After “Being Mentally-Illed,” Teacher Li Tiantian Chooses Self-Exile

Li Tiantian, the pregnant Hunan elementary school teacher forcibly committed to a psychiatric ward after voicing support for a fired Shanghai professor, has been released from the hospital—and chosen self-exile. In December 2021, a surreptitious recording of Song Gengyi, a professor at Shanghai’s Aurora Vocational College, began circulating online. In the clip, Song questions the official death toll of the Nanjing Massacre, pointing out that the number of dead cited by Chinese authorities (over 300,000) is not a product of rigorous historical inquiry. Song was fired after online mobs denounced her “historical nihilism.” Li Tiantian defended Song repeatedly on WeChat, until her speech was reported to local authorities who forcibly committed Li to a mental hospital, inciting outrage across China when the case went public. Upon her release from the hospital, Li—a prolific poet and essayist—wrote a “Letter to My Hometown: I’m Leaving in Order to Live with Dignity” and published it on WeChat. The essay was soon censored. CDT has translated excerpts from Li’s letter, below: 

I was 21 years old when I graduated from college, full of hope for the future. I expected that I would live in western Hunan for the rest of my life, and had a romantic vision of teaching in a rural school while continuing my own writing. I even found a man who was willing to accompany me as I held fast to my ideals, willing to give up a more privileged life in a northern provincial capital to come teach with me at a rural school in western Hunan.

[…] But ultimately, we underestimated how unforgiving reality is to “idealists.” Like the little boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes, we sadly found ourselves at the mercy of so-called “realists.” After the unexpected tempest that capsized our boat, my life was transformed into that of a castaway on a desert island, tormented by an unpredictable future. In my moment of need, even some of my closest relatives cut anchor and left me adrift, saying and doing unconscionable things for fear that my sinking ship might drag them down with it.

[…] Had it not been for all that came after, I believe my life would have been dedicated to Taozixi [Peach Creek] Elementary, dedicated to the dream of rural in China. I would have been like a “fairy teacher,” using my magic to warm children’s souls. I would have reveled under my hometown stars, using poetry to immortalize the souls of the people living deep in the mountains of Western Hunan. But in the here and now, I somehow cannot find respite for my own soul. Physically and emotionally exhausted, I think only of escape! Forgive me for not having the fortitude to go on—I’m simply too battered and bruised.

[…] Never once, from the scandal that hit the news in 2019 [her criticism of local education officials] to this latest incident, has a single person in my hometown dared to speak up for me. When friends did send me WeChat messages, it was only to scold, “You don’t deserve to be a teacher here anymore!” Even some members of my own family have sold me out, or believe I’ve brought shame on the family, or can’t distance themselves from me fast enough. I understand their predicament: even if they disown me, cut me off completely, I’ll never bear them a grudge. [Chinese

To be mentally-illed” is one of the many “involuntary passive” tools the Chinese state uses to silence critics, alongside “to be johnned,” “to be touristed,” and, in extreme cases, “to be suicided.” The Chinese writer Gao Jian, who has written a book on the subject, told The New York Times, “This tool of treating someone as mentally ill is still quite a useful one for local governments […] It’s a way of completely skating around the law.” Nor is Li’s self-imposed exile unique: those who have fallen afoul of the Party often find it difficult to remain in their communities or reintegrate into society after they’ve been made examples of. In early 2021, the formerly incarcerated labor activist Lu Yuyu wrote a similar letter (“Goodbye, Guangzhou!”) after local authorities forced him to leave the city, his second such expulsion in a period of six months. 

Li’s comments in support of Song Gengyi were especially fraught, given the Party’s renewed focus on history ahead of the 20th Party Congress in September. In November 2021, the sixth and final plenum of the 19th Party Congress concluded with a resolution on history, only the third such resolution passed since the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Since the Sixth Plenum, the Party has promoted “historical confidence” and urged vigilance against “soft historical nihilism,” a label condemning opinions that are even slightly out of line with the Party’s approved version of history. The student who recorded Professor Song’s comments can be heard mentioning “500,000,” a slang term derived from the reward for turning in spies—the top prize for which is 500,000 yuan. “A walking 500k” is a term applied to anyone caught making comments that might be construed as anti-China or anti-Party, and thus eligible to be reported to the authorities (for a lucrative reward.) It is so ubiquitous that one Zhihu user parodied it by repurposing the “scripted homicide” games popular among Chinese youth to have the detectives tasked with finding who “the walking 500k” is, rather than the killer. At China Media Project, David Bandurski explained the background to the Song Gengyi controversy that would later engulf Li Tiantian

The storm began on December 15 as a short video circulated online – apparently shared by a student “informant” – of a lecture in which Song Gengyi (宋庚一) questioned the 300,000 official number given by the Chinese government for the number of victims in the Nanjing Massacre, a tragedy that unfolded on December 13, 1937, as the Imperial Japanese Army captured the capital city of Nanjing during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Song made the remarks during her December 14 “News Interview” (新闻采访) course at Shanghai’s Aurora College, held the day after nationwide commemoration of the massacre’s anniversary.

On the afternoon of Thursday, December 16, the official Weibo account of the People’s Daily, the CCP’s flagship newspaper, weighed in on Song’s remarks. The tone of the post, which called the 300,000 number “iron-clad fact” (铁证如山), was severe. It said that Song was “errant as a teacher” (枉为人师) for “questioning historical truth,” and that she was “errant as a compatriot” (枉为国人) for “forgetting hardships and denying the evil deeds of another country.”

[…] But Friday, however, voices in support of Song Gengyi were swelling too. Protests against the injustice of Song’s treatment grew in volume as a full version of the classroom video was circulated, giving her remarks fuller context. It clearly showed Song discussing the verification of historical facts as possible and important, characterizing the 300,000 figure as arising from a particular historical and political context – and making the point that more could probably be discovered, with proper research, about even the specific identities of the victims. Nothing seemed to show Song in any way minimizing the Nanjing Massacre or its historical importance. A number of media veterans in particular voiced their support for Song. Pursuing the facts, they said, was the first rule of journalism, and Song’s attitude showed a strong respect for academic rigor. [Source]

While Li’s committal and Song’s firing are, in part, stories related to nationalist paranoia about history, they are also stories of the burdens that Chinese educators bear in the Xi Jinping era. In 2019, Li Tiantian earned minor national acclaim and local notoriety for an essay criticizing the ways in which excessive bureaucracy and red tape bled resources from rural students and teachers. Her departure from Taozixi Elementary comes just as Premier Li Keqiang leads a new push to have recent college graduates teach in rural schools. Premier Li has said that “cultivating the ranks of in rural areas” is a “weak link” in China’s current educational system. China’s recently cowed tech giants have also joined the effort to improve rural education. After new regulations forced the private tutoring giant New Oriental to close 1,500 offices and locations across the country, the company donated 80,000 sets of desks and chairs to rural schools. Since his battle with regulators in late 2020, Alibaba founder Jack Ma has stayed mostly out of the public eye—except for his highly publicized visits to rural schools. Li Tiantian might have been a model practitioner of these national priorities—her poetry is imbued with an obvious love for her young charges

They Will Grow Up in My Stead

In winter, you have to see at least one snowfall,
hold one pair of beloved hands,
stand beneath a frozen tree
and share one blazing kiss.

But I’ve done nothing
except raise my eyes to the sky.

What could be sadder than
a faded sunset, a dried-up stream?
What could be more worrisome than
a seven-year-old forgotten by his own parents?
Yet here I am in this village primary school
playing a mother’s role. 

They will grow up in my stead,
put on my shoes,
and walk into a springtime field.

My Students

Zhang San’s folks are divorced
Li Si’s folks are divorced
Wang Er’s folks are divorced
Mazi is a left-behind kid

In this homeroom, misery has company
but their essays proclaim how ardently
they love the Great Era in which we live [Chinese]

With translations by Cindy Carter. 

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