After the Cultural Revolution started universities closed their doors to new students. It wasn’t until years later that they began admitting students again—but those students were “workers, peasants, and soldiers” chosen on the basis of class discrimination rather than qualifications. Even those lucky few, however, never got proper educations from the politicized education system Maoism imposed.
This is the story of how the “worker, peasant, and soldier students” campaign worked at Nanjing University, as told by Nanjing University 100 Years of Rich History, a Chinese-language history of the school published by Nanjing University Publishing House.
In 1966, with the Cultural Revolution, the gao kao college entrance exam system was suspended along with admissions. It was said that the test favored bourgeois city dwellers. It wasn’t until June 1970 that the first major universities, Beijing University and Tsinghua University (also in Beijing), began preparations to reopen that year. On April 28, 1972, Nanjing University welcomed its first class of “worker, peasant, and soldier students.” 1,005 were invited, and 995 enrolled in classes, studying 26 majors. From 1972-77, 4,007 “workers, peasants, and soldiers” attended Nanjing University.
Students were chosen on the basis of “good political thought, healthy body, around 20 years of age, and being a worker, poor farmer, or People’s Liberation Army soldier or youth cadre with a level of cultural development equivalent to middle school of higher.” “Educated youths” who had gone “down to the countryside” (上山下乡) to work the fields and “learn from the peasants” were also supposed to be given consideration. But in August 1973, of the 2,149 students at Nanjing University, just 3 came from “exploiting class” households.
Some of the “workers, peasants, and soldiers” chosen were chosen on the basis of relationships, having entered “through the backdoor” (走后门). Zhong Zhimin, a second-year student at Nanjing University (the program was three years) dropped out of college in protest, writing an open letter on September 28, 1973 that said: “I am one of the students who got in through the back door. At my constant insistence, father called the military district cadres department and urged them to nominate me.”
People’s Daily published his report on January 11, 1974, and some other students who benefited from relationships also resigned from school.
Those who did get accepted had low intellectual standards and low educational attainment on average, prompting Nanjing University to start teaching basis skills in remedial classes, including “elementary level math.” This program was criticized by ideologues as a counterrevolutionary “revisionist educational road” designed to restore the old power bases.
One famous example of an unqualified student was Zhang Tiesheng, from Liaoning. He was held up by the Maoist Gang of Four, including Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, as a national hero after being recommended and submitting a mostly blank test paper in 1973 and was nonetheless accepted to a prestigious university. Instead of filling in the blanks he wrote a long missive extolling himself for working on the farm rather than spending time studying. After Mao died and the Cultural Revolution ended, he was arrested in 1976 on charges of supporting the Gang of Four as they tried to hang onto power. He recentlymade the news again these past two years by making a fortune with an IPO.
The classes the “worker, peasant, and soldier students” did take were heavily politicized. Mao’s writings were used as “the basic material for political study.” Students spent months on farms and at factories, even though most of them had come from those places. Arts students spent 3 months each school year away from school.
They were expected not only to learn but also to control the universities. As a history of Nanjing Normal University, Nanjing Normal University Record, 1902-1992 states: “[T]he role of the worker, peasant, and soldier students was to ‘attend university, look after university, and use Mao Zedong thought to transform university’ (上大学，管大学，用毛泽东思想改造大学).”
“This put the teachers in the position of being reformed and overturned the normal teacher-student relationship, causing the quality of education to drop substantially, and at the same time retarding the worker, peasant, and soldier students’ personal growth and development,” the history continues.
Yet most students were appreciative of the precious time they had for real education, the Nanjing University history contends. “The vast majority of worker, peasant, and soldier students already hated how the ‘Cultural Revolution’ delayed and wasted their youth.”
See More: The Impact of the Worker, Peasant, Soldier Students Movement on Chinese Thought