Learning at Shantou University – Reading Kafka in China

Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal is now at the Hong Kong Museum of Art (through March 31). During the opening festivities there last December, word came that Warhol’s iconic Mao portraits would not be included in the show’s stops in Shanghai and Beijing. This despite the fact that Chinese artists regularly use Mao’s image in their art.[1]  Criticism predictably erupted in the international press: freedom of expression, censorship, cover-up of the history of the Cultural Revolution etc…  

Quietly, way back in 2005, in the outback of China, in a small town on the southern coast, one hour’s flight from Hong Kong, there was an installation commemorating the turmoil and tragedy of China’s Cultural Revolution. It was little advertised but school children were taken there. And less known still is that one of the donors to the exhibition was Li Ka-Shing, Asia’s wealthiest man who was born in this town. This was reported in the New York Times, Scenes From A Nightmare: A Shrine to the Maoist Chaos.          

Even less known (but probably not for much longer) is the name of this small town: Shantou, and its remarkable university, founded by an endowment from Li Ka-Shing, with Beijing’s blessing. These quotes are from the above Wikipedia link: 

STU [Shantou University] is committed to the student-centered reform in terms of university administration and talent training, in order to cultivate talents with the motto, “Aspiration, Knowledge, Perseverance, Achievement”

On June 20, 1986, Deng Xiaoping received Mr. Li Ka-shing in Beijing and suggested that STU should develop along freer lines and gradually attain the status of a national key university.

In 2009, STU was designated by the GD [Guangdong] Government as a pilot university for transforming into a self-governing institution of higher education.(My italics)  [2]  

True to this spirit, Paul Levine, who served as director (2007-11) of regional studies at the new Center for International Studies at Shantou University had assigned Kafka’s The Trial as student reading.  However, Kafka appeared to be  already freely discussed in China, at least at universities, see this link to the China Academic Journal. 

When I visited Shantou University in 2007, thinking only to have a look at the pride of my ancestral hometown and the fruit of Li Ka Shing’s largesse, I was astounded by the  beauty of the campus, with neatly placed white international  modernist buildings, a green belt and a serene lake (for watersports and as reservoir). Only now do I know it’s the work of Herzog and de Meuron, the Pritzker-winning international architects responsible for China’s 2008 flashy Olympic Stadium—the Bird’s Nest, [3] as well as the understated but powerful Tate Modern in London.

Modern architecture aside, the atmosphere of openness and equality in learning has its roots deep in ancient Chinese culture. And the Chaoshan area (Chaozhou/Shantou) [4] has always been in the forefront. 

Dial back a millennium to AD 819, during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–906).  Han Yu (AD 768–824), the Confucian scholar and imperial minister had offended the emperor and was exiled to Chaozhou, the old culture capital of the area and a close neighbor of Shantou, which is the newer seaport trading town.  

Han Yu’s eight-month sojourn in Chaozhou over a thousand years ago forever transformed this ‘southern barbarian’ city. He brought in scholar friends to train the locals—and for them to start their own schools, emphasizing self-government and motivation. To this day, students from the Chaoshan area consistently place amongst top cities in national examination results and calligraphy competitions.  

But Han Yu’s spirit went far beyond education. He was the first human rights defender. His modern and liberal views—which could best be explained by the offences for which he was twice exiled by the emperor from the capital Chang’an (Xian today). The first was for his protest against local officials extracting taxes from farmers despite droughts and poor harvests. The second time for his petition to the emperor to forego the great expenditure and ceremony to welcome a Buddhist relic from India. He had reported previously, citing statistics, that Indian monks came to China to do no work but take offerings and spread superstition, placing a burden on the local households, 500 of which are needed to support a monastery. He had also released indentured servants and advocated free speech against injustice. (I took most of this information  from a book, Han Yu in Chaozhou (1993) by the founding director of the Han Yu Museum in Chaozhou, Zeng Chu–Nan, with whom I met in 2007). 

The University of California at Berkeley’s assistant vice-chancellor for international affairs Julia Hsiao was charged with turning Shantou University into a hotbed of education reform by Li back in 2001. She spoke of her brief for the university in an interview with Businessweek in 2005:

[To turn it into] an oasis, where inquisitive learners can come and really be nurtured, revitalized, inspired to be creative, and become part of a population that understands the role of global citizenship.

[So, at Shantou],  we are moving beyond rote learning and setting them up to learn for life, how to make critical decisions, and how to be open — open to new things, to change.

[Shantou University is only one] of four universities in China having governing structure with boards. They don’t have to follow the rules of how education is set up… Typically, the president is accountable to the party secretary. Here, there’s a board… The president of the university reports to the board.

Mr. Li wants to be a catalyst for greater change…We are creating a ripple effect… We are trying to move fast… (My italics)

The seeds for democratic and humanistic government in the Chaoshan area had thus been planted over a millennium ago. Suitably, a 21st century university with radically new concepts of government and global outlook, meant to be a model for a future China, should start here in Shantou.

[1]  In the catalog for Shantou University’s 2007 graduate exhibition of students in the Cheung Kong School of Art and Design is an image by a conceptual artist, showing Mao along with other famous world political leaders like Che Guevara, Stalin, Churchill, even Lincoln,  in Mao caps. The artist stated that these were really political brands (Like Warhol’s portrayal of consumer products?). I will have a piece next week on this artist and his work.

[2]  During its early founding days, I remember my father and uncle had both donated books and papers to the university. 

[3]  A symbol of China’s earnestness to join the international community, the slogan is: if you build a nest, birds will come. 

[4]  The cities of Chaozhou and Shantou share the new Jieyang Chaoshan International airport.


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