THE UNIVERSITY spreads across the top of a high hill where part of Kunming’s ancient city wall once stood. The campus is enclosed by red mud-brick walls, the color of Yunnan’s soil. How the Chinese love walls! Every entrance is guarded by a gatehouse with its aged gatekeeper, straight out of a Chinese fairy tale.
Although handsomely laid out with some fine buildings, the campus looked seedy and run down when we first saw it. Around our own Foreign Languages Department old peeling buildings were falling down next to gaping holes where foundations were being dug by hand for new ones.
“The place looks as if it’s been bombed!” remarked Paddy.
“No—just 13 years of total neglect,” explained one of our new colleagues.
When I look around today and see the new buildings, fresh paint, paved paths, and sturdy young trees, I can hardly believe that so much regeneration has taken place in less than two years.
In 1966 China’s Cultural Revolution turned young people radically against education, authority, and tradition. High-school students became activist Red Guards and stopped studying. All Chinese universities were forced to close down while students and teachers alike were set to doing manual labor for their “reeducation.”
Four or five years later the universities reopened. But only factory workers, peasants, or soldiers, who had been recommended by their leaders, had the right to attend (although some of the leaders managed to slip their own children in). The standards were low, the students stayed for only three years, and the curriculum was heavily weighted with politics and manual labor.
In 1976, when Chairman Mao Zedong died, the notorious Gang of Four, which had seized the reins of power during his old age, was overthrown. China’s schools, colleges, and universities began to return to real education amid the wreckage.