Confucius had three thousand disciples, seventy-two of them truly masterful scholars. Zhao claimed the same was true of his classes: 2.4 percent were masterful scholars. 'They came to class with fire in their eyes,' he said. 'You could tell from a face, just from the expression – that one was going to get it. And from then on, that was the one you were teaching to.'
In fall 2003, around midday every Wednesday, I used to bike from the Wan Liu dorms over to class on the Beijing University (Beida) campus. I was always in a rush, a little on edge.
It had been a tense year. First came SARS, which kept us all cooped up in the dorms. Then I caught a cold and was whisked off to a guesthouse in the southwest corner of campus, where I spent days quarantined in a tiny room, contemplating mortality. Then the new term started. We forgot about the upheaval we'd just been through. Our lives had ground to halt during the SARS outbreak and then, just like that, we put it all behind us. The same would soon be true of those leisurely hours spent in study and contemplation – just like that, graduation and job hunting would come to replace them. It was my final year at Beida. I selected a few courses at random, to make up credits. At the time, Zhao Xiaoli was a lecturer, teaching a course called 'The History of Western Legal Thought.'
The star professors of the Beida law school were Zhu Suli and He Weifang. Almost everyone I knew had been to one of their lectures. Even so, most students ended up choosing the more practical courses, hoping to set themselves up for legal jobs later on. Zhao wasn't especially well known. He was rumoured to be one of the law school's 'four great talents,' but that was about as far as it went.
There were two classes a week, both on Wednesday afternoon, the sleepiest time slot. After a quick lunch in the Jia Yuan canteen, I'd go to Classroom Building 3 and look for an empty room to take a nap. Then, just before two, I'd head down the stairs and weave through bike traffic to Classroom Building 4, second floor. It was gloomier over there, where the hallways faced north and rarely caught the sun. Occasionally I would catch Zhao standing in the hallway, smoking.
Zhao was short and stocky. He disliked chitchat and, unlike other teachers, never joked around with students before class. Sometimes he could come across as excessively serious, like he was keeping a certain distance between himself and the world around him. While smoking, he would gaze out of the window as if deep in thought, but none of us had any idea what he might be thinking.
I also had no idea that the course materials consisted of three books: Republic, The Prince, and The Federalist Papers. I'd never read any of them. When the other students found out, they stared at me in disbelief. Then their disbelief turned to pity. This implied two possibilities: either I'd get nowhere with the books and have to drop out of the course halfway through, or I'd make it to the end of term and risk failing the final exam.
The classroom was small but the class was smaller, so there were always empty seats. Still, if you arrived late, you had to sit in the front row. We were constantly trying to widen the gap between us and the teacher, and the back filled up first. Zhao spoke quietly and calmly, rarely modulating his pitch. It sometimes seemed that he was addressing his lesson to only one person – could be you, could be me. And despite his soft voice, the content of the lectures was deadly serious. Occasionally he would glance up sharply from his book and scour the classroom with his eyes, then a moment later continue reading again, apparently having learned all he needed to know.
Every time, I was struck by the sharpness of that glance. In Book One of my copy of the Republic, the opening section was covered in pencilled annotations. I was terrified of catching Zhao's eye, so I kept my head down and took notes on everything he said. Sometimes I had no idea what he meant. It was about going through the motions, matching his pace as he tore through the pages, however lost I felt.
It was all a completely new experience for me. I was used to packed classrooms with a professor monologuing on a stage in the front; used to copying down the endless notes that they wrote out across the blackboard. Of course, I was also used to having a legal textbook as the core material, which would always tell me exactly what I needed to know, either through logical deduction or by learning the whole thing by heart. But somehow I'd ended up in Zhao's class, which felt a lot like bursting in on a secretive, uncharted pocket of Beida. Most students probably had no idea it existed.
The first time I heard Zhao teach, I assumed he was still a student. He was known as someone who studied like crazy and was completely devoted to academia, drifting around campus like an absent-minded philosopher. I'd never run into him before. Or, if I had, I hadn't registered who he was, seeing only another solemn, distracted academic.
Zhao was not a student, although he hadn't been a teacher for very long. He'd spent his first six years at Beida completing his Master's and PhD. In 1999, he accepted a teaching post at the law school. Exactly a decade had passed since his high school graduation. 1989 – the year Zhao began his undergraduate studies at Nanjing University, and an epoch-defining year for the country.
The events of 1989 had dramatically altered Nanjing's academic culture. Intellectual thought was stifled. Evidence of the preceding decade still existed, but it was tucked away in the library. During his time at the university, Zhao had worked his way through the library's entire back catalogue of Dushu literary magazine. Many of the copies were so well-thumbed that they were falling apart, which only made them more intriguing. For Zhao, those four years of undergraduate study were a kind of self-education. A university ought to be a place where learning is passed on, but at that point in time the transmission had been broken. Even the library was dying. In 1992, Deng Xiaoping embarked on his Southern Tour, announcing the dawn of a new era. The social sciences entered Chinese universities in a big way, with economics leading the charge. In 1993, Zhao arrived at Beida. By the campus's Weiming lake, he saw university guards in old-style police uniforms racing past on motorized tricycles. This was almost inconceivably modern; he'd never seen anything like it at Nanjing. The following year, the university opened its China Center for Economic Research. The center hosted fourteen lectures within its first three days. It felt like a revival.
It was different from the 1980s, but learning picked back up. Studying was no longer the solitary affair it had been during Zhao's undergraduate days. Now it involved other people: sometimes a few, sometimes more than a few. At Beida, Zhao found it easy to connect with other scholars. He formed a study group with Qiang Shigong, Zheng Ge and the (at the time) independent scholar Deng Zhenglai. They spent a long time reading Weber.
Back then, Su Li was not yet a PhD advisor. Often, he would skip his meal after class and rush over to the dorms to join in the group's discussions. If the members ran into one another in the law building they would fall immediately into earnest conversation, oblivious to passers-by. Once, Zhao wanted to get hold of Barzel's Economic Analysis of Property Rights, but it was out on loan from the library. Seeing Li Meng's name and student number on the borrower's card, Zhao went to seek him out in the sociology department dorms. Subsequently, the two of them joined with a few other friends to form a new study group, this one focused on Foucault. They were part way through Deleuze's Foucault when Li Meng left for three months in Hong Kong. Those three months without him were tough.
'None of us could match his breadth of knowledge or critical thinking ability,' Zhao told me. 'When we reached a part we couldn't understand, we just stared at one another in despair.'
This was nearing the end of the 1990s. Outside of the universities, people were starting to question the value of studying. The irony being that without studying, you'd never know whether or not there was any value in doing so. Among the study group members, there was fierce debate. Wu Zengding remembers Li Meng delivering a passionate philosophical argument in the queue for lunch, with no regard for his surroundings, yelling so loudly that the whole canteen could hear – leaving Wu with no option but to back down and agree that he was right.
Zhao recalls his time with these study groups in his 2005 essay, 'Invisible Colleges.' 'We weren't fumbling along trying to get to grips with things, just for the sake of academia,' he writes. 'That wasn't it at all. The group members have scattered now, perhaps to form new alliances in other places. It's been a long time since we read Foucault together. If I had to describe the group, I'd call it a community of friends. In that community, we educated one another, and learned how to educate ourselves.' He concludes by declaring Beida 'the remarkable place that made all this possible.'
When the weather was good, the classroom filled with sunlight. As the season started to change, more of us gravitated towards the two rows of south-facing seats. Autumn became winter. Zhao continued his line-by-line reading of the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon. Sometimes he'd get tired and have a student take over. On Weiming BBS, Beida's online bulletin board, I saw a student had posted about Zhao. She remembered him being a fan of essays by Steven N.S. Chueng, Ronald Coase and Friedrich Hayek, and mentioned a message from an American student in the alumni forum, about seeing Zhao around campus. 'I could picture him immediately,' she wrote. 'With his black Law School backpack, head down, striding off towards the West Gate. If you tried to say hi, he wouldn't really look at you, just nod vaguely in your direction.'
The post was from 2002, by which stage Zhao had been teaching at Beida for three years. He had five set texts for the freshmen in his legal theory class: 1984, The Trial, The Stranger, The Clouds and The Apology of Socrates. These weren't "law and literature" study materials, but simply books he found interesting.
This wasn't the strategy he had expected to take when he first started teaching. Once, early on, a first-year student came to his office seeking advice on what to do after graduation. Should he try for graduate school? Go abroad? Become a lawyer? Zhao was profoundly shocked. The student seemed to have come to university with the sole intention of leaving as soon as possible. Whatever path he decided to follow, studying for studying's sake was clearly not part of the plan. He would attend university for the requisite four years, but that was it.
'I know the benefits of study,' Zhao explained to me. 'I didn't want to teach them things they could grasp quickly, or even things they would definitely understand.' He wanted the time in the classroom to count for something.
For the end of year exam, he set the question: If you had to choose, whose world would you rather inhabit, Winston's in 1984, K's in The Trial or Meursault's in The Stranger?
The results were fascinating. Most non-Chinese students wanted to be K and most Chinese students, Meursault. Zhao wondered whether K's life might feel the most familiar to the foreign students, whereas for the Chinese it was by far the most incomprehensible.
'Of course, choosing Meursault doesn't mean anything in and of itself, what means something is the rationale behind the decision,' he said. 'Some students demonstrated an incredibly high level of comprehension, while others revealed an astonishing lack of it. With a few, it was obvious that they were trying exceedingly hard to guess the answer I wanted to hear. Never mind that I told them time and again that there was no right answer.'
I asked whether anyone complained that they had written the answer that was true for them, only to find that their grade was still very low.
'Certainly,' he replied. 'But an exam is not the same as a confession.'
Zhao's approach to grades was a source of contention. The most extreme rumour I heard claimed that he either gave you a hundred or a zero. The truth was that he first read through all the exams, then gave the best one full marks and graded the others against it. He believed strongly in distributive justice for university exam grades.
Those students who got the hundred were Zhao's real students. They were the course elite. Zhao could teach a whole term of classes and really be teaching just for them. Confucius had three thousand disciples, seventy-two of them truly masterful scholars. Zhao claimed the same was true of his students: 2.4 percent were masterful scholars.
'They came to class with fire in their eyes,' he said. 'You could tell from a face, just from the expression – that one was going to get it. And from then on, that was the one you were teaching to.'
A university education is for the elite, Beida's more than most. It's always been that way, steeped in a deeply elitist academic culture. Zhao assumed that by focusing on the strongest students he was setting them up as role models, and that their success would pull up the rest of the class. That's how elitism works: nurture the few, the many will follow.
But Zhao didn't stick with this teaching method for long. The whole country was changing at breakneck speed. Students were changing, and so were ideologies. In 2004, he moved to Tsinghua University.
In the Republic, Plato lays out the earliest recorded description of utopia. He spends the first five books establishing the guiding principles for an ideal state. From this, he concludes that the ruler of such a state can only be a philosopher. In the sixth and seventh books, he begins to define this philosopher.
By late autumn, attending those Wednesday afternoon lessons felt increasingly like stepping into a parallel universe. The room had turned chilly. Sometimes, as we ploughed through the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon, their hypothetical utopia seemed as absurd as the class itself. Every week when we entered the classroom, greeted by the last weak rays of sunlight, it was a return to an upended reality, with no idea what was going on.
There was always a student or two who would stand up to ask Zhao about some phrase or sentence. Occasionally they would even read aloud from the text. Like Zhao, they did not read with any discernible enthusiasm. They were calm, measured. And yet there was something magical about it. I'd never read any book in such detail before, in a classroom or anywhere else.
In Book Seven, we reached the famous cave allegory, in which Plato compares people who live in ignorance to prisoners trapped in a cave. They are chained up and forced to look straight ahead. Behind them is a fire, in front of them a blank wall. All they can see are the shadows of their bodies and the objects behind them, projected onto the wall by the firelight. Not having any concept of how shadows are made, they assume that the shadows are reality.
Eventually, one of them escapes from the cave and emerges into the sunlight. The first time he sees a real object, he realizes that the shadows are a trick. Now he feels a duty to return to the cave and tell the remaining prisoners about this revelation, and to show them how to leave. But it's not as easy as all that. Because when he leaves the sun to re-enter the cave, he can't see the shadows as well as the prisoners who stayed behind in the dark. From their perspective, he seems dumber than before he escaped.
A student read this passage aloud. As Zhao listened, he sketched a cave on the blackboard. It was just a few lines, and I copied it into my notes precisely as he had drawn it. In Plato's terms, I was still a prisoner, presuming whatever I saw in front of me to be the truth. Years later, I finally came to realize that we don't just need insightful teachers, we also need students who are hungry for knowledge and willing to think for themselves.
I was happy with the classes, even if I'm not sure how much I took away from them at the time. They opened a door. In that remote, chilly, unemotive classroom, I had my first inkling of what a university education should be like.
That was 2003. Outside the calm of Zhao's lessons, in the world beyond classrooms and lecture halls, Beida was swept up in a debate about education reform. Soon enough, we would have to leave utopia and land back in reality.
There were two Beidas. The one that everybody knew, and another invisible, unofficial one. As Zhao put it at the time, 'At Beida, about twenty percent of the teachers are worthless, but another twenty percent are intangible assets. Maybe they aren't publishing articles, or maybe their education wasn't the best, and as a result very few people realize the extent of their brilliance. That there's not a book they haven't read. These teachers don't seek external recognition from society or educational institutions. They measure up to their own high standards.'
But Beida's first reform plan proposed cutting the teaching staff by forty percent.
'If this happens,' warned Zhao, 'Beida will sink into mediocrity.'
As part of the reform planning, the school authorities called a meeting with the younger teaching staff. Zhao couldn't take the discussion and leapt up from his seat. 'You've studied institutional economics,' he said, addressing the economist in charge. 'I think we're all aware of the importance of informal systems. But are you aware of Beida's informal system? Here you are going on about game theory, but the consequences of this game are going to be that you end up throwing the seriously scholarly out with the seriously unscholarly.'
I knew nothing of all this while it was happening. In class, we continued reading aloud from the Republic. In early winter, we moved on to The Prince. Zhao never made any mention of his life outside the classroom. The following year, I graduated and left the university. I heard about Zhao's move to Tsinghua, and the reason – well, the reason circulating around the student body was that it had something to do with his job title.
But perhaps we were still just staring at shadows on a wall.
After reaching the end of Book Seven, Zhao fell silent. The bell for the end of class had already rung. Eventually, almost painfully slowly, he said, 'This dialogue takes place during the darkest hours of the night. It's as though the speakers are in a cave, and yet there's no doubt that they are talking about the brightest of things. This is where it becomes truly masterful.'
He left us with a question: Why did the man who left the cave end up going back in?
The next time I saw Zhao was in the winter of 2008. His office was on the top floor of Tsinghua's Mingli Building. It wasn't big, but he had it all to himself. There was a computer, a desk and a bookshelf covering one wall. He was still smoking, and chain-smoked through our meeting.
It had been four years since the Beida class. This was our first real conversation since. I had called him with some brief query in 2005, but we'd only spoken for a couple of minutes. I heard a child crying on his end of the line, and assumed he must have married. This second time, we chatted for five hours, sitting in a haze of smoke, forgetting all about lunch. He talked almost non-stop, absolutely nothing like the Zhao Xiaoli I remembered.
The furore over Beida's education reforms pushed him to leave the university, but it had also made him consider for the first time what is meant by a university education. Prior to this, he hadn't felt any real obligation to his students. At least, not to any students other than those most like him: that elite 2.4 percent.
But at Tsinghua, Zhao was faced with the most disappointing class of his career so far. There was no 2.4 percent. A whole term went by with barely a reaction from the students.
'It was impossible to know whether anything was going in, or if they were even listening,' he told me, taking a furious drag on his cigarette. 'I was so depressed.'
The lowest point came at the end of the year, when he arrived late to the final exam and the university took disciplinary action against him. The students had changed. On some level, Zhao had always assumed that they were just like him during his own undergraduate days. But over the course of the 1980s, the 1990s, the early 2000s, the students had been changing, while teaching methods had stayed the same. It was hard for teachers to imagine what their students might be thinking. The reverse was also true – if a student asked Zhao what student life had been like for him, he'd reply that there was no point even trying to explain. The student couldn't begin to imagine, and what they did imagine was very far from the truth.
Chinese universities were democratizing. Intakes expanded, meaning twenty percent of the university-aged population could go on to higher education. But tuition fees were high, and the number of students taking entrance exams was shrinking. An increase and a decrease.
'Students nowadays have sunk into mediocrity,' lamented Zhao. A tiny minority of brilliant students might remain, but it has nothing to do with their education: they were born brilliant. Following the Beida reforms and the disappointment of his first class at Tsinghua, Zhao began to question his stance on education. The university had democratized, and he realized he had to adapt his teaching style to match.
'We can no longer rely on heuristic learning,' he said. 'At Beida, teaching was something completely apart from learning. I wanted my students to go to the library and learn for themselves. That's elite education for you. But now, we have to teach for the masses.'
I asked him how he did it.
'With a mixed ability group, I'm aiming for the middle. In all likelihood, the best ones, that old 2.4 percent – they won't even exist.'
In that first, disappointing class, Zhao waited the whole term, and no student stood out as an example to the rest. The following year, he began to alter his approach, re-evaluating where he placed his focus, applying process management principles to the course – teaching methods similar to those used in Tsinghua's renowned engineering school. The classroom needed to become a place for both teaching and learning. Books still had to be read, but Zhao also started to give homework in class. I couldn't imagine studying the Republic as though it were a mechanical engineering textbook. A set amount of time to read one of its books, decided upon at the beginning of term. For anything left over – well, just stick to the prescribed order. When Zhao told me, I thought of the sharpness with which he used to survey the room, as though taking stock. If a couple of students seemed quick on the uptake, he'd speed up his teaching to match their pace. Now, he would have to keep rigidly to his lesson plan, plodding along one step at a time.
Of course, this couldn't simply be chalked up to a difference between Tsinghua and Beida. There had always been a lot of talk about improving China's university education system, but relatively little action. For the previous two years, Gan Yang had been trialling two terms of compulsory general education for Tsinghua students, with Zhao as teaching assistant. During his Beida days, Zhao gave very little thought to the question of how best to educate. But at Tsinghua, facing the new reality, he'd thrown himself into tackling it.
We chatted in his tiny, smoke-filled office until two in the afternoon. Clearly, the topic still touched a nerve. At certain points, I felt a little despairing myself, contemplating the idea of mediocrity being the norm. The Zhao Xiaoli I met at Tsinghua was much more the archetypal 'teacher' than the Zhao Xiaoli I knew at Beida. I could only hope he still had something of the academic advisor in him, too – at least for the 2.4 percent. Should they still exist.
Following our interview, four years out of university, I found myself back in Zhao's classroom. This time, I'd come by subway from Guomao to Wudaokou, and then walked the final stretch. The Tsinghua School of Law, Mingli Building. It felt a bit like old times, when I used to stroll in with the Republic in my backpack. A book I hadn't even opened since graduation.
Class started at three in the afternoon, on the third floor, in a bright, spacious classroom. I arrived half an hour early, before anyone else. It was fourth-year undergraduate course, still called 'The History of Western Legal Thought.' Zhao was teaching the second half, and had chosen two set texts: The Federalist Papers and Democracy in America. It was the last class of term.
Ten minutes before it was due to start, students began trickling in. A girl to one side of me was reading up on finance in Caijing magazine. Many of the students set up laptops. The front two rows stayed empty. Zhao came in wearing a dark blue sweater and a grey jacket, with the same old cropped haircut. He was more energetic than I've ever seen him. There was a wide stage at the front of the room, and a computer concealed behind the lectern, connected to a screen that could be pulled down over the blackboard. It made the fourth-year classes at Beida seem quaint, like hand-crafted relics from another time.
At the beginning of class, Zhao had a student come up and give a presentation. The student was a little reticent, but Zhao had explained to me earlier that this was his policy now: he called on each student once.
The student was soft-spoken and Zhao seemed sterner than I remembered. The classroom echoed, perhaps because it was so big. There was no more line-by-line reading from the text. The student next to me hadn't even brought the de Tocqueville, and we had to share mine.
For most of the class, the students were completely silent. Occasionally, the click of computer keyboards reminded me this was 2008. Just as I once had, I followed Zhao's soothing monotone, letting it draw me into another world. Back then it was Plato, now it was de Tocqueville. There was still something magical about it. A few hundred meters from the classroom, over by Tsinghua's East Gate, were the Google offices and the tech research centers. They seemed to drift further away. Then the bell rang for the end of the first lesson.
A ten minute break. Zhao left the room. I followed, but couldn't tell where he had gone. A few minutes later, in the men's toilets, I found him smoking by the window. Smoking in the hallway is forbidden. He was gazing out, just as he always used to, and, as always, I had no idea what he might be thinking.
This piece first appeared in Chinese in One-Way Street Magazine (单读) Magazine and is published in collaboration with the LARB China Channel.