Yuan Tengfei, a 38-year old Beijing middle-school history-teacher, has become both a high-profile and a controversial figure in China’s online public discourse - called the “best history teacher" by his fans, a traitor to his nation and state by critics, all the while remaining a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). His lively lectures in fluent, Beijing-accented Mandarin - spiced with funny anecdotes and sarcastic comments, and circulated via online video-clips - have won him an expanding fan-base and (less certainly) aroused students' interests in history as a subject (see “School teacher Yuan Tengfei brings history vividly to life”, CCTV, 7 July 2009).
More conventional critics have described what Yuan Tengfei does as “comedian history”. Some even say that he could be a good stand-up comedian, injecting new life into Beijing’s old art of xiang sheng (cross-talk) by adding historical knowledge and political satire.
Indeed, Beijingers are well known for their biting eloquence. Many of the city’s taxi-drivers can talk about the affairs of state and leading political personalities in as detailed and acerbic way as they presumably do about their family matters. Indeed, it is hard to find something they do not know. (There is even one driver who doubles as a political pundit - the famous blogger, Han Han - though in his case he is a race-car driver). Yuan Tengfei's lectures have brought some of their kind of wit into the public arena.
Now, Yuan Tengfei has been propelled to the centre of one of China’s characteristically passionate online spasms. What has provoked outrage is his polemical remarks on topics that both go far beyond the current school-history curriculum and are still surrounded by political taboos: Mao Zedong, his ideological legacy, and the cultural revolution.
A taboo broken
It is part of Yuan Tengfei's appeal that he mixes fact and opinion in an entertaining and challenging way. But in using this style to comment on the “great helmsman” who led China’s revolution of 1949 and the party until his death in 1976, he has crossed an often invisible but still monitored line (see Eric Mu, “The history lessons of Yuan Tengfei”, Danwei, 21 May 2010).
The practice of censorship in China may allow for curious variations in practice, as indicated by the July 2010 issue of the magazine Yan huang chun qiu (China Through the Ages); it publishes a memoir of Zhao Ziyang, the CCP leader purged - and quickly erased from history - after the Tiananmen Square events of May-June 1989, written by his former aide Yang Rudai (see Chris Buckley, “China magazine praises ousted Zhao in test of taboo”, Reuters, 8 July 2010). But where Mao Zedong himself is concerned, the official political sensitivities are even greater.
Yuan’s most provocative remarks compare Mao Zedong's mausoleum at Tiananmen to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo where Japan’s war-dead are honoured, including military leaders responsible for war-crimes in China in 1937-45. Yuan tells his audience: “Of course you are free to go to the mausoleum of Mao Zedong, but you have to understand what kind of place it is - another Yasukuni; in there lies a butcher whose hands are tainted by the blood of millions of Chinese people”.
Yuan Tengfei then strays into counterfactual history in a way that similarly bears little resemblance to any accepted version. He comments on the death of Mao Zedong's son Mao Anying (whom he calls “the prince”) in a United States napalm-raid in November 1950, during the Korean war: “If the prince had not become a roasted Beijing duck, China would have become another North Korea, with its own ruling dynasty, like Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il - and the Chinese public would have to bear the sight of their own ‘great leader’ and ‘dear leader’ on TV every day”.
An icon disputed
The immediate, angry responses were most vocal among China’s leftist bloggers. They accused Yuan Tengfei of preaching a reactionary, harmful, and idealist (and thus anti-Marxist) version of history, full of unfounded allegations and contravening long-established socialist orthodoxy. Sima Pingbang added that Yuan Tengfei insults and ridicules Mao Zedong in order to promote sales of the book he is writing after securing a publishing-deal.
Some of Yuan's leftist critics went on to denounce the CCP for allowing Mao Zedong to be demonised and thus betraying its own ideological legacy. They also threatened to bring a lawsuit against the schoolteacher, which itself acted as a spur to the authorities to curb the circulation of his video-clips and his school (the Haidian Teachers’ Training Institute) to reprimand him (see Kathrin Hille, “Mocking Mao good for business but not career”, Financial Times, 11 June 2010).
The comments of these leftists imply that if Yuan Tengfei’s lecture on Mao Zedong puts the schoolteacher’s loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party into question, it also in effect puts the party's current ideological standing into question (see Li Datong, “China’s credibility crisis”, 25 September 2009).
This more dangerous line of thought was amplified by two other Chinese writers. Yan Jiaqi, a dissident and political analyst based in New York, argued that Yuan’s lecture reflects the lack of an official consensus on Mao Zedong’s place in Chinese history. He pointed out that on the sixtieth-anniversary celebration of the revolution in Beijing - 1 October 2009 - China’s head of state Hu Jintao allowed a huge banner proclaiming "Long Live Mao Zedong Thought" to be part of the parade through Tiananmen Square - for the first time since Deng Xiaoping launched the era of market reform in December 1978. Yet from Deng Xiaoping to Hu Jintao, no post-Mao Chinese leader has sought to promote a conclusive assessment of Mao Zedong’s career. For Yan Jiaqi, this leaves space for the kind of polemic Yuan Tengfei is engaged in, something that attempts at censorship won't stop.
Zhang Xianliang, a pioneer of the “scar literature” of the late 1970s and 1980s, recalled that in 1983 he had explained to the head of the ruling party’s united-front department (Yan Mingfu, regarded as a liberal-minded figure) how to reform the CCP: namely, by changing the party's sociological composition from a majority peasant membership to one mostly drawn from the educated class. Some concluded that the Yuan Tengfei “incident” reveals how far the party has gone in this direction.
In the broader historical perspective of Yan Jiaqi and Zhang Xianliang, the controversy over Mao Zedong initiated by Yuan Tengfei highlights the dilemma the party faces in the middle of its unfinished auto-reform. Many Chinese regard Mao Zedong as a despot who presided over the death of millions, but many others see the “great helmsman” as a symbol of social equality, justice, and even rebellion against the establishment. When a range of forces is threatening the stability of Chinese society - among them inequality, discontent, and corruption, the potential of either of these positions to find a potent contemporary resonance is ever-present.
But the Chinese Communist Party is less able to adopt any such settled view, far less to examine his record in a substantive way. The architect of the People’s Republic of China remains at heart a taboo for his party. Its only option is to seek to restrict debate, for fear of where it might lead.