Chairman Mao’s teacher

A nice article in Modern China on Mao’s teacher Yang Changji. The article draws on Yeh Wen-Hsin’s work on the provincial background of many of the second group of Communist leaders. The early years of the party were dominated by “an urban radicalism; in contrast, the later, revolutionary communism was an outgrowth of conservative, Confucian-bound rural China.” Liu demonstrates this by looking at the ideas and activities of Yang Changji, who might have been just another provincial schoolteacher had one of his students not been Chairman Mao.

The article is not too Mao-centered and Liu provides a nice picture of a provincial intellectual. Two things struck me. One is the description of Yang as an intellectual celebrity

within two months everyone who attended Mr. Yang’s lectures admired and respected him. Although he did not talk much in class, each short statement meant a great deal. Within a year, the entire school accepted him and he became the “Confucius of First Normal.” Other schools in Changsha invited him and he conducted classes [in schools] as far [away] as the high school at the foot of Yuelu Mountain. Soon he was known to the students throughout the city as “Confucius”

The perfect modern version of the Confucian pendant, complete with gnomic lectures and a personal following. In the old days students would have come from distant places to hear him rather than him having to trek out into the boonies to talk to them. Yang taught a lot of foreign stuff (he studied in Japan) but he always claimed that a New China had to be built on native foundations. Liu gives the following quote as an example of Yang’s interest in western-style individualism

In the physical world, the center is my body; in the spiritual/mental realm, the center is my mind. In short, among the ten thousand things in the universe, I am the essence. The emperor is my emperor; the father is my father; the teacher is my teacher; the wealth is my wealth; heaven and earth are my heaven and earth…Mencius said: “All things in the world are complete in me”…Everything in the universe is also my responsibility.

This is not, to my mind, individualism, in a western sense. Wikipedia is not very strong here but it lists a lot of the Western thinkers who have used the term. Yang seems to be revamping the old Confucian cosmology by putting himself at the center of it rather than a (usually hypothetical) sage king. Obviously this fits in well with Mao’s later ideas about himself and his role.

Liu Liyan “The Man Who Molded Mao: Yang Changji and the First Generation of Chinese Communists”Modern China32.4 October 2006

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