Zhang Kaiyuan: Where is the way out for Chinese scholars? –My experience in running the Institute

I. Twice changed names

   In 1984, we founded the Institute of History at Central China Normal University (HCNU). Its predecessor was the Laboratory of the History of the Xinhai Revolution, which was set up in the Department of History under my leadership after the Cultural Revolution. In the beginning, there were only three lecturers in the Xinhai Revolutionary History Research Office: me, Chen Hui and Sun Yuhua, plus Liu Wangling, who was still an assistant professor at that time. Later, one of the workers, peasants, and university students, Li Zilin, was retained and also served as a teaching assistant, but left soon after. In addition, Zhu Xiowu and Peng Yingming from Zhongnan Minzu College also worked in this research lab for some time, and Peng was particularly active and had a good writing style, and participated in writing the first draft of the History of the Xinhai Revolution. During the Cultural Revolution, when the Central and Southern Minzu College and other schools merged with the Chinese Division, and after the Cultural Revolution the Minzu College became separate and independent, he went back to the Minzu College.

   In 1983, the research direction of modern history at HNH was granted the right to award doctoral degrees. Taking this as an opportunity, the Ministry of Education asked us to establish an institute. As a result, the Office of the History of the 1911 Revolution was renamed the Institute of History. Although the name was changed, it was actually still focused on the Xinhai Revolution, with an emphasis on modern Chinese history. However, there was a time when the Institute of History had not only those who studied modern Chinese history, but also those who studied Indian history.

   In fact, the Chinese division was strong in the study of Indian history. The backbone was Tu Houshan, who graduated from the Department of History of Southwest Union University in 1943 and entered Central Plains University in 1949, then stayed on as a teacher and was assigned to the history group. Since he was good at English, he was allowed to specialize in world history. Later, he had the opportunity to go to the northeast to study with Soviet experts. He improved very quickly and was highly praised by Mr. Richi (Lin Zhichun), a historian. He graduated from Yanjing University and worked as an English announcer for Xinhua Radio before the liberation. Another one, Liu Jixing, also from the academy, graduated from the history department of Wuhan University before the liberation. During the late Cultural Revolution, the central government felt the need to strengthen the study of South Asia, so the Commercial Press undertook the translation of works on India. Tu Houshan and others were involved and did a lot of meaningful work.

   At that time, there was only one university in the field of South Asia that really did historical research, and it was very unique. Therefore, even Ji Xianlin was very interested in our South Asian history research. One of his students, Jisheng Li, was also assigned to teach Hindi to us. There were very few institutions that could teach Hindi at that time. I also took the opportunity of my outbound study tour to match up with my colleagues in Indian history, to establish outside contacts, and to collect as much information as possible. I visited the major cities of Indian history studies in the United States and Japan. The Berkeley Library sent us several large boxes of Indian history books, and the University of Chicago agreed to send one graduate student to study Sanskrit for free every year.

   However, the good times did not last. Still in the 1980s, the director of graduate studies at the university wanted to abolish the study of Indian history. The reason was simply that the study of Indian history could not “generate income. I was against this. However, after June 4, there was a retrogressive wind, which attached great importance to politics and whether it could generate income or not, so Indian history research was treated as a burden, and it was withdrawn without any consultation during my overseas trip. This is our self-destruction.

   The Institute of History’s study of modern Chinese history developed quite well, and in 1988 it was named a key discipline in the nation’s higher education institutions. In the 1990s, there was a rush to build a “key research base for humanities and social sciences”. With the fruitful research results, our modern history research became the first batch of “Key Research Bases”. The name of the Institute of History was changed to the Institute of Modern Chinese History, which has been used ever since. Despite the name change, people still used to call us “Institute of History”, or simply “Institute of History”.

   A head, shoulders and legs.

   I am the founder of this institute, the first director, and after old age, also served for a long time as honorary director, trials and tribulations, all have experienced. In my opinion, to cultivate and run a good institute, it is necessary to have a head, a shoulder and a pair of legs.

   To have a head means to have a thought, a concept and a strategic vision. There must be a global vision in the brain, and a grasp of what does well and what does not well enough for the various units, and even individuals, engaged in research in this specialty. On the basis of this, we should have an accurate position of where our institute is in the big chess game, and then we should think about how to be the eye and how to take advantage of the situation in order to be bigger and stronger.

   In order to be bigger and stronger, we need to make efforts in discipline construction and team building. Discipline construction and team building are actually combined into one, but the content is not exactly the same. The team building emphasizes the improvement of the quality of talents and the cultivation of team spirit, while in the discipline building, the layout is the most important. How to build modern Chinese history as a discipline? For an institute of higher education, it is not possible to spread out the whole picture, but only to focus on certain important issues according to its own strengths. Only in this way can we make our own characteristics. To find out the research focus of the institute, this is the so-called “deployment”.

Whenever an institute is established, it must have accumulated a certain amount of experience in a certain field. This field is the starting point, or even the stronghold, of the institute. For this institute, the starting point is the study of the history of the Xinhai Revolution. The starting point is very important. Without a starting point, there will be no character and no starting line, but we cannot be satisfied with that. Once you have a starting point, you must consider creating other points. There is a primary point and a secondary point, and then only can a surface be formed. It is only when a facet is formed that there is diversity and sustainability. There are some universities in the country that were well established at certain points, but were unable to make it big because they stuck to that for a long time. The advantage of this institute is that although it is based on the study of the history of the 1911 Revolution, it has not been satisfied with this, and has created research points such as the Chamber of Commerce, church universities, social history, modernization, and cultural history in addition to the history of the 1911 Revolution, leading the trend and actively conducting research.

   In terms of team building, there should be a reasonable echelon and efforts should be made in personnel training. As a discipline leader, you can’t just focus on yourself and ignore the team, you must have team awareness. Of course, the growth of talents mainly depends on oneself. Qualifications are important for the growth of history talents, but it is hard work that plays a decisive role. Diligence can make up for poor performance, which is especially evident in history. But this is not to say that discipline leaders can ignore the growth of talents. For even the most diligent person has a problem getting on. In the young people struggle to find their way in, but could not, if the discipline leader can be a little guidance, indicating the right path, can save young people from a lot of uncertainty. Academic leaders are willing to put the golden needle to measure people, treat each other frankly, the team will naturally be united and energetic, the spirit of the brush. The Institute has always paid attention to the echelon construction of talents, and the discipline leaders and senior scholars are willing to work hard for the growth of young people, so the structure is quite reasonable, especially internal unity, which is our greatest asset.

   To have a pair of shoulders means to be responsible. It is difficult for a research institution to do well without some trend-setting initiatives in academic research. Leading a trend, in many cases, means taking risks. Without a pair of iron shoulders, without the courage to take responsibility, without the fear of taking risks, how can one lead a trend? It is wrong to follow only the trends of the academic world, but it is equally unproductive to follow only the guidelines of the government. You can survive by following the fads, but at the same time you will lose yourself. It is inevitable that one must remain independent, but only by doing so is it possible to find one’s own way and even lead the way. The distribution of disciplines in our institute, chamber of commerce research, church university research, etc. are not the result of following the trend, but our own choice. There were inevitably some hardships and even serious setbacks in the beginning, but later they became the characteristics of this institute.

   The other side of the commitment is to create a relaxed environment for colleagues at the Institute who can conduct independent academic research. There is a high level of insight, and there is no restricted area for academic research. In order to encourage the young scholars of this Institute to think independently, I often tell them, “Politically I am in charge, academically you are in charge.” Of course, the relaxed environment does not mean that there is no supervision of colleagues at the Institute. Pan-Sen Wang, who presides over the Institute of Historical and Linguistic Research at the Academia Sinica in Taiwan, is very lenient with his colleagues, but he does remind them from time to time to ask about the progress of their research. If he asked too much, some of them got scared and avoided meeting him. This kind of supervision, I think, is also a kind of responsibility that an academic leader should have.

   Having a pair of legs means being diligent in moving around. Drillers today have a secret: “Run (the ministry) before (the money) goes in.” They have a pair of legs, too, and they’re diligent about it. But that’s not what I have in mind when I say legs should be diligent. The legs of the academic leaders should go to the front line, to the grassroots. To walk the front line is to charge forward and take the lead themselves. Every point of this institute will be vigorously constructed with materials. Many of the materials were crawled out of the archives by the academic leader himself. I always remember what it was like when I first came across the records of the Suzhou Chamber of Commerce: they were dusty and piled up in the underground warehouse of the Suzhou Municipal Archives. It was cold, and the only thing the staff had to keep warm was a glass bottle filled with boiling water for an IV drip, which they would hold over their hands to ward off the chill. I didn’t even have one of those bottles. Later, they gave me a glass bottle, but I couldn’t use it because I couldn’t go through the files and take notes if I held it. Diligent access to information is a necessary basic quality for a scholar, and has nothing to do with whether or not one is an academic leader. However, the academic leader should have a broad-mindedness to collect historical documents, not only for his own research, but also to serve the discipline construction of this institute.

   On the other hand, to be diligent is to be diligent in discovering talents and to seek out the best. I always remember my interactions with Tang Wenquan. Wenquan comes from the Tang family in Suzhou and is a descendant of Tang Bohu. He graduated from Suzhou Normal College (two-year program) in literature and history before the Cultural Revolution and has been teaching at a high school in Suzhou. However, he was interested in learning, and during the Cultural Revolution he studied Zhang Taiyan’s literature systematically under the instruction of Mr. Tang Zhijun, who was quite knowledgeable. It was around 1975 that he began to correspond with me, discussing his studies of Zhang Taiyan. In order to study the bourgeoisie in Jiangsu and Zhejiang, I went to the area around Jiangsu and Zhejiang to consult the literature around New Year’s Day in 1980. In the meantime, I deliberately contacted Wenquan, one asked him to guide me to the Suzhou City Archives, and the other met a friend who had been in correspondence for many years to get to know him better. Through this close contact, I was able to get to know him better and understand his determination to learn and the depth of his education.

   The following year, during the academic symposium commemorating the 70th anniversary of the 1911 Revolution, he made it clear that he was willing to learn from me. So, I immediately reported to the school and sent a commercial transfer letter. The school was very supportive, and so was the Suzhou Education Bureau, but the Hubei Provincial Education Department, the top division of Huashi, did not agree, because Tang Wenquan had only attended a two-year university and did not have a regular bachelor’s degree. We repeatedly explained that Tang’s academic level was fully capable of teaching at a university and that his future was bright, but to no avail.

   Fortunately, the Director General of the Department of Higher Education of the Ministry of Education visited our university, and specially visited Mr. Zhang Sunhui and me in the Department of History, and asked us sincerely if we had any problems that needed his help to solve. I took the opportunity to report on the obstruction of the transfer of Tang Wenquan, and Mr. Sunhui immediately stood up and said loudly: “I do not even have a secondary school diploma, but before the liberation, I was still able to become a professor employed by the Ministry of Education. The director was quite touched and consoled us by saying, “I agree with you, but the transfer procedures must still be handled through the Hubei Provincial Education Department, and I will discuss this with them.”

   As expected, he had a deep discussion with the head of the Education Department before returning to Beijing, and the Education Department finally issued a formal letter of transfer. And so, in 1983, Tang Wenquan officially joined the Institute.

   Of course, as a discipline leader, the most important thing is that one’s own learning must be done well. If one’s own learning is not good, one lacks persuasive power. If you do well in your own learning, it is a silent education, and people will follow you.

   Crisis and way out

   I was asked, “Is there any crisis in the development of this institute that you have founded?” The biggest crisis today, I believe, is around the project. Of course, this is a crisis not only for this Institute, but for the entire academic community.

   Academia is a business in pursuit of truth. But nowadays, many research institutions and scholars seem to have forgotten this point. What we do is to start with “projects”. If there is a project, then do it; if there is no project, then don’t do it. It is not surprising that what they do are projects, not studies. Behind the “project” is a “fund”, and the essence of running with the project is, in fact, around the money. Many people today are pursuing money rather than truth in their pursuit of learning, which is far from the way of learning.

   Starting from the project may not be completely unable to do scholarship, but the evaluation mechanism of many universities today, is as long as they get the project, whether the project does not ask, whether the results of the project has academic value does not ask. Under the guidance of this evaluation mechanism, the project and learning is simply the north of the south. But many people are happy to do so, and I am saddened.

   Such a project-centered academic mechanism is bound to harm academic development as a whole, a group of scholars, and some research institutions. But today, whether it is individual scholars, research institutions or universities, there are some “people in the world, not by themselves”. In particular, if the leaders of research institutions do not fight for projects, the Institute will not be able to survive. Researchers, especially young people, are also under great pressure, with low salaries and high assessment requirements. I was heartbroken to read the article titled “Woe to the young faculty” online. Basically, it is not that scholars and research institutions are willing to run with the project, but that there is a “baton” that guides and even drives everyone to do so. Therefore, the ultimate solution to today’s academic crisis lies in the reform of the salary system and the academic evaluation mechanism, starting from the “top-level design”. I often think, if the salary of university teachers can be raised, so that everyone can live with dignity, who would be willing to go around the subject?

   What is the way forward for researchers in today’s environment?

   Wang Anyi, a professor of Chinese at Fudan University, said at the graduation ceremony of the university’s graduate students in 2012, “I hope you are confident enough to maintain a rational distance from the mainstream system and to perfect yourselves in relative isolation.” Not being afraid of loneliness and maintaining a rational distance from the mainstream system is appropriate not only for only graduating graduate students, but for all scholars, which is the proper path of learning.

   Having the courage to maintain a rational distance from the mainstream is the only way to think independently, not to fawn over the world, and to search for the truth. I have always admired the following quote by Dai Zhen, a great scholar of the Qing Dynasty, and have made it my motto: “Scholarship is not to fawn over the words of the times, but to seek the truth alone to enlighten future generations.”

   Only after maintaining a rational distance from the mainstream is it possible to enter the best mental state for doing scholarship. What is the best state of mind for doing scholarship? To put it simply, there are two words, one is “emptiness” and the other is “stillness”. Void is emptiness, no distractions in the brain, no fetters, no projects, no assessment, even without all their previous theoretical knowledge, will completely empty themselves. It is only when you don’t live in the hustle and bustle that you can be tranquil, and when your heart is not moved by external temptations that you can be tranquil. If one can be empty and still, one can travel the ages with a concentrated mind and clear thoughts. The scholar who is “empty” and “quiet” may be “crazy, demented, obsessed” in the eyes of others. But this is indeed the best mental state for learning. The quieter the scholar is, the more pure the scholar is. The more empty and still he is, the higher his innocence will be. What kind of realm a scholar can eventually reach, what kind of situation he can create, and his innocence is greatly related.

   There is no shortage of crazy and obsessive scholars throughout the ages, and even today, when the world is crowded around projects, there are many scholars who ignore them, or at least keep a rational distance from them and stick to their own path. Therefore, I am not pessimistic about this institute or the whole academic community, although I feel that there is a crisis. As long as there are a large number of innocent scholars, Chinese scholarship will have hope.

   Zhang Kaiyuan’s Oral Autobiography

   Dictated by Zhang Kaiyuan, edited by Peng Jian

   Published by: Beijing Normal University Press

   Publication year: 2015-11

   Pages: 417

   Price: $58.00

   Binding: Paperback

   Book Series: Historical Memory

   isbn: 9787303192335