My Education During China’s Cultural Revolution

Are Your Children’s Schools Following a Similar Script?

I am an educator. I have sounded alarms on the appalling state of America’s education. But recently, I am more concerned about a new trend in K-12 education. It reminds me of my education during China’s Cultural Revolution.

China’s Cultural Revolution started in the summer of 1966. All schools were closed. Middle school, high school, and college students organized themselves into so-called Red Guards. They pledged their allegiance to Mao and Mao only and worshiped him as a god.

Mao told them to destroy the Four Olds: old thoughts, old culture, old customs, and old habits. For a whole year, they roamed China and brought destruction and terror everywhere they went. They destroyed churches and temples, burned books, tortured intellectuals and teachers, and imprisoned party officials. Mao ordered police and local governments not to interfere.  The Red Guard had free reign, and they turned the whole country upside down.

After Mao achieved his absolute power, schools started to re-open in the fall of 1968. Both of my parents worked in a big factory, which had an elementary school. It opened in January 1970 when I was seven years old. But it was a different kind of education.

The first lesson was how to read and say “Long Live Chairman Mao.” The second lesson was “Long Live The Chinese Communist Party.” We learned that Mao was the savior of all the oppressed people in the world. Each morning at the start of school, we bowed to his portrait and shouted out, “Long Live Chairman Mao!”

The Chinese government banned all textbooks written before the Cultural Revolution, and most of them were burned or recycled. A few survived. But reading them was considered a crime against Mao, the party, and the people. Teaching them would land you in jail if you were lucky.

We had brand new textbooks. Language textbooks were devoid of Chinese classics and full of Mao’s quotes. Everyone had the so-called little red book, which was a collection of Mao’s quotes. We had to memorize them and recite them. Fifty-one years later, I can still remember some of them.

We learned in math textbooks how the landowners cheated the peasants. We were told that the purpose of our education, thanks to Chairman Mao, was to equip us to fight against Western imperialists and capitalists and liberate oppressed peoples worldwide. We learned how white capitalists exploited and oppressed black people in America and how they dumped milk into a sewer while many poor people were starving.

We had to participate in political events. Representatives of the workers’ propaganda team came to our school and encouraged us to criticize ourselves, our teachers, classmates, and even parents. The teachers were scared of us because they were from the bourgeoisie class (former business owners and landowners). They were guilty of the crimes of their parents and grandparents who oppressed the proletariat class (workers and peasants).

The representatives told us to raise our class consciousness and look at people through the lens of class struggle. For example, some of my friends were children of the bourgeoisie class. So now they were my class enemies. I had to criticize them so they could betray their class and become members of my class. If they didn’t, I had to report them.

We wrote “big letter posters” and participated in torch night rallies. We went to public meetings where someone was being criticized or even executed. We were proud little Red Guards. Besides “Long Live Chairman Mao” and “Long Live the Communist Party,” the third most popular slogan was “Down with …” It was common to hear that someone had committed suicide.

Political activism trumped academic achievement. Being good only in academics was considered “whiteness” and a dangerous bourgeois tendency. An ideal student was both active in politics and excellent in academics. This was called “redness.” However, political activism completely overshadowed academic performance later on. You had to show your zealous loyalty to Mao and the Party.

Intellectuals were pushed down to the bottom of society so that the ruling class would consist of workers, peasants, and soldiers (though, in reality, it only consisted of party officials). We students were supposed to learn from them. We spent a lot of time harvesting and planting in communes (a commune is an organizational unit of peasants who slave for the government) and making parts in factories. We also had to endure military drills.

There was little learning going on in the classroom. At one time, we practiced democratic grading. The whole class voted on what grade you deserved. Guess who got As? The class bullies. You dared to give me a B? See you after school. The system didn’t last long.

Every middle and high school graduate had to work in a commune to get further education from peasants. The lucky ones could come back to their families in a few years.

When the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976 due to Mao’s death, teachers were allowed to teach academics again. In the winter of 1977, many universities reopened. You just needed to pass the nationalized college entrance exams regardless of your class affiliation.

During the Cultural Revolution, only a few colleges were open, but only the children of the proletariat class were allowed to apply. You would need official letters of recommendation to show you were a zealous revolutionary.

Our school started to get us focused on academics in 1977 when I was in the 8th grade. Not surprisingly, our reading and math were at 3rd or 4th-grade level. So our teachers just focused on language and math. We learned all the math we had missed in just one semester.

In 1977 and 1978, anyone could participate in the college entrance exams without age limitation. You didn’t even have to graduate from middle or high school. I took the exams in 1978 and was lucky to get decent enough grades to enroll in a college. I was only fifteen years old then. Becoming a college student forever changed my life.

Now fast forward to today’s America. Critical Race Theory (CRT) is not taught as a subject in K-12 schools, but as an ideology, it permeates every subject. Many teachers and administrators have been indoctrinated in college and believe the goal of education is to turn students into “anti-racists.”

CRT separates people into suppressors and suppressed. White people are the suppressors, and people of color, especially black people, are the suppressed. It teaches students to look at the world through the lens of race struggle. It believes that America is inherently racist, and the only way to achieve racial justice is to fundamentally change America as we know it.

CRT as a theory has been taught in law schools and education majors since the ‘90s. Now its believers want to apply it to America’s K-12 education.

It has already caused confusion and harm in many schools on the East and West Coasts. Early this year, the Oregon Department of Education started promoting A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction. This organization is dedicated to deconstructing racism in Mathematics and exposing the “toxic characteristics of White Supremacy culture in math.”

“White Supremacy!” Yes, this is how they view our current culture and all of our cultural, political, and legal institutions. And we are all guilty for being part of it and not actively dismantling it. What the CRT believers are advocating is nothing short of a cultural revolution.

Fortunately, our country is not a dictatorship. We still have our constitutional rights to oppose such a radical ideology. But we have to take control of our children’s education before it is too late.

Further Reading

grew up during China's Cultural Revolution and immigrated to the US in 1995. He became a high school math teacher after having worked as an engineer for 20 years. Disillusioned with the current schooling model, he became an independent math teacher/tutor in 2018. He writes mainly on education and culture.

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