Freedom from Ignorance


By Y. C. JAMES YEN, China's Mass Education Pioneer

Delivered before the Rotary Club of Chicago, April 3, 1945

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 536-539.

MR. CHAIRMAN, thank you very much for your kind remarks. Friends, it is a privilege to be here to address, shall I call it, the "Mother-Rotary Club of the World." You are an organization that stands for internationalism and internationalism is needed everywhere today.

I have traveled extensively to different parts of the world. Almost everywhere I have had the privilege of speaking to the Rotary Clubs. Just last year I was in Cuba and had the pleasure of speaking to the Rotarians there and enjoyed very much meeting them.

Today I shall speak very briefly about the efforts made by my colleagues and me in China in educating our people for the modern world. I believe most of you are familiar with the origin of the Chinese Mass Education Movement. Strangely enough, this Movement for educating China's masses was not started in China but in France during the First World War when we sent 200,000 Chinese laborers to France to help the Allies.

It was during that time that we had the unique experience of associating very closely with the so-called "coolies," the toilers, the tillers of the soil, who represented a cross-section of China's 400 million people. We came to realize the dire need of education on the part of these people and their tremendous potentialities. Most of them were illiterate, though intelligent and industrious. So we gave them an opportunity to learn Chinese characters, to write letters, and to read news. They seized it, and proved themselves not only eager but able to learn. That was not only a revelation to us, the Chinese intellectuals but also to them, because laborers never learned to read before. It was only the scholar group that learned to read but the great masses of the people did not. For centuries, illiteracy among the people was taken for granted by themselves as well as by the scholars.

I often say that illiteracy, like poverty, is no disgrace to acknowledge, but a crime against God and man not to do anything about it. That successful experience in teaching the illiterate laborers in France made us decide to dedicate our lives to the education and enlightenment of the millions and millions of our people at home. We developed later what was called a "Basic Chinese" system consisting of 1300 characters, which can be learned by the average man within 96 hours covering a period of four months.

Since 1930, with the vigorous promotion of the Chinese National Government, 47 million people have been taught to read. The significance of this, however, does not lie so much in the number of people taught as in the fact that a practical, effective system of teaching illiterates has been worked out for the people. I believe within ten years after the war China will be able to wipe out illiteracy from her land.

Literacy is important and basic but not enough. In order to equip our people for a modern democracy, more than literacy was needed. So we went into the whole field of literature. After people learned to read this "Basic Chinese" we had to prepare a literature for them to read. It is true that China has a rich store of literature written in the classical language, but that is comprehensible only to the scholars, so a new type of literature had to be written for them.

Then we found even that was not enough, because the people wanted to have their literacy related to the improvement of their everyday life. In other words, they wanted an education, not merely literacy, that would give them the necessary knowledge and skills and spirit to remake their own fives.

What were we to do? We said to ourselves that instead of theorizing, philosophizing and writing out a plan in the arm-chair, we should go to the people and find out the problems facing them, and see what we could do to solve those problems by utilizing the best of our own heritage and by applying the best that the scientific West could offer us.

China is composed of 1900 administrative units, or hsien (counties). Being predominantly rural, the life pattern or one county is similar to that of another. So we decided to select a typical county and use it as our "social human laboratory." If we were successful we could use it as a demonstration center, a pattern for the rest of the country. The county selected is called Tinghsien in North China, aboutsix hours' train ride from Peking. It has a population of 400,000 people, representing one-thousandth of China's total population. There, we had a manageable, controllable unit in which to make an intensive scientific study of the basic problems confronting our people.

We went there first as learners and students. Later, after we had studied the problems of the people and worked out solutions for some of those basic problems, we became then, and not until then, their teachers. There were over 60 of us. All of us studied in the old Chinese classical schools and most of us had our training in the United States, having specialized respectively in education, government, economics, public health and agriculture. Quite a few were university professors, two were college presidents, others were officials. They resigned from their positions in the government and the universities to join us in this search for a new education which is not only for life but to remake life.

Subsequently we developed what is called a correlated program of social reconstruction containing the four fundamentals: people's education, people's livelihood, people's health, and people's government aiming at attacking the four basic problems of our people: illiteracy, poverty, disease, and mis government.

In tackling these problems it is important to point out that we did not tackle them in an isolated or piecemeal way. Life is an organic whole. Education, economic improvement, public health and local government are interrelated and mutually dependent, the success of one depending upon the success of another. This is one of the basic principles—the principle of correlation—that is essential for the carrying out of any reconstruction project.

In this human laboratory we worked for six years until the Japanese invasion. I will tell you briefly what we did in this correlated program of social reconstruction. In literacy we started experimental schools adapted to rural needs and rural conditions. After these schools proved successful, we conducted "demonstration schools" to demonstrate the most successful methods to the village people. Once they saw for themselves the practicability of the methods there was little difficulty in persuading them to start "People's Schools" of their own. So, later, in the 472 villages of this hsien there was a "People's School" in every village all supported by the people themselves. After the people completed their courses in the "People's Schools" they organized themselves into what is called the "Fellow-Scholar Association." In this hsien there are over 80,000 young men and women who belong to these "Fellow-Scholar Associations." Their two-fold objective was: one, to continue to learn, and two, to organize together to serve their community and to reconstruct their environment.

A weekly called "The Farmer" was published by members of the "Fellow-Scholar Association." They also conducted their own radio programs, ran their own "Reading Circles," their own dramatic clubs. All of these projects were intended to open up the mental life of the people and disseminate general information and knowledge. The young men and women in these "Fellow-Scholar Associations" constituted the most powerful socializing forces as well as the nuclei in all the villages of the hsien, and through them the basic economic and health reconstruction of the hsien was carried out.

In China, as you know, agriculture is the main industry. So to carry out economic improvements for the people, we started to improve farm crops such as cotton, wheat, millet. Let me tell you one thing to illustrate my point. Our experimental district is a great cotton-producing center, so we developed a new strain of cotton which was able to yield 15% more cotton per acre. We trained the members of the "Fellow-Scholar Associations" to be "demonstration farmers" and they in turn taught the new improved method to others. The production of cotton was greatly increased! But, later, we found that while the farmers were able to produce more, they did not necessarily get more income in proportion. Why was that? It was because what they gained as better producers they lost as poor businessmen. At harvest time the farmer is usually in debt and needs cash badly. The cotton merchant would come along to buy the cotton and the farmers, being hard up, would sell it cheap. Furthermore, they have no storage facilities. So we started to train them to run cooperatives.

Take, for example, the credit cooperatives, when we started there were 200 local banks making loans to these farmers at a "normal" rate of 35%. We started credit cooperatives and the farmers were able to borrow at 8%, which is very low in China. The result was that before long all those local banks went out of business. Then we helped the farmers to organize warehouses so that they could store their products and sell at a time when the price was good. Through their marketing cooperatives the cotton farmers in Tinghsien shipped their cotton direct to the cotton mills in Tientsin. When this cotton project was first started, the total income each year was not more than $100,000. But three years later the total volume had increased to $1,800,000! As you see, not only did we introduce scientific agriculture but also modern cooperative organizations. On the one hand we helped to train the farmers to be better producers, and on the other, trained them to be better businessmen.

Then there is the question of health. In dealing with the health problem, in rural China particularly, we were faced with two difficult problems. One is that the people cannot afford to pay for a health system that is expensive, and the other is that even if there were money available, there was a dearth of trained medical personnel.

I stated a while ago that I visited Cuba. I traveled in the province of Havana to see conditions. The health conditions there were far from satisfactory, yet they have one trained modern physician for every 2,000 population. In this great country of yours you have one trained physician for every 750 population. In China, we have one trained modern physician for every 70,000 population. In other words, even if we had the money we cannot copy any western system. At the present rate of medical personnel training in China, if we aim to have one physician for every 2,000 population, not to say for every 750, it would take 465 years to produce the needed personnel. And yet, if we are to fight against the disease of the people and promote health, we must evolve a system by which a minimum of medical relief and health protection must be brought within the reach of the people.

In order to bring about the economy of personnel and cost, and create a sense of social responsibility, we called again upon the young people of the "Fellow-Scholar Associations," We picked out the most intelligent members and trained them as health workers, giving them the rudiments of preventive medicine. These young men and women act as health workers in the various villages of the district. They do the following things: 1) keep a record of births and deaths; 2) maintain sanitary wells; 3) take care of the common ailments of the community through the use of a "health protection box" containing 16 safe and simple drugs provided by the community; and give smallpox vaccinations, cholera injections, etc.

Friends, you who have an abundant supply of medical personnel, have no idea how much an intelligent trained layman can do to help to prevent serious diseases from setting in and act as the advance guard for scientific medicine in the village.

We have a Sub-county Health Station with a doctor to supervise the work of these health workers in each area and attend to the cases that they cannot handle. Above the Sub-county Health Station is the County Health Center, which has a staff of well-trained medical personnel and nurses to look after the county as a whole. Through this system, we have been able to give a minimum of medical protection and health service at a total annual cost of 10¢ per capita. Mobilizing trained intelligent laymen, members of the "Fellow-Scholar Associations," as the foundation of the community health system has worked so effectively and was so well adapted to the actual needs of the people that later, at the recommendation of the Minister of Public Health, it was adopted by the National Government for the whole of China.

Then last but not least, the political problem. When the people have learned to run their own schools, their own modern farms, their own cooperatives and health clinics, they want to run their own government. That is logical and inevitable. Sometimes people think that self-government is a sort of gift from the government. No, self-government is not a gift. It is an achievement by the people! Self-government is the inevitable outcome and result of a people who are educated, organized, who can look after their own social and economic welfare.

The hsien, or county, government in China is of the greatest importance as it is the foundation government of our country. It is the government that is closest to the people. The farmer does not care much who the cabinet minister is, or even the governor of the province, but he does care vitally who is to be the magistrate of his hsien.

What did we do? We could not experiment with the government as we could with guinea pigs, or cotton! Local government is a part of the national government. To make a long story short, we had to take a year and a half to get the national government to pass a law which gave us the legal authority in our hsien to reorganize the government in order to have it become an integral part of the whole program of social reconstruction. We put our best men in the government as magistrate and bureau heads for agriculture, cooperatives, education and public health. The old hsien government for centuries had been an agency chiefly for collecting taxes and for litigation, but we reorganized it to include cooperatives, agriculture and public health, education for adults, youth and children as the normal functions of the local government.

While our experiment in Tinghsien was going on, the whole nation heard about it and we began to have visitors by the thousands each year—they ranged all the way from cabinet ministers, governors of provinces to serious students and humble teachers of the primary school. By 1936, with the promotion and backing of the Generalissimo, over 800 rural reconstruction centers were started in other parts of China.

Then the war came. What happened? Was all this work destroyed? Yes, a big part of it, but not all of it. Let me tell you briefly some of the things that are still going on in Free China.

I was talking about public health a moment ago. Take my own province, Szechuen, where Chungking the wartime capital is located. Its public health work is being carried on by Dr. C. C. Chen, a graduate of the Harvard Medical School and Johns Hopkins. Dr. Chen is the man who developed the health system of our experimental county of Tinghsien. In spite of the war, in three years' time he has increased his staff from 30 to 1,800 and his annual budget from $200,000 to $20,000,000. That gives you some idea of the constructive work that is going on in the midst of destruction and also the influence of Tinghsien spreading over the nation.

And, in 1938, when the province of Hunan in Central China because of strategic military importance—Hunan is known as the "rice-bowl" of China—Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek appointed General Chang, the famous commander of the Chinese forces in the Shanghai area, as governor of this important province. It so happened that General Chang was one of the visitors to Tinghsien and was well acquainted with our work. Soon after he assumed office, he came to see me and this was what he said: "Now, my friend, I have been entrusted by the Generalissimo with this important and difficult job of mobilizing the 30 million people of this province to resist the Japanese invader. You and your colleagues have been devoting your lives to the education of the common people, please advise me."

I suggested two things. "First, if you wish to mobilize the people you must win their confidence. To do that you must give them an honest and efficient hsien government. To achieve this we must reorganize the whole hsien government so that it may best adapt itself to carrying out on the one hand, a program of social and economic well-being for the people, and on the other, cooperating efficiently with the army in the province. The second is, that in order to have men qualified to run this newly-reorganized government we must re-educate and retrain the civil service personnel of the whole province; keep those who are competent and dismiss those who are not."

The Governor accepted my proposal on one condition-that I must head up this whole program. My colleagues and I helped to reorganize the 75 hsien governments, retrain 5000 higher officials and 30,000 village heads of that province. Without question this program was the boldest and most thorough in social and political reconstruction for a whole province that ever took place in the history of our country.

Undoubtedly, you have heard or read about the victories that were won by the Chinese over the Japanese in Hunan. For five and a half years the Japanese tried to get it. Three times they attacked and were driven back. The commanders who participated in those campaigns testified that much of their success in holding back the enemy during those years was in no small measure due to the effective cooperation of the hsien government officials and the trained populace. In the last attempt, the fourth one, the enemy succeeded by sheer weight of metal, but the glory of Hunan, the "rice-bowl" province, will never be forgotten.

I have been telling you about this new county government system which we pioneered in China. The Generalissimo saw the vital importance between the revitalizing of the county government and the pursuit of the war of resistance. He made a recommendation to the National Government that this new county government system be adopted for all China, and it was in 1939.

So, it is a very significant move on the part of the National Government when this new hsien government system was adopted in the midst of war. If you are interested in seeing real democracy develop in China, do not look "upstairs" for it. Look "downstairs," at the bottom—the hsien government! Unless that foundation is made solid and strong, there will be no democracy in China.

Friends, out of the ruins and tragedies of this war a new people is being born. For the first time in China's history her people, millions of them at the front, millions and millions more in the rear have been called upon to fight for the freedom and independence of their nation. We have had other wars, such as the Opium War, but they were only the concern of the Imperial rulers and mercenaries. The rest of the country had no part. But this time, it is the people's war!

This war has been a great teacher and a great liberator of our people. It has taught them many things that they could never have learned in any other way. It has liberated their long pent-up energies and created in them a new sense of responsibility and dignity that nothing else could have done. For almost eight years of terrible war the people of Chinahave proved to the entire world that for freedom they would go through hell rather than surrender.

This is very significant. If after this war we expect to see a world that really offers freedom, how are we to do it? In order to win freedom in the world, you must increase the number of freedom-loving people. There is no other way. People are, after all, the foundation of the world. China has 450 million freedom-loving people, just like you Americans, to help towards achieving a free world.

One of the things that this war has taught us is this: the question of color, race or creed is of no importance whatsoever in determining whether certain peoples of the world are to be allies or enemies. If it were so the Chinese would be fighting on the side of the Japanese and the Americans would be on the side of the Germans. The Chinese and the Americans are fighting side by side. We were allies in the First World War and we are allies today! That we were allies 25 years ago and we are allies now is because our two people believe fundamentally in the same way of life.

In the postwar period we will have to work hard to push our social and economic reconstruction, and our people are counting upon the help of you, our American friends. We need your collaboration in various fields, social as well as technological. Once China becomes industrialized and the economic standard of her people raised you will have in reality "400 Million Customers"! I often say mass production demands mass consumption. The United States of America is the "mass-producer" and China the "mass consumer."

You have probably read that recently Generalissimo Chiang made an announcement that instead of convening the National Assembly" a year after the war is over, as was decided a year ago—by the way I'm a member of the People's Political Council, China's Wartime Parliament—it will meet next November to adopt a permanent constitution. It is an important step in the right direction. Of course, we cannot expect to have a perfect democracy the minute the constitution is adopted, but the only way is to begin. As you know, the safest foundation for a true democracy is an enlightened citizenry, which is the ultimate aim of the Chinese Mass Education Movement.

With her forty centuries of culture and democratic heritage, and her resources and manpower, and above all her love of freedom as demonstrated in this present war, I feel confident that China is destined to play a great part in the Council of the United Nations and make her important contribution to world peace and prosperity.