The first evidence of China’s Cultural Revolution, 16, 19 March 1966


Taken from My Double Life 1: This Dark Wood, pp.505-516


The first evidence of China’s Cultural Revolution

Extracts from an account of two visits to Peking University on 16 and 19 March 1966, including a transcript of Nicholas Hagger’s interrogation of Professor Wang, Vice-President of Peking University, on remoulding.

Frank Tuohy was in attendance. The analysis of the ‘Transcript’ on p.446, dated 19 March 1966, established the first evidence of the Cultural Revolution, news of which broke in August 1966. Nicholas Hagger (NH) asked the questions.

The car leaves the People’s Square and the Forbidden City and after a few minutes turns north-west. Soon we are driving down an avenue. There are new trees on either side, and through the trees on the right we can see a road for bicycles and pedicabs. On the hard mud to the left new apartments appear, then a few large buildings, for example the Institute of Chinese Socialism and the Friendship House Hotel for foreign experts. Then come the Institutes of Higher Learning, such as the China People’s University. A squad of students is doing rifle drill. Now the fawn mud is cultivated, and maize screens shelter small crop, factory hens peck at the side of the road. We turn left at a bus-station. On the left, farmland stretches away towards the western hills. On the other side a traditional white wall runs into a yellowy flinty wall, and we arrive at a traditional red gate. This is the entrance to Peking University’s campus.

We go through the gate and cross a humped bridge over the silent moat. Ahead of us, divided by a path, are two hedged lawns on which stand two traditional columns representing lions on clouds. Beyond and on either side of these lawns are three traditional buildings with tiled roofs and red columns. The eaves are in imitation Ching blue and green, and each beam has a picture of a landscape or natural life. These three buildings are the department of oriental languages (left), the Administration building (centre), and one of the buildings in the school of sciences (right). We drive behind the Administration building. Adorned with red flags and paper roses is a notice board containing a list of teachers who have the right to vote for the Party. At the back of the science building is the central library, another traditional building with tiled roofs and red columns. We drive on through hillocks and pines and other kinds of trees, past long, curved walks. Magpies fly to and fro. We get out within view of the lake. From here we command an incomplete view of the campus. To the left is the house that Dr. Leighton Stuart lived in, when he was President of the American missionary university of Yenching, which occupied this campus until 1949. To the right, in new blocks, are the buildings of the English and Russian department. Way across the lake is the gymnasium, and in the distance the water-tower, which blends well with the surrounding trees. The reddish teachers’ dormitories are at the back of Stuart’s house, the grey students’ dormitories being away over the lake, hidden behind the trees. It is a lovely campus, marred here and there by piles of bricks and leaden piping, perhaps, but still lovely. There is only one thing wrong: the campus is deserted. It is a Wednesday morning in the middle of term, and there are no students.

They must all be in class, Frank Tuohy and I conclude. And at that moment we are greeted by an elderly English-speaking Professor who taught in Peking University long before it was moved to its present site in 1949. After a few words he says: “We must visit an English class straightaway, for it will be over by nine.” Strange, we think. This is Peking University, and there don’t seem to be any English classes after nine.

We walk to the English building. A month previously, about the middle of February, the Professor tells us on the way, English and Russian were merged into one department. The English building is rather grey, and is quite different from the majority of department buildings on the campus, which are traditional in style. Classes have just begun and no one is about. We go up to the second floor, noting the green posters on the walls: Lei Feng and Wang Chieh, the two national heroes, both recently dead, and instructions on rifle drill. “Let us go in here,” says the Professor, and we go into a small, oblong classroom. Two rows of 2nd-year students stand up and applaud us. When they sit down we notice the segregation: men in the back row – six of them – and five girls, all with braids, in the front row. All are wearing blue boiler jackets and trousers.

The class goes on. The teacher stands at the front, consults the notes on his desk, and proceeds with pattern drills. He is a young man – in fact he could be mistaken for a student. He too wears a blue boiler jacket, but he has the red tag of a teacher on his breast pocket whereas most of the students have white tags. Only one is wearing glasses; few wear glasses in China. The students do not seem to be using texts. In fact, the emphasis is almost entirely on oral work for the first two years, and all English classes are conducted in English, the numbers generally being limited to between 15 and 20. There is a constant dialogue and the results are extraordinary: not one of these 2nd-year students had learnt a word of English before University; at school they had learnt Russian; and yet their fluency was surprising.

“Due to,” the teacher is saying with a flawless accent and in a sympathetic, persuasive tone. “‘It was due to the building of reservoirs and the cadres setting an example by working in the fields.’ Now listen to this sentence. ‘Agriculture has developed a great deal since the People’s communes were set up.’ Use ‘due to’. Comrade Wu.” And Comrade Wu, in his second year of English, says: “The development of agriculture is due to the setting up of the People’s communes.”…

Outside the classroom I ask if we can see a 3rd- and 4th-year class. The Professor replies guardedly, “They have been in the countryside since August.”

“All of them?” we ask in surprise.

“Yes, all. And some 5th-year too. It is socialist education,” the Professor adds uncomfortably.

“When will they be back?”

“Oh, soon.”

There is a silence. We go down the stairs. Outside the English building some forty students in boiler suits are doing P.T. There is one squad, but most are doing it on their own. We are told vaguely that these are all English students, but we are not satisfied. It is the middle of term, and the campus is deserted, and there don’t seem to be any English classes after nine, and the 3rd- and 4th-year students have been in the countryside for the last seven months.


We go to Dr. Stuart’s house. From the outside it looks rather like a temple with steps leading up to the front door between two red lacquered columns; there is a cluster of bamboo on the left. Here we are given a history of the University.

It was founded in 1898 under the name “Imperial University of Peking”. In 1902 its name was changed to “National Peking University”. In 1916 under the reforming Chancellor, Tsai Yuan-pei, the University’s four schools – letters, science, law and engineering – were remodelled on the American pattern. It has a glorious revolutionary history and led the “May-4 movement” of 1919. In 1937 it was closed when the Japanese took Peking. Between 1945 and 1949 there was hostility between “Peita”, as it is known, and the Kuomintang. All this time Peita was situated near Coal Hill, just behind the Forbidden City – it was here that Chairman Mao worked in the library – and the building on this, the old campus, today looks more like a hospital than a university. In 1949 Peita was moved to its present site. This site was already a university, the U.S. missionary University of Yenching. In 1952 the Hchools of Law and Engineering were moved to other universities, and now only letters and science remain on the campus. These comprise nearly 10,000 students. In 1949 there were 1,500 students and 300 teachers. In 1965 there were 9,000 students, 200 postgraduates and 400 overseas students (I did not see, or hear mention of, any Africans), and 2,000 teachers….

Now we come to the purpose of the University. “We have gone work-study,” the Professor says, “and the philosophy and history faculties have moved permanently into the countryside. Work-study has been tried since 1958, and it began here in 1965. It will not be generally applied here until 1975.” And I recall the phrases from elsewhere: Futan University – “through work their skins grow dark but their hearts remain Red”; Nanking University – “return to grass roots levels and share the will and the wool.”

Then, a little later, just as all our former suspicions are being allayed, the (male) secretary to the Administration speaks in Chinese. He is interpreted as saying: “We have two tasks. One is to wipe out imperialism, and some subjects which spread reactionary views have been cancelled, for example History, Philosophy and Literature, both Chinese and foreign. Attention must be focused on the present, and we must redeal with these subjects to get a Marxist view of them. The other task is to remould ideology and wipe out the bad influence of the past. In 1958 we began a new educational policy with the Big Leap Forward. Education must serve the proletariat and be combined with labour. We are struggling to carry this through.”

We reflect. On the one hand, Philosophy and History have moved permanently into the countryside. On the other hand, Philosophy and History are subjects which spread reactionary views and “have been cancelled”. Cancelled. And what of Literature? Is there perhaps a deeper explanation for the seven months’ absence of the 3rd- and 4th-year students than work-study? Is work-study the official explanation, and is their absence really connected with “remoulding”?

“Are there many bourgeois reactionary influences on the campus?” we ask.

After a silence the English teacher whose class we have attended replies: “Yes.”

“I was told there are a lot in Futan University,” I say.

“There are probably the same here,” he replies, and there is a silence.

We ask for further details of what the 3rd- and 4th-year students are doing.

It is a 5th-year student who replies. The 3rd- and 4th-year students, he says, have each been sent to different villages. There they each live and eat and work and talk with the peasants. There may be more than one in a village. They have no books, and have done no study at all for seven months. The teachers have not gone too, and they have had no classes for seven months. The students are supervised by the peasants. This 5th-year student might have been in the countryside himself.

“Why aren’t you in Sinkiang?” I ask, seeking to locate the whereabouts of the 3rd- and 4th-year students.

“Because I have a medical certificate,” he replies. (See p.446.)

Now my suspicions are acute. First, could it be that the 3rd- and 4th-year students are really in Sinkiang? And secondly, is it compulsory, since it requires a medical certificate to exempt? I think this 5th-year student has probably told me the truth.

I find out no more from this 5th-year student. Our meeting has taken place in one of the students’ dormitories, and apart from my guide and the secretary to the Administration there were no inhibiting presences. He has spoken in English, and my guide has listened without comment….



After I leave the campus I am troubled. I want to know more about the 3rd- and 4th-year students. I want to know whether there is anything punitive in the operation. Seven months’ work without study in the middle of a university course does not seem very sound from an educational point of view. What is behind it? I decide to find out, and while returning to Hsin Chiao hotel from a cinema, I tell my guide that I am very unhappy as I have found out that intellectuals at Peking University are being purged. I say that my faith in China will not be restored until I have seen the Vice-President of Peking University and had a full explanation.

After two days of extreme pressure up and down Coal Hill, in and out of the Forbidden City; two days of blatant lies from my guide – for example “You were mistaken, the 3rd- and 4th-year students were on the campus during your visit” – I win. I meet Professor Wang, the Vice-President of Peking University, for an hour and really grill him, and his answers are extremely revealing for such questions as the purpose of the University and student rebel movements.

On our way to Dr. Stuart’s house, where Frank Tuohy and I are received by Professor Wang on the Saturday morning, we see a squad of between 20 and 30 students, each of whom carry two rifles. All students at Peking University are members of the militia, the amateur army which is nearly 100 million strong. They march at the double away to the lake, past the air-raid shelter which gapes among the teachers’ dormitories. I do not see any signs of an air-raid shelter near the students’ dormitories.

Professor Wang is very civil in spite of a troublesome cough and my outspokenness. He speaks through a lady interpreter and he is evasive. I am able to take down what he says, and I give a cleaned-up transcript of the interview:


NH: Where are the 3rd-, 4th- and 5th-year students and what are they doing?

Answer (after a shocked silence): It is laid down in the directives of our socialist educational policy that our students must take part in physical work, so they are often coming and going. According the regulations the students have to take part in physical labour for five times one-and-a-half months. That means they have to take part over five years in 5 x 1½ months, which is 7½ months during their student career. Sometimes they concentrate the periods of time.

NH: Why? Is this connected with socialist re-education?

Answer: My friends, according to Chairman Mao’s thinking our education must serve the policy of the proletariat, be combined with productive labour and train cultured labourers with social consciousness. Our policy is fundamentally different from that in bourgeois countries. In bourgeois countries the policy is to train not labourers but intellectuals. But our ideal is the intellectual-labourer. We want to eliminate the three differences: the difference between mental and manual labour, the difference between industry and agriculture, and the difference between town and country.

NH: Are the students teaching the peasants or vice versa?

Answer: Each teaches the other. For example the peasants teach the students how to grow plants.

NH: You say the students sometimes “concentrate the periods of time”. Did these 3rd- and 4th-year students not do 1½ months in their first and second years?

Answer: They did.

NH (objecting): They have already been away 7 years, so the total for the course so far is, in the case of a 3rd-year students, 10 months, and in the case of a 4th-year student 11½ months, which is more than the regulations say.

Answer (rattled): It’s rather complicated. In some departments they take part in physical labour for longer periods than in other departments.

NH: When the 3rd- and 4th-year students return will they be exempt from labour for the rest of their course?

Answer: Yes.

NH: Have their courses been interrupted for 7½ months?

Answer: In a sense, they have been interrupted.

NH: Have they taken texts with them?

Answer: Yes.

(This reply conflicted with the evidence of my conversation with the 5th-year student.)

NH: Do the students who are now in Sinkiang –

Answer: There are no students in Sinkiang.

(The mention of this area aroused no objection from the 5th-year student.)

NH: Do they learn from teachers while they are in the countryside?

Answer: Yes. The peasants and the intellectuals get together. Students of biology get together with their Professors and lecturers in the countryside.

(Professor Wang then repeated the official explanation about breaking down barriers between peasants and intellectuals. His statement about the presence of teachers disagreed with what the 5th-year student had said.)

NH: Are the movements of the philosophy and history faculties to the countryside connected with the criticism of Yang Hsien-Chen, the philosopher and Wu Han, the historian?

Answer (after a long silence): The philosophy and history faculties have gone to the countryside just for work-study. There is no connection with Yang Hsien-Chen and Wu Han.

NH: Is the moving of the 3rd- and 4th-year students to the countryside connected with unreliable elements in the English department?

Answer: No. The Central Committee of our Party has decided on work-study and we think Peking University is behind what they have decided. All the departments except foreign languages departments are doing work-study (i.e. doing part-work, part-study).

NH (objecting): But what has happened to the 3rd- and 4th-year students is not connected with work-study.

Answer (after a lengthy silence): Apart from work-study, our students take part in socialist education. We hope that our society has solid foundations. But among them (i.e. students) there are some whose ideology does not conform with socialism. They don’t know the nature or future of socialism very well. So although they are living in a socialist society their ideology is partly capitalist. Capitalist ideology leads to non-socialist remarks and acts. Therefore our Government thinks it necessary to carry out nation-wide socialist education. Even my theoretical understanding of socialism is not high, in spite of my practical experience, so those without practical experience will make remarks and acts not in line with socialism. Chairman Mao points out that their understanding (i.e. misunderstanding) is due to the historical background of our society. We believe that after being educated they will have lesser and lesser bourgeois ideology. According to Chairman Mao we resort to education, not to other more drastic means. We believe that people can be remoulded. That’s why we think the teachers and students of Peking University have this responsibility to educate these people (i.e. peasants) in this time of our Government’s need. When they are in the countryside they appear as labourers.

(Up to the end of this answer, the students had been the subjects as they are of the last sentence. The penultimate sentence was an obvious attempt to confuse.)

NH: How are they “remoulded”?

Answer: The peasants have undergone changes. You must know that the countryside was ruled by the landlords before the Liberation. Their exploitation of the peasants caused much suffering and there were rich peasants besides. We tell the peasants about the past. So when the teachers and students first go to a commune they write history for the peasants, not only pre-Liberation history but history about the area and the village. In these communes and villages many peasants used to be oppressed, and the students and teachers learn something particular about the village. From writing the history of the commune, they make their analysis and they teach the peasants.

NH: Are these the 3rd- and 4th-year students?

Answer: Yes.

NH: We have just been told that their ideology is limited, and they are now going to gain. Is that correct?

Answer (hesitantly): Yes. They have to raise the level of their understanding through writing history. They use these facts to educate the peasants and raise their own understanding of the past. Through them the peasants review their past deeds and learn what is right and what is wrong.

NH: If a student’s ideology is unreliable, might he not be a bad influence on the peasants?

Answer: Ninety-five per cent have good consciousness.

NH (objecting): But this move is compulsory.

Answer: No, voluntary. The students are eager to go to the countryside.

NH: Why, then, do you require a medical certificate to be exempt? (See pp.171, 443.)

Answer: They do not need one to be exempt.

NH (objecting): But the 5th-year does.

Answer: A few days ago I lectured to my students and I said, “Students must take part in physical work but those whose health is poor are exempted.”

(In other words, the students did need a medical certificate to be exempt.)

NH: Are the 3rd- and 4th-year students all in the same village as the peasants?

Answer: Sometimes. They do not live apart from each other.

(These last statements disagree with what the 5th-year student said.)

NH: Exactly why did the movement to the countryside begin in August 1965? Why not in January 1965, for example?

Answer: It was purely accidental. There is no particular reason.

NH: Didn’t it have anything to do with the 4 checks?

(Sometimes called the 4 clearances, ssu ching, the four checks were the unpublicised campaign against anti-Party ideology, economics, organisation and politics. An examination of the transcript shows that what happened at Peking University was due to this unpublicised campaign. In that sense the unpublicised campaign was socialist education.)

Answer: The 4 checks is socialist education.

NH (objecting): But until now the 4 checks has been a rural policy to reform the ideology of the peasants, and not students.

(Sir Donald Hopson, the British Chargé d’affaires had said the previous day that the 4 checks were directed against peasants. The interrogation showed that they were directed against students. Any mention of the 4 checks always created an impression of panic.)

Answer: The students are educated through writing history. They make an analysis in terms of Chairman Mao’s thinking, concretely.

NH: How do they make an analysis in terms of Chairman Mao’s thinking concretely? Who guides them while they make their analysis?

Answer: They have studied Chairman Mao’s thinking at the University.

NH: Are there any teachers with them to guide them?

Answer: Yes.

(This again disagreed with the 5th-year student.)

NH: How many hours a day are set aside for book guidance by teachers in the countryside?

Answer: It depends on the circumstances in the countryside. I cannot tell you definitely. (Under pressure.) One hour per day or one day per week.

NH: And these hours would be supervised by a teacher?

Answer: Sometimes they study by themselves.

NH: Have any students protested against this Party action?

Answer: So far, in Peking University I have never heard of any protest.

NH: If the ninety-five per cent are reliable, why do they need re-educating?

Answer (rattled): We think everyone needs educating because there is no end to our understanding (i.e. misunderstanding). For example, I am nearly 60, and I must still learn.

NH: I have compared the hours spent in political education with the hours spent in the teaching of English, and political education has not been a success in comparison with the teaching of English. Would you agree?

Answer: No.

NH (objecting): I am interested that you have such confidence in your students and I am surprised that they are not allowed to teach the peasants in this way.

No answer.

NH: Where are the 3rd- and 4th-year students?

Answer (under extreme pressure): In Hopei province.

NH: Are there any 3rd- and 4th-year students on the campus?

Answer: No.

NH: Where is the philosophy faculty?

Answer: In Szechwan province.

NH: Where is the history faculty?

Answer: In Hopei province, about 30 kilometres outside Peking.



What are we to make of this? As we see from the sentence “Apart from work-study, our students take part in socialist education”, there are clearly two issues involved, and the socialist education policy is the nearer to the truth. According to a diplomat contact (i.e. Sir Donald Hopson), the socialist education policy was devised in 1962 to clean up the country ideologically, the background being the criticisms that had arisen in the three bad years, 1959–1961, and which could not be suppressed in those bad years. In 1961, this diplomat thought, the Party lost its grip, and it has turned on the screws since then.

What has happened to the 3rd- and 4th-year students is clearly a Party rather than a University affair. Note the word “directives” and the failure to contradict the question “Have any students protested against this Party action?”

Perhaps the most revealing sentences are: “According to Chairman Mao we resort to education, not to other more drastic means. We believe that people can be remoulded.” Stalin would have resorted to more drastic means. The end of the paragraph from which these sentences are taken does not make it clear whether the students are doing or suffering the resorting and the remoulding, but it is quite clear that the students are the “people who can be remoulded”, and the matter is clinched if we collate the two questions “How are they remoulded?” and “Are these the 3rd- and 4th-year students?”

Interpreting the word “remarks” in the phrase “remarks and acts” (which occurs twice) as applying to the students, we can glimpse the discontent among the students which presumably forms the background to the movement to the countryside.

On the subject of what the 3rd- and 4th-year students are doing, who does one believe – the 5th-year student or Professor Wang? Do they have no books at all, or are they studying? Do they live separately or together? Do they or do they not have teachers with them? Are they supervised by the peasants or are they writing histories for the peasants?

In conclusion, it should be emphasised (1) that the guide lied whenever this subject was approached; (2) that in China the Party and the collective wisdom of the people is always right, and the onus is on the individual to prove that they were wrong; and (3) that 7 months, with or without books, spent in doing other things than one’s subject in the middle of a course that is generally regarded as being at least a year too long, is not the most ideal of ways to turn out brilliant and scholarly specialists. As for me, there is no doubt in my mind. And, thinking of the “remoulded” Shanghai capitalist I met who, between telling me about Cambridge University in the 1930s, mechanically spouted Chairman Mao, and thinking of the “remoulded” landlord I met on a Shanghai commune who, when jogged, mechanically spouted Chairman Mao, and thinking of their lesioned minds which, after a tremendous struggle, they have succeeded in giving to the Party, I shudder, and my heart goes out towards those voluntary work-study students who were 95% reliable.

Nicholas Hagger