ZHANG Jie: A Generation that Carried the Torch and Forged Ahead into the Future


Dr. ZHANG Jie is an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and president of Shanghai Jiao Tong University. This article is a slight adaptation of the author’s address as presented at the “Forum for Commemorating the 30th Anniversary of the Graduating Class of ‘77-78.”




Over the last thirty years, we may not have walked the exact same road nor experienced the same life narrative, but there is one sense in which we are all alike: we were all classmates of the graduating class of 1977-78. In the thirty years spanning from graduation to the present, we have witnessed as one body the tremendous changes in China.  


To borrow a line from a well-known poem of MAO Zedong: we “recall the resplendent glory from the many days of old.” Our generation was reared amid a decade of calamity. The majority of the population answered the call to “go down to the countryside.” Despite the painfully inadequate living conditions and barren cultural environment, we nevertheless lived every moment with richness of heart, because we held onto a “dream” – the dream that every individual might be a useful vessel and that China would one day become a nation of strength and prosperity! As the most exceptional of any group within our history as a republic, we never forsook progress in studies or abandoned our quest for knowledge, even though we lived during the most ravishing of times. We will never forget the college entrance exams from the winter of ‘77 and the summer of ‘78 – those tests signaled a change in the course of our lives. From then on, our generation was closely bonded with the advance of China’s reformation. I am able even to this day to recall the topic of the writing portion of that year’s college entrance exam: “A revolutionary heart, preparing for every outcome.” Over the thirty years that followed, we faced countless important life decisions and tirelessly “prepared for every outcome,” thereby continuing through our action to write, as it were, the very essay that we had begun years prior.


I can still remember when we were undergraduates straddling all the age groups, when it was not uncommon to meet siblings in the same class or father and son in the same school; we quite literally hailed from all four corners of the country, some of us workers in the factories and others farmers in the fields, some soldiers in the army and others young and fresh out of middle school, just emerging from the days of their callow youth. From backwater hamlets to bustling cities streamed individuals from all walks of life. We were nevertheless of one likeness in our insatiable thirst and tenacious commitment to science and learning, in our passion for and appreciation of life, and in the dual sense of responsibility and mission with which we regarded our country and people.



I vividly recall the overcrowded libraries and classrooms and the specters of candlelight that would flicker about the dorm rooms after the lights were put out. After a long decade of dormancy, everyone’s thirst for knowledge and science seems simultaneously to have been awakened. So it was with the teachers who, after ten years with no opportunity to assume their posts at the lectern, were itching to impart to their pupils their lifelong gleanings of knowledge and wisdom. They were willing, even without the aid of a textbook, to draw up their own lecture notes and distribute materials on mimeograph paper in order to kindle our fervor and dreams with their own burning pursuits for the future. As the Confucian classic the Book of Rites explains, “The seasoned singer causes others to carry on her voice; the skillful teacher causes others to carry on his ambitions.” And as the present-day colloquialism reminds us, “the teacher who teaches well begets students who learn well.” Carpe diem!    


As the first wave of college graduates in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, we took upon ourselves the important mission of filling up the vacuum of talent that followed the ten-year revolution. In the historical torrents that formed during the upsurge of China’s reform and opening up, we were beset with countless challenges but experienced breakthroughs time and time again. We celebrated glorious triumph and suffered devastating defeat; we were strangers neither to mirth nor tears. In the mere twinkling of an eye, three decades swept us by and most of us have since entered our fifties, the decade in which we, as Confucius put it, “understand the mandate of heaven.” But we can say with great pride that, after that twinkling of an eye, we now stand before our parents, our era, our people, our world, with no shame. Our generation is both an eyewitness and beneficiary of the prosperous strength and expanding development of our homeland, no less than we the devotees and creators thereof – we are a generation that has carried the torch and forged ahead into the future!    


Thirty years have left us with hardly a moment’s notice, and China has witnessed momentous changes. The radical transformation over the last three decades has evoked deep responses in the pulse of this generation, as the nation has moved from reconstruction into a period of strength and prosperity, and its international prominence and influence have soared. The changes accompanying these thirty years are not merely numerical or external in nature, but are rather a series of “metamorphoses” with far-reaching impacts on the climate of Chinese thought and culture itself. Of these changes, the advance of scientific education is arguably the most encouraging. 


The chapter entitled “Record on the Subject of Education” in the Book of Rites offers the following maxim: “The sovereigns of ancient times made education a priority when building the nation and governing its people.” The significance of the university as the pinnacle of learning is self-evident. The building of world-class nations requires the bolstering of world-class universities. Presently, China is poised in a crucial period of innovative drive and developmental transition, and universities are shouldering onerous social responsibilities unlike any in all of history. Ready or not, the drive to expedite the construction of world-class institutions of higher learning has been labeled the “most urgent” on China’s strategic agenda. As our country ventures along its own path of development with Chinese characteristics, our universities must accordingly forge their own unique trail of future growth.


At the same time, this transitional period has presented universities and other institutions of higher learning with unprecedented opportunity. For instance, Shanghai Jiao Tong University has seized opportunities over the last decade to top off the completion of its curricular design as a comprehensive university with the drafting of its “Educational Development Plan for 2020.” Its philosophy of development has already begun the transition from being quantitative to qualitative in its priorities, from extensive to intensive in its focus, from domestic to international in its scope, from substance-oriented to person-oriented in its vision.


At present the school has a triune philosophy of education – i.e. “exploring knowledge, honing abilities, building character” – and is striving to keep up with cutting-edge technology as well as the strategic demands of a globalized world. The school espouses a “problem-oriented” approach to scientific research. Further, it seeks vigorously to attract and bring together qualified teachers and talents in order to accelerate the growth of innovative leaders … whereupon it hopes, step by step, to tend to the construction and completion of three systems: a system for developing promising talent, a system for technological innovation, and a system for stewarding cultural legacy. “In the convergence of great teachers and top talent as well as the synergistic coupling of scientific achievement and humanitarian thought, and along the road toward national renaissance and the progress of human civilization,” Shanghai Jiao Tong University is fast realizing its purpose of becoming a world-class institution. 


Needless to say, the mission to build a nation with a robust educational system still requires a concerted effort from every sector of society if it is to see fulfillment. Currently, “the ebb and flow of the cultural tide of Chinese higher education is the lifeblood for the heritage and innovation of the Chinese people” is the consensus, and the mainstays in the world of business, politics, science, the cultural arts, and higher education are reaching for greater levels of innovation and development in China, a nation which is presently exerting influence in international affairs as it marches toward center-stage and pursues change.


May the graduates of ‘77-78 live out the destiny of China’s reforms and, in the next thirty years and beyond, continue to flourish as they usher in their ideals and dreams!



Dr. ZHANG Jie received the Qiu Shi Outstanding Young Scholar Award in 1999.

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