Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A Teacher for Life

During the recent trip to Chengdu for Chinese New Year, as usual I met up with my high school friends for a drinking feast. We invited Teacher Chen, the head teacher of our class, to join us as well.

When we started our high school in 1986, Teacher Chen was given the chance for the first time to head a high school class. In today’s standard, Teacher Chen might have been considered a 愤青 (angry youth) then. She was idealistic, passionate, and silently angry at the establishment for giving the young teachers few opportunities to prove their capabilities.

1986 was an awkward yet exciting year for all of us. In Chengdu, jeans were still frowned upon and forbidden in school. Pop songs were being smuggled in from Hong Kong. Ballroom dance was just slowly sneaking back onto university campuses. Jing Yong’s martial arts fantasies, grouped together with other hand-copied fictions as corrupting and addictive, were completely off limit to the “good students”.

The school, eager to send more students to famous universities and improve its reputation, repeated the same old message of studying hard. But time was changing. At the New Year’s Eve party for 1987, a few of us danced disco, a dance considered belonging only to “hooligans”, on the creaky wooden floor in our classroom, under our classmates’ curious stares. No one was penalized afterwards.

Teacher Chen shielded us from much of the school’s criticism. Her mantra was “You have only one life. Live differently!”, which was such an invigorating message to us who had been trained all our lives to study and only study. Once, unsatisfied with our formulaic writing, she tasked us to write whatever we would want, on our lives, on our future, on our frustrations. For any one who wrote about their true thoughts and feelings, she gave a perfect score.

Another time, she let us decide on an unorthodox and highly tacky class slogan – To Live, Not Simply Living (生活,而不是活着). That slogan hanged over the blackboard for an entire semester. It was with her encouragement that we put on plays, staged a break dance performance for the school variety show, and sing pop (oh my) songs at the school singing competition.

We became good friends, highly inappropriate for teacher and students. A few of us close to her would sometimes study in her office, and report to her the latest impressionist poems or Freudian theories we had just picked on. One time we found her old love letters to the ex before her husband. When we confronted her, she blushed all over and told us we had gone too far.

Now looking back, I feel she needed us then as much as we needed her. We were all pushing along to see how far we could go. Alas, how blessed we were.

After high school, she and I continued correspondence, even after I went to America. Sometimes she would express envy at me living “freely”; sometimes she would tell me her frustration at not being able to do more, not able to win against the establishment. But in 1996 when I came out to her in a letter, she stopped writing.

It was only then I knew there’s a limit to everything that seemed too good to be true.

While waiting for her at the restaurant, my friends and I reminisced about the good old rebellious days in high school. When she finally arrived, it caused quite a stir. She had barely changed. After the warm greetings, she sat next to me, once her best student, at the dinner table.

We talked about our respective lives. She was now a special-grade teacher and had garnered many teaching awards. I asked about her students. The time is changing, she said; there were things off limit to them now but they were all doing great. I asked about her daughter who had just started a job in Singapore after graduation. The daughter missed home and wanted to move back, but Teacher Chen didn’t want her to get stuck in Chengdu, the slow-paced city which she had always considered only for those lacking ambition.

She asked what I was doing. I replied filmmaking and writing. She sighed, “If you keep on switching, how can you get far?” Then we moved on to talk about her other successful students who had gotten doctor’s degrees or were making lots of money.

I wanted to ask her then if she still taught her students To Live, Not Just Living. I wanted to tell her then that I’d always been true to our friendship, to her teaching that we should be living honestly and passionately. But my friends were falling off the chair from too much drinking, and Teacher Chen, with the pensive smile on her face, looked more and more distant.


Albatross said...

Great post. I heard so much about her from you and still remember some of her stories.

What she said, “If you keep on switching, how can you get far?”, makes sense to me: "living honestly and passionately" is not enough in China or other tough environments - You also need to be successful to gain your freedom. You may not agree, simply because you are much more intelligent than the ordinary people and didn't aware it ;-)

jl said...

Interesting post. Remember that wonderful short liberating period coincided with my high school years. Interrupted so unfortunately. Nostalgia aside, thinking a good teacher is really a teacher for life. There must be still many now,just like how she used to be, influencing their students.

Read your previous series of post on freedom of speech, interesting topics. Was thinking that education was always one thing people pursue for the enlightenment of all the "average" minions,so that a truely free, democratic society can stand and prosper. Now see that you are writing about your teacher. Hope to see more post like this:)

hcpen 彭皓全 said...

your post reveals much about contemporary china and confirms what i already knew, that china in the 80s was still in a transition phase and how many chinese have really 'made it' now, you yourself having managed to go to the states, and ur teacher's daughter being able to go to Singapore....i am also happy for u that u had such a great teacher. and on your coming out to her, i am sure u can understand that she comes from a different era and 1996 was still a time when the environment was not that open in both China and around the world for ppl to accept such things yet...however much has since changed then...finally, i was pleasantly surprised to find u have added me on to ur friend's list. Thanks alot. hcpen

Anonymous said...

Nice post, bring back the good old days!

You don't need me fawn on you how great the article is ( as always they are! ), so let's cut to the chase, who is that guy third from the left? Bear, Wang, then is it Ma?

“If you keep on switching, why should you even care how far you will go?"

Do people go so far that they think they are really that far? Nothing goes far more than your own life, afterward (rest in peace) , you will not benefit from any comments or judges from people behind you.

Each of us has a measure for "how far", but only 1 "how far" rule them all, let your "spirit" think about your true life, let your "brain" care how you feed yourself to keep you searching for the "spirit".


Steve said...

非常好的故事!I really enjoy your life stories. I too wonder if your teacher still teaches her students to live differently, if there is anybody in China still passionate about political reforms instead of just getting rich quick, and whether my own teachers would be proud of me now. Live honestly, live passionately, I could not agree more. It is especially hard for those of us who are 同志。 I should be back in Beijing in August or September. I would really like to meet you in person then. God bless.

Anonymous said...

does anyone know what happend to the bloger? There are some messages on his MSN blog about how no one is able to contact him and that he has 'mysteriously disappeared'. If anyone has any information, please share with his readers.

Anonymous said...

Gee it sounds like this teacher Chen turned completely opposite after 1986. Before 1986 she hated anything "different" from the crowd and the "norm". She encouraged students to spy on each other and report on each other to her. As the head teacher of our junior high school class, she absolutely had no concept of fairness or honesty, at least she wasn't promoting them among her students. However, all our friends noticed how quickly her values changed with the "new ideas" the media conveyed. She is always riding the wave!! I wasn't so surprised that she became this "teacher Chen" in front of you between 1986 and 1989. That was the period between two big student movements in China. Remember?

David M said...

The writer of this blog, Hao Wu, has apparently been detained by Chinese authorities.

There is more information from Rebecca MacKinnon at Global Voices, Richard at The Peking Duck and Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit.

Apparently there will be a site dedicated to freeing Hao Wu at (but the site does not appear to be operational as of this writing).

Anonymous said...

More info here. This is outrageous.

--Tuning Spork

Lu said...

I'm shocked. Now what should we do, is there someone we should write to, or appeal to?

Anonymous said...

What I heard from his family side it that they don't really want to go public now. It's quite possible to bring him more trouble.

Anonymous said...

"He's not some great crusader for justice or freedom of speech, just AN ARTIST, someone with a great sense of observation and a talent for describing the often bizarre goings on in a rapidy changing city. The fact that Hao is Chinese has made him a target - if he had been a blond haired ex-resident of San Francisco I doubt he would be languishing in a PSB cell right now."

Anonymous said...


Lu said...

If Wu Hao would have been a blond-haired (or even black-haired) American, he would also have gotten into trouble at some point (filming illegal church meetings is risky in China, for anyone), but he would have been kicked out of the country instead of into a police cell.

Anonymous said...

Well I guess it was Bust. Wu Hao, wish you a speedy return to freedom. Never let them stop you writing and filming about China.

Steve said...

Hao Wu, as somebody who has enjoyed reading your webblog for the past four months, as a devoted fan of your writing and a college student devoted to the principle of free speech and free expression that you embody so fully, I am determined to advertise your unfair imprisonment far and wide in the United States. It is truly a moral outrage, and I will do everything in my limited purview to help you in this difficult time.

__earth said...

whoa! I found out that you're a Michigan graduate!

Go Blue fellow wolverine!

E. Heroux said...

Hao Wu:
Your last post was back in February. Since then you've been arrested, disappeared, never charged, no right of habeas corpus, apparently for making a documentary film about christian churches in China. Your family is desperate to find you, but the bureaucratic authorities refuse to reply. Your birthday has passed without any word as to your location or condition. I'm neither Chinese nor Christian, but I know that when one person is silenced and imprisoned unjustly, then everyone is in danger of losing our right to know, to speak to each other, and to believe in anything. These are dangerous times, and I wish you a safe passage back.

See more over at:

Anonymous said...

I have always felt that Am.born Chinese are truly Chinese first and American somewhere down on the list.

In the great war that will surely come; where will you be. No doubt.

cat said...

I just recently came across your blog after watching your documentary on TV, and what a find this is. I am completely shocked by what has happened since your last post. Hao, I hope for your safe return home, and will be so incredibly happy and relieved the next time I see you post your next captivating blog for the world to read.

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Anonymous said...

He is in the jail now :(

Anonymous said...

illegal filming is illegal and should be punished.

China does not need giaours like Christianity. It is one of religion which destroyed the world.

Am-born Chinese! you are not Chinese. You betray your noblest blood.

Do not use the white so-called 'justice' to judge the others. What you think is right is not right.

Nice blog though

Sun Bin said...

hope all is well.
take care.

Anonymous said...

Justice has no color, or bias. Hao Wu was freed the other day, after nearly five months in prison. Let's all be happy that the suffering of somebody who wanted nothing more than to speak his mind freely, and explore the motivations and intentions of others, now, once again, enjoys that ability.

Really! said...

Great! I have similar views


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Anonymous said...

This is great news. Hope all is great with him and his family. Looking forward to HaoZi's new posts!

Anonymous said...

The big gov really has a way to put in a plug on free speech, see how long he hasn't posted anything since he was free... ...

Lu said...

I hope Hao Wu will start blogging again, as I really like this blog. But I can imagine that someone who was just released from 5 months in prison, possibly because of things he wrote here, has other things on his mind than blogging.

Anonymous said...

Oh god, I know exactly how you feel.

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feve said...

are you guys serious? i guess it's been a year now. anybody ever know what happen?