideas and way of thinking.


Lesson 18 Freedom of speech

Introduction of the book Outlook of Culture by Taiwanese scholar Yin Haiguang

It’s a humiliation to all human beings if those in power can control all adults in a society in what they know, what they read and what they publish.

Everyone has the freedom to pursue what he believes to be the truth, and to express the truth as he sees it. It’s the worst type of government that only allows the public to know partial information and thus traps their minds.

台湾学者殷海光 《文化的展望》

Lesson 19 The methods and requirements of the course

Read the texts’ table of contents, learn about the historical background and cultural traditions of each text, and try to understand the meaning of every word and phrase, and be able to translate them. Reflect on the possible enlightenment you’ve got from the texts, or any valuable ideas you’ve learned from them.

By the end of the course, you will have a good grasp of China’s cultural heritage, learn to look at it with critical thinking, and understand its profound impact on the current Chinese society.

You are encouraged to speak freely of your ideas. Carry on the academic tradition of Mr. Cai Yuanpei [former president of Beijing University]: academic freedom and tolerance of different ideas.

Let’s observe the well-known saying by Voltaire: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

You students must have the courage to express your views freely. You can discuss your thoughts with teachers as their equal. It is quite common that people have different opinions. Do not subject yourself to teachers. Do not follow the authority blindly. Try to discover yourself in the process of learning.


Lesson 20 How to treat those who have different opinions from yours?

There a revolutionary logic which says: We oppose whatever our enemies embrace, and we embrace whatever the enemies oppose. Do you agree with it?

This is a very simplistic and primitive way of thinking, which ignores the complexity of the world and the issues. It makes people narrow-minded and hostile to those who have different opinions from them. It’s dangerous especially when those in power have such a way of thinking. It would generate countless unnecessary disputes, mistakes and human tragedies.

Learn to be tolerant!

Wise people are tolerant. Intolerance is actually a sign of weakness. A person is bound to be intolerant when he does not have sufficient knowledge but tries to safeguard his authority, when he does not grasp the truth but tries to pose himself as the embodiment of truth, when he observes outdated dogma and refuses historical progress, when he is willing to dwell his wind in a well and refuses to look up to the sky —quoted from Van Loon’s book On Tolerance.



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