CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 22, June 2010


The History Lessons of Yuan Tengfei | China Heritage Quarterly

The History Lessons of Yuan Tengfei

Eric Mu

In previous issues we have touched on how major eras or events in Chinese history are presented in the mass media, be it print or electronic (see, for example, Issue 8, December 2006, devoted to the Garden of Perfect Brightness, and ‘Ming Fever’ by Michael Szonyi in the March 2010 issue. The present essay, by Eric Mu in Bejing, alerts us to one of the most notable younger mass-media historians, Yuan Tengfei 袁腾飞, and the controversy surrounding his particular style of ‘stand-up pedagogy’.

Yuan is a high-school history teacher in Beijing who has become known far beyond the confines of his school in Haidian district. His engaging, humorous and provocative accounts of China’s past, in particular the controversial twentieth century, are available on sites such as Tudou, or internationally on YouTube (for some links, see below).

Yuan’s ‘historical badinage’ reflects the temper of Beijing—and he speaks with a strong local accent. It is also reminiscent of the 1980s re-emergence of Beijing-style humour in the mainstream Chinese media. The ‘Beijing-style’ was soon co-opted by the post-ironic state-driven market culture of the 1990s Pax Sinica. And, as elsewhere, notoriety can add marketability to people and ideas. Controversy, politics and the market have a considerable history in China’s media and publishing worlds. In the modern era, the late-Qing era saw the explosive writings of Liang Qichao 梁启超 and Kang Youwei 康有为 gain them massive intellectual ‘market share’ as well as political influence. They never shied from controversy, or relinquished the desire to comment on the social and political life and possibilities of China.

Elsewhere, in co-authored work with Gloria Davies, I have argued that media and message have a complex codependency (see our joint-essay ‘Have We Been Noticed Yet?—Intellectual contestation and the Chinese web’, in Edward X. Gu and Merle Goldman, eds, Chinese Intellectuals Between State and Market, London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004 revised ed., pp.75-108. We will reproduce this study in a future issue of China Heritage Quarterly). In his critique, Eric Mu also suggests the rank commercial dimension of Yuan’s ‘outing’ as a critic of the regnant party-state view of history.—The Editor.

The following article appeared on on 21 May 2010, and is reproduced here with permission from both the author and the editor of Danwei, Jeremy Goldkorn. For the original, see here.

Links to Yuan lectures:

Yuan Tengfei is a Beijing middle school teacher whose charisma and controversial history lessons that circulate as online videos have won him the nickname ‘most awesome history teacher’.

He recently appeared in a video after a long period of silence. In the video, he disavowed the widely circulated rumor that he has been arrested: ‘I am very well. As to the online news and rumors, I thank my friends for your concern, but I have no intention to get involved in another verbal fight.’ In his idiosyncratic, mischievous tone, he concluded, borrowing a political slogan: ‘I trust the Party and the people's government, and believe that the law will bring me justice... Aren't we constructing a harmonious society? Every one please just chill out, concentrate on your own business.’ (See the video on Tudou)

Yuan first became famous when a series of video recordings of his lessons were posted to the Internet and attracted a large following. His pugnacious, sometimes acrid comments about Chinese history, especially the late leader Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution strike a chord with many people who feel bitter about the past era or unsatisfied with the status quo. After Yuan became well known, he was invited to appear on CCTV's Lecture Room, a program which is usually reserved for prominent professors and established scholars. He also got a book deal.

After looking through the footage of his lessons that are still available online, my impression is that what Yuan has to say is interesting, but what is most interesting is that he uses his teaching job as a channel to disseminate an alternative view of history. He is one of the new breed of Chinese teachers who start to make classroom their soapbox, leaving behind their traditional social role of helping kids to swallow down the doctrines without much reflection. Don't all parents send their kids to school expecting them to get good grades to go to good universities? But the loony who compares Chairman Mao's reign to Hilter's Germany and Stalin's Russian seems just want to turn them into rebels.

Yuan's flair for language, comparable with a xiangsheng (Chinese stand up comedy) actor's is probably the thing that saves him from his not so convincing assertions. After all, what he says is not really original: His views are held by many revisionists or rightists who are pro free market, and pro individual rights, with a nationalist streak when it comes to China's relationship with Japan. That said, for students who don't get much exposure to real political arguments, Yuan opens an exciting world where establishment views can be doubted.

There is no shortage of dissenting voices even inside China, but most are either dissidents who don't get much space to spread their views or anonymous online commentators. Though it is still a political taboo, talking about Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution is quite common among the Chinese people: As long as you keep the audience small enough, it is allowed. But it's a different matter when you express your opinions in a video which is viewed by tens of thousands.

Yuan's choice of using Internet video as medium to reach out to a wider audience, his high-profile defiance leads many to lavish praises on him for his courage to ‘speak the truth’. In today's China, either one argues that Mao was a great leader, or otherwise, a devil, he should have no difficulty to find his own camp. Usually praising Mao is a sign of someone who sucks up to the government while reviling Mao establishes a person as having a superior moral compass, at least to a certain part of the population.

Did Yuan Tengfei want to martyr himself to be a hero? Or is he too stupid to be aware of the risks? Yuan recently stated that it was not his intention to publish the video and what he expressed in the video was years ago and looking back from his current perspective, not very mature. He even pleaded for more privacy, arguing that what is done in a high school classroom should go no further. Presumably, he didn’t anticipate eventually the video would get him.

Then how did the video get out? Yuan himself didn’t make it clear but many believe Yuan was back-stabbed by his publisher, who released some of the more controversial clips after their book deal went awry. And the reprisal seems work quite well: aside from the Internet outrage, the school Yuan taught already received complaints from people of weight. Yuan is reportedly ‘under pressure’ according to his lawyer. Yuan Tengfei, by now must have a better idea what game he is playing, probably have drawn a lesson from his own piece of history: controversy makes you famous, but there is a line you cannot cross; and when you figure out where it is, it is usually too late.