Ye Sheng­tao: Sav­ing the Nation through Ed­u­ca­tion

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Zhang Guoyao, pol­ished by Roberta Raine, pho­tos by Xiu Yuchen, Zhao Yue

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.

A statue of Ye Sheng­tao

Kaim­ing Guoyukeben, an ele­men­tary Chi­nese lan­guage text­book com­piled by Ye Sheng­tao and il­lus­trated by Feng Zikai, pub­lished by Kaim­ing Book­store in the 1930s.

The for­mer res­i­dence of Ye Sheng­tao in Dongsi Ba­tiao, Dongcheng District, Bei­jing

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