Ye Shengtao: Saving the Nation through Education
Ye Shengtao (1894–1988) cherished a great ambition. Literature was his life, and he was diligently engaged in saving and invigorating the nation by writing and reforming education.
Walking east along an ancient small alley called Dongsi Batiao in Dongcheng district, Beijing, one will catch sight of a traditional courtyard-style house that is orderly, intact, clean and neat. In the autumn of 1949, Ye Shengtao and his family moved into this house and lived there until his death in 1988.
As a renowned writer, scholar of children's literature and educator, Ye Shengtao had great ambition. Literature was his life, and he was always engaged in educating the nation by writing and education reform. In Chinese children's literature and education, he was a pioneer.
Selling Words for a Living
On October 28, 1894, a boy was born into a poor family in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. His parents named him Ye Shaojun; later he changed his name to Ye Shengtao. Ye Boren, Ye Shengtao's father, supported the family by handling the accounts for a landlord, hence his nickname “Mr. Accountant.” In spite of the abject poverty of the family, his father realised the importance of education, so he sent his young son to an esteemed private school.
To make Ye Shengtao gain more knowledge of literature and history, his father brought him to teahouses to listen to storytelling and Kunqu opera. By immersing himself in the unique and strong regional culture in Suzhou, Ye Shengtao made constant progress in his artistic and aesthetic abilities.
However, this was not enough in his father's eyes. In addition to acquiring book learning, he thought that his son should have more contact with society so as to increase his knowledge. Therefore, he took his son with him to collect rents, pay New Year's calls and celebrate others' birthdays, so as to widen his son's knowledge of folk customs and experience the fickleness of worldly relationships between people, which unconsciously influenced Ye Shengtao during his childhood.
After leaving the private school, Ye Shengtao attended a public primary school in Suzhou. Since most of the faculty members of the school were overseas students returning from Japan, they were keen on new-style education. Their lectures were vivid and interesting, which helped enrich the students' knowledge. Ye Shengtao was a very keen student and enjoyed the classroom experience. His teacher Zhang Boyin once said in class, “If you want to love your country, you should first love your hometown and familiarise yourself with its mountains, rivers, history, topography and the accomplishments of famous people. By the same token, if you want to love your country, you ought to first have knowledge of the geography and heroes of your country.” The teacher instilled patriotism by imparting knowledge, which nourished Ye Shengtao's mind like a spring of clear water. Gradually, Ye understood his teacher's intention and had a new understanding of the world.
The purpose of learning is to put what one learns to practice. In 1907, Ye was admitted to the famous Caoqiao Secondary School with flying colours. In the school, he began to read European and American novels. In addition, he and his classmates, including two men named Gu Jiegang and Wang Boxiang, organised a literary society called Fangshe (“liberate society”) and put out periodicals. In the spring of 1912, after graduating from middle school and cherishing the ideal of “saving the nation through education” and “reforming my compatriots by being engaged in education,” Ye worked as a teacher in a local primary school.
Ye was different from the old teachers of the archaic private schools. What they did was teach students to understand textbooks and gain an official position through examinations. But Ye's objective was to guide students to conduct themselves properly and be capable people. To him, the paramount task of education was to turn out students who were free thinkers. However, his idea was not in line with the teaching standard at that time. As an idealist, he was dealt a heavy blow by reality at the beginning of his teaching career. Consequently, in 1914, he was expelled from the school on the pretext of needing to reduce the number of classes.
After realising the hardships of life, Ye had no choice but to sell his writings to make a living. He earnestly read and imitated the literary works of modern Western writers, in particular one article in his middle school textbook: The Sketch Book by Washington Irving. Influenced by such works, Ye began creating his own literary works and successively produced and published more than 20 short stories.
On June 10, 1914, Ye Shengtao published his first novel, called Bolichuang Nei Zhi Huaxiang (“a portrait in the glass window”) in Xiaoshuo Congbao (“newspaper of collected fiction”). He published this work using, for the first time, the pen name Shengtao, which he had been given in Suzhou when the city was recovering from the Revolution of 1911.
Luzhi, Ye’s Second Home
“Nor far from the river quay used by the Wansheng Rice Company, a lot of open boats from the countryside are randomly moored to collect rice.” This sentence describing the Wansheng Rice Company is from Ye's Duoshoule Sanwudou (“three or five more bushels of rice have been reaped”), a piece of writing later used in Chinese language textbooks for middle school students. Even now, the rice company still exists
in Luzhi, an ancient township in Suzhou with a history of 2,500 years.
In March 1917, Ye took a teaching position at the No. 5 Higher Primary School in Wu County in Luzhi. It can be said that Ye's true teaching career started in Luzhi. There, together with his like-minded colleagues, Ye boldly carried out reforming textbooks, courses and teaching methods. Full of hope, they were determined to destroy the traditional feudal educational system. They set up a farm where teachers and students reclaimed wasteland and tilled the land so as to cultivate the virtues of bearing hardships and cherishing the harvest. They also put up a stage in the school and guided students to independently compile and perform plays, such as Zuihou Yike (“the last class”) and Jingke Ciqin (“the emperor and the assassin”).
Therefore, students not only learned how to give performances but also knew how to appreciate plays. In school, they asked students to independently manage “shops” and “banks.” By “doing business,” the students formed a good habit of being thrifty. By opening “a museum,” they had students collect local cultural relics so as to stimulate their local patriotism.
This type of “life education” was truly unique. It changed the trite traditional system characterised by studying behind closed doors. It closely combined study and practice, and brought school and society together. Ye had a keen mind and often put forward new opinions for discussion that influenced the whole school. In Luzhi, Ye Shengtao was courageous enough to carry his educational reform through to the end in an innovative way.
Though Ye was later invited to work as a teacher in Shanghai, Hangzhou and Beijing in succession, his family was in Luzhi until the autumn of 1922, when they moved back to Suzhou. He was very attached to Luzhi and once emotionally said that Luzhi was his second home.
In May 1977, at the age of 83, Ye revisited Luzhi after an absence of 55 years. Excited, he wrote down a poem by the light of a candle to recall his sincere love for this place.
According to Ye's wishes, after his death his cremated remains were brought back to Luzhi and buried. Today, if you stroll in the ancient township of Luzhi, you will probably pass by the Ye Shengtao Experimental Primary School, where Ye's educational concepts are still practised.
A Happy Marriage
An important part of Ye's happy life in Luzhi was his wonderful family. In July 1919, he moved his family from Suzhou to Luzhi. He and his grandmother, his mother, his wife Hu Molin and his son lived an idyllic and comfortable life there.
The marriage between Ye Shengtao and Hu Molin was happy and perfect. However, you might be surprised to hear that such happiness came from a matchmaker.
When Ye graduated from Caoqiao Secondary School, in order to congratulate his friend Wang Yanlong on his wedding, he specially wrote a poetic couplet for the newly-married couple. As it happened, Hu Zhengzi, the wife of his friend Ji Shuomin, caught sight of the couplet in the bridal chamber and liked it very much.
Learning that Ye was still a bachelor, she asked Wang Boxiang and Gu Jiegang to be matchmakers, intending to marry Hu Molin, her niece, to Ye. Hu Molin graduated from Beijing Women's Normal School and became a teacher in Jiangsu's Nantong Women's Normal School.
After their wedding, they found they had many similarities and their feelings for each other developed naturally. Even when they worked as teachers in different places, they continually sent letters to each other to express their romantic feelings. Although the couple could not describe each other's strong points, they felt the marriage was perfect.
Their marriage lasted 40 years. They gave birth to and brought up two sons and a daughter. In March 1957, Hu unfortunately died of illness, and Ye grieved deeply for her. He wrote a poem that reads: “We lived together for 40 years; now we must part forever. An illness took you away; now I must spend my remaining years alone. When I go out the door, I feel despair; when I come in the door, I do so slowly and sadly. I wish this were all a dream that would end.”
Sixteen years later, Ye wrote another poem entitled Congwei (“never”) that reads: “You have never sent me a letter; I harbour suspicions in my dreams. Why you bid farewell to me I do not know, discarded like a relic. Yet I was foolish; I was unprepared. I cannot write you; I cannot phone you. As I recite this poem, my despair knows no bounds. Perhaps I will never understand. Alas! This is an immortal farewell; no news of you will ever come.” Describing Ye's sorrow, this poem is regarded as a masterpiece about the love between Ye and Hu.
Fruitful Literary Achievements
Ye created a large number of literary works in his lifetime. Most of the novels produced in his early life are about the grey life of intellectuals and urban petty bourgeois. Later, he shifted to the more serious theme of the miserable life of intellectuals. For example, Ni Huanzhi is
one such novel, in which a stern style is adopted using plain language.
After the Japanese invasion of September 18 1931, Ye took an active part in the patriotic anti-japanese movement. His deep understanding of the realities of life spurred on his creativity. Ye's masterpiece in this period is the short story Duoshoule Sanwudou. After the outbreak of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, he went to Sichuan to live and work and continued writing.
Most of his works in this period were essays and literary criticisms, such as his collected essays entitled Jiaobu Ji (“footsteps”). These essays are full of sincere feelings as well as interest and charm. His most famous essays of that time include Ou Yu Chuncai (“lotus root and water shield”) and Chunlian’er (“Spring Festival couplets”), which all have unique features.
As the saying goes, the writing mirrors the writer. These works created by Ye manifest a style of realism in a vivid way, embodying his profound insight and calm thinking about society. Just like a mirror, they reflect the real aspects of society and complicated human nature. Through his works, Ye criticised and satirised the people who were selfish, indifferent and hypocritical.
In addition, Ye told people about “the nocturnal landscape” of the fields through his work entitled Daocaoren (“scarecrow”), which was the first fairy tale in China. Through what a sympathetic but powerless scarecrow saw and heard, the fairy tale describes the hardships of labouring people at that time. The famous writer Lu Xun (1881–1936) once said that Daocaoren blazed a path of independent creation for Chinese fairy tales. The fairy tales written by Ye Shengtao are ingenious in conception, vivid in description, and rich in implication.
For example, Gudai Yingxiong de Shixiang (“a stone figure of an ancient hero”), a collection of fairy tales, is very popular. The title story is about a huge stone that was carved into the figure of an ancient hero. Though simple and easy to understand, it is full of realistic expressive power, relentlessly sneering at the arrogance and numbness of some people.
Later, Ye acted as editor of the Commercial Press and of Kai Ming Press. He also worked as editor-in-chief of many important periodicals, such as Wenxue Zhoubao (“the literary weekly”), Xiaoshuo Yuebao (“fiction monthly”) and Zhongxuesheng (“middle school students”). He sought out and recommended a group of writers such as Ba Jin (1904–2005), Ding Ling (1904–1986) and Dai Wangshu (1905–1950). After the founding of the People's Republic of China, he successively held such posts as president of the People's Education Press, deputy minister of the Ministry of Education, curator of the Central Research Institute of Culture and History, and vice-chairman of the CPPCC National Committee.
However, instead of living a luxurious life, he always lived simply. Moreover, all the remuneration from the publication of Ye Shengtao Ji (“works of Ye Shengtao”) in his twilight years was donated to the Publishers Association of China and a publishing house for Chinese authors.
An Eternal Spirit
If you gently push open the bright red gate of No. 71 in Dongsibatiao alley in Beijing, you will find that the old secluded residence has a southern exposure. Originally, it was the residence of officials during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). In addition to the gabled roof covered in Chinesestyle tiles, the main house boasts exquisitely carved windows and a veranda. There are two rooms on either side of the main house, as well as three wing-rooms in the east and west.
Ye Shengtao lived here for 40 years, during which he was industriously engaged in writing. Here he and his wife Hu Molin were busy collating textbooks, often staying up late at night to work. Here he made a draft of Biaodian Fuhao de Yongfa (“the use of punctuation marks”) in 1951. It is also here that he drew up a Chinese language course for middle school students and compiled textbooks, including Hanyu (“Chinese language”) and Wenxue (“literature”). It is also here that he acted as the Chinese consultant to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China in 1954, taking trouble to consider every character and every punctuation mark.
The two towering cherry-apple trees in front of the house were Ye's favourites. During the late spring and early summer, when the flowers on the trees were in blossom, Ye would often invite his old friends such as Yu Pingbo (1900–1990) and Xie Bingxin (1900–1999) to appreciate the flowers and chat amiably.
Now the cherry-apple trees still stand, while Ye has been dead for nearly 30 years. However, his eternal spirit exists forever in the world.
Kaiming Guoyukeben, an elementary Chinese language textbook compiled by Ye Shengtao and illustrated by Feng Zikai, published by Kaiming Bookstore in the 1930s.
A statue of Ye Shengtao
The former residence of Ye Shengtao in Dongsi Batiao, Dongcheng District, Beijing