Knowledge Revolution

December 09, 2010

When His Educational Opportunities Were Taken Away, this Rollins Professor Wanted Nothing More Than to Get Back to the Classroom

Associate Professor of History Yusheng Yao
Photo by Laura J. Cole

Imagine it … all schools are closed and there are hardly any books to read. It was a typical sixth grader’s dream. At least that’s how Rollins Associate Professor of History Yusheng Yao initially felt. In 1966, when Yao was just 12 years old, he was living in Beijing, China when the country’s Cultural Revolution began. Instead of going to school, he was one of 18 million young people in the region to be mandatorily removed from his home and family to work in the countryside.

Under Chairman Mao Zedong’s leadership, the Revolution was sparked by the political sentiment to return to peasant work in order to become “ideologically pure.” It was a class movement against the bourgeoisie.

Forced to cut wheat in the fields, Yao was later selected to work in the carpentry division, building doors and windows for houses. He spent five years under these conditions – without access to any formal education.

College admission during the time was based solely on an inequitable recommendation system, and as time passed, he disliked being in educational limbo.

“Since I was deprived of an education, I developed a strong desire to learn,” said Yao.

He began studying English while listening to it on the radio, since after President Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972 the government broadcast English lessons on the airwaves. Yao was also able to get his hands on an English grammar book, which he read cover-to-cover more than a dozen times.

Looking at Professor Yao’s impressive curriculum vitae, an outsider wouldn’t know the hardship he has been through to achieve his educational merits. In 1978, when the national college examination process was restored by Deng Xiaoping, Yao passed the entrance exams and was educated at Peking University in Beijing. He later earned a Harvard-Yenching scholarship in 1987 and received his M.A. in American Studies and Ph.D. in history at the University of Minnesota.

“Students relate to the way I teach because I bring both a scholarly view and my personal experience,” said Yao.

The notion of mandatory back-breaking labor is something that is literally foreign to most of his students. The Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) is even glossed over in the academic curriculum in China’s schools because it is considered a dark spot in its history. In fact, China just opened the archives (in a limited capacity) in early 2010 of declassified government files from the Cultural Revolution.

“We didn’t know what freedom was, so we didn’t question it,” said Yao. “There was little resistance to the movement because most people didn’t dare go against what was accepted.”

Having taught Chinese history at Rollins for more than a decade, Yao feels that his enthusiasm for education was positively impacted by his hardships. He also enjoys teaching students how modern China has evolved and how China and its people have been searching for new identities.

“Looking back, my personal story of growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution was one of struggle against state-imposed ignorance and my search for meaning and enlightenment,” added Yao. “By sharing this story with my students, I hope to encourage them to think what they should do with their education and with their lives. You don’t appreciate how much education can do for you until it is taken away.”

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