Yigong SHI: Staying vigilant in times of peace, Attaining our dream of strengthening China




China is truly in need of a cultural revolution – that is, the innovation and passing down of culture in the true sense of the terms.


What we actually teach our students is not strictly the product of our own will. These students step foot into society with open eyes and attentive ears. In the event that they encounter a hiatus between classroom theory and societal reality, they will find it difficult to live in accord with their convictions.   


I am of the strong belief that culture needs not only to be passed down, but also to break new ground. We must, as Chairman MAO put it, “extract the essence and discard the dross.” To be sure, every culture has its share of dross, as the glories of ages past may, with the turning of the tide, find themselves no longer in keeping with the prevailing spirit of the times. Cultures need pruning.




President HU Jintao, in his appearance at Tsinghua University’s one hundredth anniversary, made special mention of China’s need for innovation. I ponder from time to time whether we would even be discussing the topic of cultural heritage and innovation in the first place if Hu Jintao hadn’t called our attention to it. Would we call universities to “return to their roots,” as it were, and serve as birthplaces for cultural heritage and innovation? The very possibility of cultural heritage and innovation is dependent on the exercise of free thought, an independence of spirit, and an intellectual climate that safeguards the coexistence of diverse schools of thought. Can our present system of higher education be said to cultivate such a culture of thought?   


Many recent comments – including, for instance, a Renmin University teacher’s take on the student council and a Shanghai professor’s criticism of an elementary school cadre – have been the occasion for much discussion and reflection.


Personally, I find such reflection to benefit the cause of innovation. What we actually teach our students is not strictly the product of our own will. These students step foot into society with open eyes and attentive ears. In the event that they encounter a hiatus between classroom theory and societal reality, they will find it difficult to live in accord with theirconvictions. 


I hold in particularly high esteem ZHU Rongji for holding a dialogue with students at the one hundredth anniversary celebration of Tsinghua University. In the discussion, he stressed the importance of being down-to-earth and demonstrating an honest respect for the truth. I was deeply moved, as I, too, frequently deliver lectures on the campus of Tsinghua University and care a great deal for our students.


The students of Tsinghua University are true patriots, eager to make sacrifices for their country. After the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, for example, more than a thousand students could be seen lining up as committed blood donors. The student body also offered its full and enthusiastic support when Beijing commenced its volunteer activities in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games. It is clear that, even within the confines of Tsinghua’s so-called “ivory tower,” students are receiving an education that is both thoroughly orthodox and constructive.


But that’s not the whole story. It’s a shame that, from the moment Tsinghua graduates step through the threshold of society, the ideas and convictions of many undergo a metamorphosis of sorts to the effect that five, ten, or twenty years down the road, many will end up jettisoning those beliefs that they had once held dear.  


How to account for this? The fact of the matter is just as Zhu Rongji remarked: we have not been realistic and down-to-earth in educating and pushing our students. As university instructors, we are called to teach students those things that we believe in. If we, as educators, cannot inculcate in our students a moral benchmark and the philosophy to which we ourselves subscribe, choosing instead to sermonize them with frail ideas that we ourselves don’t even buy into, who are we to expect our students to hold to these ideals for life?


I’ve reserved a deep love for Tsinghua University and China. When I first returned to Tsinghua from my time abroad, I told the students there that only about a third of them would likely be able to maintain their original intentions after leaving campus. It is owing to those individuals who, after ten or twenty years, remain steadfast in their dedication and service to their country and people that China, I believe, will grow even more beautiful.


These last few years since I’ve been back, I’ve been disappointed over a number of things. It seems to me that our current system of education and culture faces difficulty in supporting our students like this. That said, how should we seek to lead our students and build a cultural system that is conducive to innovation and tolerant of diversity? How can we ensure the realization of cultural inheritance and innovation?



I firmly believe that culture needs not only to be passed down, but also to break new ground. We must, as Chairman Mao put it, “extract the essence and discard the dross.” To be sure, every culture has its share of dross, as the glories of ages past may, with the turning of the tide, find themselves no longer in keeping with the prevailing spirit of the times. Cultures need pruning.


So what do I mean by “innovation”? As I understand it, innovators are, by definition, a minority, regardless of whether the innovation in question is cultural or technological – otherwise we wouldn’t call it “innovation.” This means that innovators are wont to be a lonely people. There is a high likelihood that an innovator’s views will become the objects of dispute and even written off by many, if not most, as being downright wrong. Does our culture encourage and support innovation? Do our culture and social climate tolerate such innovation?


I spent the better part of my adult life abroad in America – I’ve only been back for four or five years, with just over four of those years here at Tsinghua. I think it’s safe to say that, in those seventeen or eighteen years stateside, my way of thinking was influenced by Western culture.


On May 10, 2011, I accepted an invitation to attend a dinner party held at the Israeli embassy. That evening, the Israeli ambassador waxed eloquent on the Israeli people and the high priority with which they accord education. I responded by pointing out that Chinese people lay an even greater emphasis upon education, and went on to tell of the many Chinese who had relocated to the US to work on railway construction. I explained that, no matter how arduous the task, they were willing to pull all the stops in order to ensure that their children were given the opportunity to attend school. After decades of hard work, these Chinese now stand tall as a mainstay in American society. I also made mention of how education has been an important focus in China since ancient times.


The Israeli ambassador, however, didn’t seem to approve. He insisted that the heart of Chinese culture was different; Israeli culture, he asserted, encourages innovation. Showing no sign of weakness, I countered that Chinese culture encourages no less. He answered me with an example: “Shimon PERES once served as the foreign minister and president of Israel. His mother was a typical Israeli mother who, after her son returned home from school each day, would ask simply confront him with two questions. The first: Did you ask your teacher a question that he couldn’t answer today?” My heart sank. The ambassador continued: “The second question: Did you do anything today that left a deep impression on your teacher?” I let out a sigh, and replied: “Mr. Ambassador, my children currently attend primary school. After they return from school each day, I just ask them one question: Did you remember to listen to your teacher?”


In the classrooms of Tsinghua University, I regularly exhort the students to challenge the thoughts and viewpoints that I bring to the table. If the students are robotically submissive toward everything I say, and refrain from raising any whit of resistance or opposing views, then I consider myself to be derelict in my duties as a teacher. But when I’m at home with my own children, I make sure that they listened to their teachers! That, perhaps, is simply my acquired knee-jerk response after having been influenced by the deep-seated mores of Chinese culture. This is, by the way, why I posed the question: Does our culture support innovation?


In addition, we must prepare for danger in times of security. This manner of speaking springs from feelings I’ve had both domestically and abroad. China certainly has plenty of reasons to make people proud, such as its recent economic marvels. In 1981 while I was yet in my second year of middle school, the crude steel production in China was just 31 million tons, whereas today the typical steel yard produces upwards of 23 million tons of steel per year. 


At this point in time, China has already proven its status as the second largest economy in the world; that alone is reason enough for every Chinese to hold his or her head high. And in terms of science and education, China has made many achievements that are worthy of our pride. This would correspond to the “times of security” that I just mentioned.


For example, in terms of the publication and citation of scientific papers, I suspect that China will emerge in the next few years as global leader. Many people have their doubts, granting that there is indeed an increase in the total number of published articles but pointing out that the proportion of citations has yet to rise. I predict that in five or ten years, our citation ratio will see marked increase as well and enter the top ranks worldwide. We have a massive contingent of research personnel, which means that we can increase the citation ratio even if it’s simply a matter of citing each other’s works.


When it comes to picking up the abilities of others, any quantification index – take your pick – will verify that China is capable of catching up and even outstripping the others. However, what concerns me is whether China’s scientific and technological standards are capable of experiencing a rise commensurate with the increase of published articles some five or ten years down the road. This is what I meant by the phrase “prepare for danger.” Never mind the circumstances of our economic transition and the question of how we might alter the status quo of giving priority to middle to low-technology and changing our labor-intensive, high-pollution, high-energy economy – that isn’t exactly our strong suit. Allow me to give a few more concrete examples – the facts, after all, speak louder than words.


I haven’t watched much television as of late, as I get most of my information now via cell. Recently, it hasn’t been smooth sailing in the South China Sea. Whether it’s from our Communist ally Vietnam or America’s trusted partner the Philippines, or even neighbors such as Japan and India, there’s been some trouble brewing in the sea. Other bordering countries are also showing signs of discontent, including Burma, a country with which we have always been on good terms. In all fairness, China is a major world power that has taken responsibility in international affairs and made important contributions through many acts of beneficence. So why is it, then, that Chinese diplomacy has been so bumpy? Why is it that, among its bordering countries, China’s friends are so few and far between? This is cause for concern. 


But even more unsettling, and noteworthy, is the present level of China’s scientific and technological standards. News media outlets are naturally preoccupied with publicizing achievements, otherwise the hoi polloi are liable to lose confidence in the nation as a whole. But I feel it’s a different story amongst the elites, which includes scientific personnel, as they assume a very direct responsibility for society. This segment of the population is called to have a sober understanding of the status quo. In particular: What kind of technological and scientific standard are we looking at today? Is such a standard able to buoy China through its anticipated period of transition? Will it be sufficient in protecting our national security? In 2011, I became aware of some circumstances that left me feeling rather anxious.    


In 2011, China disseminated news of the scientific accomplishments of its 11th Five-Year Plan which included headlines in aerospace engineering, stem cell research, plans for large aircraft, the Tianhe-1 supercomputer, and high-speed rail technology, to name a few. However, everyone ought to be asking the question: How many of the components involved in these high-tech operations actually originated in China? I won’t take the time to comment on the speed rail, as there’s already enough relevant information available. As for the Tianhe-1 supercomputer, I’m afraid that many of its parts were sourced from outside China. And concerning the large aircraft, who is responsible for the design and manufacture of the engines? How much of the core technology used in these significant technological achievements can actually be said to have been “made in China”? Is China truly a global leader in stem cell research and technology? We are planning for a lunar landing in the year 2020; the US successfully completed theirs in 1969.


We cannot afford to let our view of the important to be overshadowed by the trivial; we must not miss the forest for the trees. The tiny nation of Israel, spanning a land mass of only 22,000 square kilometers, is comparable in size to the Zhumadian district where I spent my early years. The population of Israel totals roughly 7.5 million, less than that of Zhumadian, but dare we say that its overall standard of technology is lagging behind that of China?


It may just be that I’m suffering from imaginary fears. Some may accuse me of “crying wolf.” But the education I received as a youth trained me to attend to “the things at home, the things of the state, and all things under heaven”; I feel that I cannot but have such concerns. I remember the first launch of the “Shenzhou 5” shuttle in October of 2003 at about 9:00pm, US-time. I was terribly jittery, with fists clenched and covered in sweat. The reason was simple: having watched foreign news coverage of the problems of China’s aerospace industry, I was worried that there would be a glitch. After the shuttle successfully launched, I let out a huge sigh of relief and was so caught up with excitement that I was unable to fall asleep that night. It wasn’t until six o’clock the following evening, when the spacecraft completed its descent, that I was really able to relax. I felt so good inside. And I’m confident that I wasn’t alone – the countless Chinese living abroad must have been rejoicing with me. They would no doubt feel elated after hearing of China’s forward progress in science and technology, as they all yearn to make a contribution to their country.    


Net users in China take liberty to comment about virtually everything, big or small. These “netizens” sometimes have the tendency to make mountains out of molehills, as they go at it full tilt, adding to an already long thread of trifling comments. But by the end of it, the real and chief issue is obscured. The issue I’m referring to is China’s future. China’s scientific backwardness leaves us with no alternative: we need to center ourselves on this question of first-order importance and join forces in our efforts – including cultural heritage and innovation – so that we might realize the Chinese dream of becoming a global superpower. In the course of a lifetime, there is no shortage of things that cannot be regrown or reborn, or things which cannot be newly acquired – property, real estate, even citizenship – but there is one thing in particular that one cannot ever tamper with. You are, from the day of your birth, Chinese.     


Sometimes I’ve been known to come up with some rather impractical ideas of finding other means of passing on and innovating culture. On the Tsinghua University campus, I’ll sometimes tell students that China is truly in need of a cultural revolution – that is, the innovation and passing down of culture in the true sense of the terms. My hope is that there might arise a wave of young people in China today who hold steadfastly to their beliefs and remain unswayed by the winds of secular thought, to the extent that in ten or twenty years, they will continue to stand by their convictions. These men and women will one day form the backbone of Chinese society. They will make our homeland into a more beautiful country, ushering in the brilliant light of China’s glorious future.


Source: China Science Daily (March 19, 2012)

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