Prof. Liu Lingyuan’s afternoon class on Mao Tse-tung Thought had barely begun when one of his American students raised a potentially embarrassing question.
Liu had just explained that the slogan “Seek Truth From Facts"--made famous by China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, as a justification for pragmatic economic reforms--is an ancient phrase that played a key role in the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s political thinking.
“Please tell me,” the student said, speaking Chinese with friendly politeness that could not hide the hard edge to his query, “during the Cultural Revolution, how was this ‘Seek Truth From Facts’ carried out?”
The questioner, like everyone else in this class at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies, knew that Mao’s chaotic Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 was a time when ideology reigned supreme and inconvenient facts were often ignored.
“At that time Mao Tse-tung didn’t seek truth from facts,” Liu responded without batting an eye. “His actions ran counter to his own theory.”
But in Mao’s younger days, Liu went on, he used this slogan to defeat more dogmatic rivals within the Communist Party, and this helped account for some of the party’s later successes.
The exchange was typical of the frank discussion between Americans and Chinese that takes place at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, run jointly by Nanjing University and the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
Situated at the edge of Nanjing University, in a building that resembles a suburban American hotel, the unique center brings together American and Chinese college graduates for an academic year of intensive study of each others’ societies. The Americans, taught by Chinese professors, do all their course work in Chinese, while the Chinese study in English under American teachers.
At most campuses in China, foreign students are isolated in separate dormitories and dining halls. But at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, Chinese and Americans room together and eat together. Within the walls of the center, the aim is to encourage the free exchange of ideas.
Cultural Nuances Conveyed
“People speak out very freely in and out of class, and that kind of openness is something that’s special,” said Richard Gaulton, the center’s American co-director.
“A great many cultural nuances . . . come across studying in Chinese that you would not necessarily get in an English-language class. In studying Mao Tse-tung thought, for example . . . there’s just a special advantage in studying with someone who believes in what he’s teaching . . . (who) understands it from in some ways an insider’s point of view.”
Other subjects offered the Americans include the Chinese economy, Chinese history and China’s constitution. With its comfortable, U.S.-style facilities and some features rare for China, such as an open-stack library, the center is intended to be a model that eventually may exert wider influence in Chinese education.
“This is the only institution I know of that has fully integrated Chinese and American management . . . and living arrangements,” Arthur W. Hummel Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to China who has been involved with the project, commented recently on a visit to the center. “It’s unique because it’s so natural. . . . The exchange of administrative and academic experience is valuable to both sides.”
The center, which opened in September, 1986, was built to accommodate 50 Americans and 50 Chinese a year, but it has had difficulty finding enough American students with enough knowledge of the Chinese language to cope with the course work.
With 31 American students and 38 Chinese this year, every American has a Chinese roommate, while some Chinese must double up. The experience of living for a year with a Chinese roommate is considered one of the most important aspects of the program.
“I have a great roommate,” said Priscilla Armstrong, 25, a graduate of New York’s Columbia University. “She’s made all the difference in my stay here, because it’s just so easy to learn different things about the Chinese people from her.”
Students do not earn degrees from the program, but some U.S. and Chinese universities give credit for work here toward the master’s and doctor’s degrees.
Some American students feel that the center is so self-contained--its classrooms, dining facilities, library, student store, professors’ offices and student dormitory are all in a single air-conditioned building--that it is isolated from mainstream Chinese life. They say the convenience of living at the center, combined with the heavy academic load, means that they do not get to mix in ordinary Chinese life as much as they would like to do.
Student Feels Confined
“I think the metaphor for this country is walls,” said Peter Aylward, 25, a University of Maryland graduate. “Everything in this country has a wall around it. I think your job, if you want to know this country, is to get beyond those walls. And it’s a very difficult thing to do. For me personally, the center’s not serving any tremendous benefit to my greater understanding of China. In fact, in a lot of ways it’s restricting me.”
Gaulton, the co-director, points out that nearly all American students at the center have already had extensive experience in China or Taiwan and that what the program offers is rigorous academic instruction and in-depth contact with Chinese. For the Chinese students, the program offers the chance to experience many things about American campus life even if they cannot travel to the United States.