Two recent incidents involving tutors in China’s higher education institutions have captured the public’s attention. The first occurred on Jan. 1, when Luo Xixi, a Ph.D. graduate from Beihang University in Beijing, accused her former tutor, Chen Xiaowu, of sexual harassment. After the school confirmed the accusations, Chen lost his position as vice-dean of the graduate school and was stripped of his teaching credentials.
At around the same time, Yang Baode, a doctoral student at Xi’an Jiaotong University in northwestern China’s Shaanxi province, drowned himself. His girlfriend claimed on social media that Yang had been unable to bear the “enslavement” forced upon him by his professor, Zhou Jun. An investigation by the university found that Zhou often made students clean her house, help her with grocery shopping, and wash her car. The university later said that Zhou would no longer be allowed to influence student enrollment decisions or mentor graduate students, although she was not fired from her job.
Over the past few years, Chinese media have published a slew of reports detailing abusive or severely unequal relationships between university teaching staff and their students. As a result, both the Ministry of Education and schools themselves have issued regulations concerning the professional ethics of educators. However, these rules are not legally binding.
An overriding emphasis on education and a reverence toward teachers are both notably deep-seated concepts in Chinese society. In the “Book of Rites,” an ancient Confucian text, certain masters were said to espouse the “Way,” or dao, a concept generally viewed as the ultimate truth or universal principles underlying all things in nature. By showing respect and obedience to such masters, the logic went, students would gradually come to understand the dao and learn to act in accordance with it.
At first, masters were not necessarily older than their students. In many traditional texts, neither age nor social status had much bearing on relationships between teachers and students. Many of those in the education system seemed to believe that people spent their entire lives learning, and that there was an inexhaustible source of teachers from all walks of life.
Ideally, communities that tied education to the pursuit of dao would see students and teachers as like-minded companions. At the same time, however, teacher-student relationships should also be guided by strict etiquette and self-discipline. This kind of amicable, albeit somewhat reserved, atmosphere is much-touted in Confucius’ “Analects” — one of China’s foundational philosophical texts — in which we witness both teachers and students growing and progressing alongside one another under the tutelage of the sage himself.
But in imperial China, idealistic relationships between teachers and students were corroded by other factors. In the Han Dynasty, the notion of jiafa — a system of discipline grounded in household or clan structure — was forming within the school of Confucian thought. Jiafa emphasized the need for students to accept the interpretations of classical texts by well-known masters and pass them on to the next generation. Over time, students became passive vessels of knowledge, and Chinese academics grew increasingly withdrawn and isolated from society.
By the Tang Dynasty several centuries later, students, apprentices, and artisans had internalized the notion that a good teacher was akin to a good father. Because children were expected to show deference to their fathers, students were obliged to treat their teachers in the same way, regardless of whether their teachers were right or wrong. This principle introduced the notion of hierarchy into teacher-student relationships.
Yet it was the system of imperial civil service examinations, or keju, that most severely undermined the teacher-student relationship. The keju exams focused the entire country’s education system onto a single objective: scoring higher than one’s peers in order to obtain a position at the imperial court.
The keju system was designed to channel the best intellectual minds into the civil service. But in doing so, it encouraged widespread nepotism among the country’s officials, educators, and students. Because the latter group were anxious to pass the upcoming examinations, teacher-student relationships became more transactional and sycophantic: Youngsters buttered up influential exam invigilators in the hope that they would take them under their wing and help them land a cushy job in the bureaucracy.
While China’s modern education system retains certain similarities with its classical precursors — for example, teenagers still sit exhausting nationwide exams based on established interpretations of set texts — most graduates go on to work in the market economy, not in the state sector. Chinese universities are, by and large, built in the image of their Western counterparts. But certain social and behavioral practices between teachers and students are by now so well-established that they are difficult to shake.
Research students in the West, for example, have primarily contractual relationships with their supervisors. Students expect teachers to answer their queries as best as they can, and teachers will place demands on their students’ time without overly compromising their personal freedom and autonomy. While these relationships may later become friendships, this is not, in theory, a prerequisite for success.
But in China, historical precedents show that relationships between teachers and students are never purely academic. Actually, they more closely resemble those between young people and older family members. These social cues do not fit easily into Western-style college structures designed to privilege intellectual relationships over social ones, and so both students and teachers struggle to establish appropriate boundaries for their personal relationships.
Traditional Chinese student-teacher relationships are unsuited to modern society, largely because today’s educational institutions privilege academic excellence above all else, while teachers traditionally balanced students’ intellectual maturity with personal growth. This phenomenon has led to a lack of clarity in teachers’ powers and responsibilities. Many educators feel that they must not only impart knowledge, but also teach students how to conduct themselves as people, find good jobs, and set life goals. Occasionally, Chinese teachers proactively help students to find jobs, obtain further professional credentials, apply for awards, assist them in research applications, and even find romantic partners. Many students, too, comply with their teachers’ wishes, regardless of whether they are academic in nature. Unfortunately, in the two cases mentioned above, certain teachers deliberately abused these relationships for their own gratification.
The Chinese academic system must do more to clarify what is and isn’t acceptable in relationships between teachers and students. As educators, we must take the initiative in separating our academic and mentoring roles. Universities must employ more specialized welfare staff to deal with students’ personal issues, supervise the behavior of faculty and staff, train students to recognize where the boundaries lie, and handle complaints. There are a lot of brilliant minds in Chinese academia; I’d like to think we’re smart enough to ensure that students don’t have to suffer like Luo and Yang ever again.
Translator: Owen Churchill; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A teacher adjusts a graduate’s cap at a college in Jiaxing, Zhejiang province, June 20, 2016. Zhu Jun/VCG)