The most famous maverick teacher in China.
If you were to attend one of Yuan Tengfei’s history lectures at Beijing’s Haidian Teachers Training College, you might think that you’re in the United States, Taiwan, or Hong Kong, where freedom of speech and research are guaranteed. For example, Yuan might say: “During the first 20 years or so of the People’s Republic of China the Red Terror cost more than 20 million innocent lives” or “The Mao Mausoleum in Beijing should change its name to the Holocaust Museum, for there lies a man whose hands are stained with blood.”
During his lectures Yuan speaks quickly, in a strong Beijing accent. He is humorous with a love of onomatopoeia. Before starting his lessons he always writes this Chinese proverb on the blackboard: “The speaker is not guilty, the listener learns the warning.” He teaches history like baking cookies, forming the material into sweet dough to feed his students with.
The “most famous maverick teacher in China” as the New York Times correspondent D.K. Tatlow has called Yuan, was born in 1972, though he wasn’t always so famous. After graduating from Beijing Normal University he started his teaching career in the 90s while moonlighting at a cram school to help students pass the university’s entrance examination.
It wasn’t until 2008, when his students at the school posted videos of his lectures online, that Yuan Tengfei became a famous figure. Videos of the eloquent and vivacious teacher attracted public attention and fans, as well as numerous opponents who posted comments about his critical or “traitorous” views of Chinese history. Within a short time the hits on his videos reached millions.
Astonishingly, as a consequence, the official CCTV invited Yuan to be a speaker on the popular history program Lecture Room. They even allowed him to give extended lectures on the Song dynasty and the contemporary history of the PRC—an extremely sensitive topic.
But Yuan mixes official textbook content with his own interpretation and speaks the truth in a frank and joyful way. For example, in his July 2011 lecture on Mao Zedong, he compared Mao to Hitler and Stalin and described the Cultural Revolution as the darkest era in human history. “Mao Zedong’s greatest contribution was his death in 1976,” Yuan said. “Should he have died in 1949 or even 1959, history would look totally different.”
Yuan has also told his students that Mao’s scientific knowledge was at the level of a 4th grader, adding that people could cheat him with all kinds of lies about agriculture and steel production. Furthermore, according to Yuan, Mao was an IBM—“an international big mouth”—who said that 95% of China’s 600 million citizens were good; only 5%, or 30 million people, were bad and needed to be eliminated.
It’s hard to say whether Yuan’s teaching helps his students pass their examinations, but he does inspire young people to think undogmatically. He tells his students that both the textbooks and People’s Daily are mostly lies. The latter will only be quoted by the media in two countries: North Korea and Iran. As for the history textbook, since he was involved in editing it, he knows what he’s talking about.
Certainly, it’s incredible that Yuan has not been arrested for his “anti-party, anti-state” speeches, although he has drawn attention from officials and was threatened by some “patriotic, enraged youth,” who claimed that he defecated on their beloved “motherland.”
After he became famous in 2008, Yuan published two history books: Wind and Cloud of the Two Song Dynasties (Shanxi Normal University Press, 2009) and History is Just a Game (2009-2010), which is about contemporary China. He was accused of plagiarism and was involved in a lawsuit. Still, he earned much money through his royalties and is now on the list of the wealthiest people in China.
Yuan is a product of China’s chaotic, yet creative society. His knowledge and education are not perfect; even his straightforward critiques, although honest and inspiring, are not always tenable. Nevertheless, it is a positive sign for China that a teacher such as Yuan Tengfei can maintain his position disseminating free spirit in the dawn of darkness.
Updated on September 12, 2020
It is quite a miracle that Yuan Tengfei despite his sharp critic and history interpretation, which is divergent to the official one, is still a free man in China. He even enjoys the popularity in the public. He could travel to Taiwan and the USA in recent years. On November 23, 2019, he gave an open speech in New York. He said the past decade was not easy for him to stand against the pressure from the authority, yet he survived. He makes his living by giving public talks and publishing books.
First published at Sampsoniaway.org on January 16, 2013.