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An ancient garden of learning


Politics and ethics are topics that Chinese often talk about. Aware of the anarchy and destruction brought by the Cultural Revolution, Chinese are now more open in discussing freedom and economic well-being.

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THEY WARNED ME never to initiate talk about politics or religion in China.

During my first evening at the “English Corner,” where young and old, workers and professionals came to practice their English with the foreign teachers, half the folks asked me about politics and openly discussed Chinese Communism. As evenings at the English Corner and in homes went on, and days in the classroom, most of the discussions during my 11 months dealt with either politics or philosophy and ethics.

For me the stereotypes regarding what to talk about and what China was about crumbled quickly in the “special economic zone” where I worked.

The People’s Republic of China had hired me to teach conversational English in a small university. After six years of English study, the students could read and write, but they were shy to speak. Almost daily I would have each student ask a question, and then we would discuss it. They spoke in English and they listened to my English. That was the sole aim and requirement.

At first they questioned me about the United States. They all wanted to know about it, to visit, perhaps to come to study. But they would also want to return to China, their true home. They would bring ideas and technology from the United States to develop China. They clearly loved China. I sensed no longing to emigrate permanently to the “promised land” of America. I had been told otherwise before I went to China.


After the first few classes talking about the States, the questioners began to ask what I thought of China, especially its politics. As on that first evening at the English Corner, I did not answer the question. I was a recent visitor who knew little about China. I wanted to know what they thought. I wanted to learn from them, and I did learn.

I learned much that surprised me. I learned of their pride and commitment to China. I learned quickly that their very affection for Mao and the Revolution and for their country pushed them to criticize what they saw as damaging: Mao’s last years, the domination by his wife, the Cultural Revolution, static and doctrinaire Marxist propaganda.

Though workers and students are still required to attend indoctrination classes, most of the folks I met laughed at the classes and the boring dogma as a small price to pay for the freedom and economic well-being many in Southeast China are now experiencing.

I discovered that the Cultural Revolution and its effects entered into almost every serious conversation. I did not hear one good word about those 10 years of anarchy and destruction. No one wanted such chaos to return, those years when the youth went berserk. Whenever the subject of the Tiananmen incident arose, most would quietly admit that likely 90 percent of the Chinese people were glad that the students had been suppressed in order to avoid total chaos. No one, especially the vast rural populations whose lives had so improved since 1949, wanted to see a student repetition of the horrors of 1967-77.

Chinese politics came first in every serious discussion. Ethics came second. The students seemed lost philosophically, morally–perhaps not so lost as the students I teach in California, but lost nonetheless. (The advantage of the Chinese students is that they know they are lost.)

I remember my student, Guo Mao Sheng, with whom I often chatted and fished. He wrote:


Where is my home to return to? and

why is the young heart often

troubled with solitude?

Wandering and wandering late at night.

Just like a lost child.

The journey is so long and so hard,

but the traveler was very tired.

Who can give him the courage

to continue the journey?

The young Chinese I met were pondering the increasing corruption in business, in politics. These students were crossing from a puritanical socialism into the “special economic zone’s” mixed economy, with its deals and compromises that easily slide into payoffs and thievery. They wanted to know about ethics and even about the transcendent wisdom that grounds justice. Yes, they asked about the life of the spirit, about God.

SO WHAT DID THIS foreign teacher say to these serious and inquiring youth? What should such a teacher say, who himself lives in an American glass house vulnerable to thrown stones? What should he say who knows so little about China and who has not lived through the terrors of the Cultural Revolution, who has grown amid a religious atmosphere and free discussion?


I know little about “should,” but what I tried to do was what I have seen my finest teachers do. I tried to listen to the questions and to the anxiety under them. I did not answer them, nor could I. I have trouble enough answering for myself the daily dilemmas of politics, the questions of ethics and the mysteries of religion.

I asked the students in class and the questioners at the English Corner to tell me what they thought, what personal answers they had come to. They did answer, though hesitantly at first. Their reflections about ethics and its nephew, politics, came from a depth and with a clear honesty that would put to shame many academics, East or West. Their discussions of spirituality, the existence of a transcendent, the very personality of a God would console the mind of Plato and the sould of Aquinas.

I realized once again, after 34 years of teaching, that the teachers of the teacher are the students. I went to China to teach and I returned healthier, wiser and, God help me, more faithful. I hope to go again to that ancient garden of learning.


Far up the forested coast of Hokkaido

where Steller’s sea eagles fish the air,

a few brown bears still make their home

in the eastern mountains, mostly alone,

cousins of the fell Kamchatkan bears,

Siberian to the bone, relicts of a time

before the Japanese were even on this land,

when only the Ainu dwelt close at hand.

Hokkaido’s current pioneers see danger far

or near as bear–hi-guma–fierce as fire:

“Out walking, if once you see this bear,

it is then too late for aught but prayer!”

But the Ainu too are nearly gone, who kept,

and killed, and worshiped bears as gods.

Beardless, goldless, they carve them now

from wood instead, speak Japanese, and bow

to the tourist trade. With songs and dance

and crafts to sell, they greet the neck-tied

hordes who descend on them time and again.

They parody themselves for the insatiable yen

that devours them, and only now and then

will an old man turn aside from the rest:

We were here first! he says to the trees.

Tell that to the bears, say the trees.

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