Phebe Ham
Age 57

Interviewed July 18, 1989

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer

China, pt. 1 - Eyewitness to History - Student Education and Revolt at Tiananmen Square.

China really is way behind in education which is really a shame. Twenty percent of the population is illiterate. Only 60 percent of those who enter first grade finish six years of education, the rest of them drop out. China's population is 80 percent rural so that's a lot of people in the countryside who don't get much education. They're needed to work in the fields, education really is perceived by many people in the country as unimportant. It's more important to get the crops in, so education is really languishing. The government doesn't put a lot of stress on education because educated people ask a lot of questions, they're curious and the communist government really doesn't like people being curious. They're not particularly interested in scholarly analysis of anything, they want people to be obedient and follow the party line.

There is a terrible shortage of teachers, teachers are paid very badly. There is a 2 million teacher shortage in the elementary and high school levels, and only 5 percent or less of those who actually make it through high school go on to college. Professors at the university level are very poorly paid, and intellectuals, as has happened now, always seem to be suspect any time they say anything about democracy or anything else. They are treated with suspicion or imprisoned as happened in the cultural revolution so it's really not a very good thing to be an intellectual in China, there's a risk.

I was and will be again in September teaching in Jinan which is in Shandong province about 300 miles south of Beijing on the main railroad line between Beijing and Shanghai so it's fairly near the coast. The province is well known as the birthplace of Confucius and many people come to see it. Jinan is the capital of the province, it is a city of about a million. It used to be a perfectly beautiful city with hundreds of natural springs but now because of the industry, the springs and the water level are way down and there are only one or two springs and sometimes no springs. China is putting a lot of emphasis on industrialization so all the beauty in Jinan is practically gone.

I went there five years ago and the students were really excited to have a foreigner. I don't think they had ever talked to a foreigner before and of course I was very excited, my first time in China. They are so outgoing and so lively and always look so nice and neat in class but the hardships that a student puts up with are terrific. They have to learn patience and actually if you live in China, you have to learn patience because without patience you really couldn't bear it. The Chinese have learned that. The climate is almost as cold as Concord, but they have no heat in their dormitories, sometimes running water, sometimes cold water and sometimes no water, really no plumbing, and dormitories are terribly cold in winter and terribly hot in summer. And the food is bad, oily, salty, but unless you say what is your food like or what your conditions are like, they won't complain. They don't talk about it. There is no privacy, eight in a very small room, double bunks. But they think that is normal. Their homes are very crowded too, maybe a family lives in one room.

Shandong Polytechnic is a university of 6,000 and they are all studying engineering. When you translate the name, it could be called Polytechnic or Institute of Engineering. But everyone who goes there studies engineering, you can't study anything else there. But everybody, every college student is required in China now to take two years of English and they also study English in high school, so by the time they get to university they've had quite a lot of English but of course most of them have never talked to a native speaker so although they have studied grammar very thoroughly, they're not very fluent in English. That's all over China now, people are studying English so that's millions and millions of people studying English. Before that time everyone had to study Russian but then the Russians got booted out so they said now everyone who learned Russian now must learn English so now everybody learns English.

It's a big debate in China, you wouldn't think so in this day and age, but Chinese teachers want them to memorize everything. If they have anything to read, they have to analyze every sentence. You read just a little bit and then you spend all the rest of the class hours and your homework analyzing it sentence by sentence and even memorizing the passage so you could repeat it without looking at it and this is just ordinary stuff, not worth memorizing, nothing interesting. The Chinese think that is just the way to teach English. It's very easy for the teachers because they can just say memorize this and they can go home. Poor students in the classroom until ten or eleven at night trying to memorize and cram all this stuff into their heads. And everyone knows that they forget it two weeks later. Change is very bad in China. No one wants to change anything, no one in government wants anything to change, the students would just be delighted if things could change and everybody knows it's a bad way of teaching but nobody can do anything about it.

I won't allow my students to memorize and if they write anything that comes from the book, I just say you must tell me in your own words what you think that said, and after all they really learned that their own thoughts are highly valued so we don't do any memorizing, we don't do any grammar. I just concentrate on the students talking naturally and they really find that pretty soon they can do that and that's a great relief to them because then they can just talk they don't have to memorize. They write really some very good things about their childhood and about their feelings about China, all from their own mind, nothing from a book and also they learn to read whole novels. All kinds of things they read now which they would do in Chinese.

I buy books every year when I come home and ship a big sack of books so I now have about 600 books in my library and reference books, atlases, an encyclopedia, and English and American history, and they read a lot. That's very exciting for me and it's very exciting for them because they are using language as it should be used, not as an exercise but to communicate and to learn something. The books are kept in my apartment. My apartment is just open. I have a large apartment for China, a bedroom, a living room and sort of a hall, and a little room that I use for my computer and the students are often there until 10:00 or 10:30 at night, it's very quiet and they are all just reading. They're everywhere, in the bedroom, sitting on my bed, sitting at my desk, they're everywhere. I bought a lot of lamps so there would be good light for them to read, but they're everywhere even in the kitchen.

They have had a fairly good background by the time they get to the university so the point of my being there is to help them become fluent in English so as far as my students go there is no language barrier and they are just dying to speak English. If they had to speak to me in Chinese, I wouldn't understand and I would be very slow if I try to speak Chinese. So I seem to be with them from the time I get up, classes start at 7:30, we just talk English all the time. It's not good for my Chinese but it's very good for their English. And often when I travel I take a student with me, we have a wonderful time, the trains are crowded and everybody wants to know all about me and what I'm doing and everybody is gathered around, students are translating and talking and it's a lot of fun. They're extremely cheerful and laugh a lot.

The older teachers are really not interested in reading English or speaking English, they're just teaching this grammatical analysis and they are not interested otherwise in English. The young teachers feel wonderful about it, that's good to be teaching and getting students to read and write and speak but the older teachers, of course who are in full control of things, really are not very fond of this sort of teaching. In fact, they don't like it at all. They really leave me alone and leave other teachers alone and have no interest in making any changes. And that's all right because they really can't change now. Many of those English teachers were Russian teachers until they had to learn English. The head of my department was a Russian teacher. Then these new teachers come and they try to make them do it the old way and that's what I really don't like. Why should these young teachers in a changing world be forced to teach grammar in rote. I really do resent that.

I always expressed exactly what I thought about things in Concord and I just carry on in China as if I were in Concord more or less, and every year I hand in a full report on my classes, no one wants me to do that but I just do, what we've done in the year, the progress we've made and what changes would be helpful for the department but they never comment on them. I know they probably read them but they never say or refer to any report or carry out any suggestions. It's just like dropping it into a well. I think they probably do want to see what I'm saying and they also know that I'm right. It's not that I'm right it's just that that's the way we teach languages these days, stress on communication. They are aware of that all right but they're not willing to discuss it.

The bureaucracy can be crushing. It is bureaucracy but it's more than that because this idea that you must control and this idea of power and that doesn't allow for free discussion so it's worse than bureaucracy. You can eventually get through bureau- cracy if you try hard enough but in China you can't. I don't think its possible to do very much because people get very threatened if you suggest something that they are not doing. Actually I think they feel very threatened by ideas, more than perhaps you would guess. They're always stressing stability and if anyone suggests anything, they see that that might do something to the stable conditions so its everything, we must have stability. Whenever anyone wants to do anything, the students are told that, we need to have stability so we can't do this and can't do that.

Flattery and lying are endemic to the society. I really do feel that honesty is quite a good thing. I do feel that in this country honesty is the way to get things done. I mean there is a tremendous amount of corruption and dishonesty but I still feel honesty is the way to go about things and I think most people really do although looking at the newspapers we wouldn't maybe think people really do believe in honesty. In China they really don't believe in honesty. I think to rise in the communist party you absolutely must lie, you must be ready to renounce your closest friends overnight because you can't move up if you're not ready to do these things. These abrupt changes happen all the time and so one person is up and the next day down and then maybe up again or down again, and if you want to move ahead in China you really need to cultivate this ability to lie and also, just as important, the ability to flatter.

Now you don't have to flatter everybody, you just have to flatter the person just above you. As long as you keep that person well flattered, you don't have to worry about anyone below you. That's not your concern, you're only worried about the person just above you. My students say, "Oh, Miss Ham, you better not say that." And I say I'm not going to flatter anybody and my students and everybody knows this, that you must flatter someone and you must be prepared to lie. The normal average person doesn't like this at all but there is no way out of it, honesty is really quite dangerous, so they keep things in their heart and say what they have to say publicly. For some people they can do that and some people keep their integrity and their honesty in tact even though they have to declare something publicly but I think a lot of people don't. I don't think the leaders at the top have much integrity and they will just do what they think the situation demands. In these recent demonstrations after the government ordered the shooting of all those students in the square, I think probably 2000 or more was killed, they just said nobody was killed. They said there was no hunger strike. Well, everybody saw both events on their TV screens in this country, not in China, and in all the west people saw the hunger strikers and people saw what actually went on in Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3th and 4th. But China said no, nothing happened.

Chinese children, young children, do have a stable life which is good for them. Children in this country because of the divorce rate and one thing or another don't have such a stable life but Chinese children have a very stable life, their family and their school week. That's it. Nothing changes and I think that must be good for a child. And they come to college and that's a big step and that's away from home and they're beginning to want some independence, a little bit, although they are very close to their families, they're also glad to be at university. But then you see after they graduate they get assigned a job, they have no choice, no choice at all. And that's bad too because if they haven't been busy flattering and so forth, they'll get a job that's not good or exactly what they don't want to do. In fact, a lot of these people who participated in the demonstrations, if they are not imprisoned when they graduate they will be given some very bad job assignment. I mean that's likely to happen. Because job assignments are in the hands of these people who have power so it's control over the students. So they get jobs that may not be suitable, they're young and everyone else where they work looks down on them because they are too young to know anything. You have to be about 80 in China before you're considered to know very much, 60 ot 70, I mean all those leaders many of them are in their 70s and 80s.

Life is not too good and they begin to realize that in college. And they begin to talk to me about how complex society is. Well that's what they really mean is that now we're leaving our childhood behind us and we have to learn how to flatter and how to work our way through this society which is complex because of all this flattery and this manipulation. I think many of them after they graduate become very disillusioned. They enter college very optimistic that they are going to do something for China, very patriotic, these students, and then they find what they can do is just say nothing and do nothing and just follow the rules. Especially if they have had interesting courses in college, some courses are interesting, they know that that time is over and they worry about it. What's going to happen to me.

In the last two or three years particularly there's been an increase of corruption, more robberies, more inflation, a lot of problems which weren't so visible in '84 when I went. Conditions are not so good and naturally when it's quite openly acknowledged that all these things are going on, it's a little hard to be idealistic because in addition now to all this flattery, they now see that people are apt to be very dishonest. So they have to be careful about that so that really helps do away with idealism.

During those demonstrations which really began in mid-April, 1989, it was the students mainly in Beijing and of course classes were disrupted there, but not in the rest of China. Then when the hunger strike began just before Gorbachev's visit, that was about May 13, 14, 15, that somehow caught the imagination of the whole country and then other students began to boycott classes in sympathy with the Beijing students to show their support. In this country and other countries, people are always marching and boycotting and demonstrating but in China they never do. In my city, never. So the fact that they really en masse began to boycott classes was something so completely out of the ordinary, just never, never had been done before and yet all the universities in Jinan were boycotting classes. This is a medical college, a teachers college and university, an art school, there are quite a few universities there and all of the students were boycotting, just didn't go to class. I could just hardly believe it. Of course, I supported them but I couldn't advocate they do any of these things, but I certainly supported them. I thought it was fine.

A lot of the students went to Beijing to Tiananmen Square and in the early times after that hunger strike began, they went free on the trains. Everybody seemed to be supporting the student movement and the conductors on the train didn't collect tickets, nine or ten hours on the train. So they traveled free to Beijing and traveled home again. Most of these students had never been to Beijing, as students never travel in China, they don't have any money so they never go anywhere. There they were off to Beijing after martial law had been announced going right into the city, you know, in these tremendous conditions of martial law and all, but they were not daunted at all and yet they had never been anywhere and off they go. I had one class of 20 students and 16 of them went and the other four had mother problems, their families lived in Jinan and wouldn't let them go, but otherwise that whole class would have gone. That was just their own decision, they didn't announce it to anybody; they just left. If they had announced it to anybody, the university would have done their best to prevent them, but they just slipped away.

They got to the Beijing railroad station and they were met by Beijing University students and given some orientation. All this completely never been done before. Then they were told where Tiananmen Square was, many of these students grew up in little villages - never seen the big city, and how to get there. It's about a mile and a half or so from the station. When they got to the Square they were shown where other students from Shandong province would be, every province had its own area. Citizens of Beijing came with food for them. I gave my students 150 yuan which would have been enough, well that was a group of six that went, but they didn't have to spend any of that money because food was provided free and heavy coats and quilts were provided at night because they all slept out right on the payment. When they came back, they said, "Well, we didn't spend any of your money, Miss Ham, so we gave it to the Beijing students to help." That's good. And then they came home on the train.

That Square is vast, its enormous. It must be the biggest Square in the world. It's not particularly beautiful architecture, at one end of the Square is the Forbidden City and that's the old, ancient area where the Emperors lived. The Great Hall of the People is rather ugly and Mao's tomb, I think, is rather ugly. Then there is a museum but the vastness of the Square itself is very impressive and it can take maybe a million or more people without feeling crowded. And people there in ordinary times are photographers and sometimes people are flying kites; people go there, it is the heart of China, it is the heart of Beijing, so everybody is passing through. There is a lot of traffic around the edges, people on bicycles and everything. Whenever I went there, I really almost always thought of Concord, most of Concord would practically fit into Tiananmen Square but now it is stained forever in my judgment. I tell my students that someday there will be a monument for the students that were massacred.

I think everybody was so shocked by the brutality but almost immediately afterwards the propaganda began and people had to stop talking about it. It wasn't safe. Immediately after it happened there was a lot of discussion but within a day or two, everybody had to stop, it wasn't safe to say anything. Within ten days or so people I knew who were party members had to write signed statements saying that the actions that had been taken were right, that it was a counterrevolutionary movement and all, that they supported Deng Xiaoping and they had to sign their name to it, I mean no choice. If they hadn't done it, they would have been sent to prison so it was not safe to discuss it anymore in China.

In a way it seems fairly normal in China because it can't be discussed, you can't express outrage or distress, you just have to go right on. So on the surface things do seem quite peaceful. People seem more or less the same.

China is really run by Deng Xiaoping but there is something called the Central Committee which is five very powerful people who make a lot of the decisions and then Xiaoping can override them whenever he wants. But Hu Yaobang was one of the five members of the Central Commitee and in the end of '86 and beginning of '87, there was just a little bit of demonstrating in Beijing at Beijing University, and Hu Yaobang seemed to sympathize with the students' point of view and he lost his job two weeks later, just out. He didn't go all out to support the students but even one sympathic word and he lost his job and was never really heard of again although he wasn't put in prison but he went just from high to nothing. Then in mid-April he died and that's what set everything off because its okay after a person dies to mourn the person. And in fact, he had been very, very close to Deng Xiaoping so the party line was that Hu Yaobang was a great leader. There was a long funeral talk about him but no mention about the last two years, of his final two years, but the fact that he had been a great leader in China so all these inconsistencies began to crop up. Now it was all right because he was being praised by the party as a great leader so people flocked into the streets, not just the students, everybody, a half million or more people came into the streets including students but it wasn't student led. It was just a natural spontaneous feeling because the corruption the past two years has been so evident and so bad and all the high leaders have children, or many of them have children studying in America or children in business in China making lots of money one illegal way or another. But Hu Yaobang never took advantage of his position, his family didn't, his children didn't, so people really respected his honesty. Then when he died the party praised him so people began to ask, well if he was so good, we'd like to know why he lost his job two years ago. Well, of course no one wanted to answer that question so they kept asking it. Then they got onto this corruption and began to question the honesty of some of the high leaders who are known to be corrupt so that happened. None of it was premeditated, it just sort of developed, one thing after another.

Then these enormous crowds in the street and the newspapers, the Peoples Daily didn't report it accurately, didn't even hardly mention it so then they began to say what's wrong with these newspapers, why don't we have more freedom of the press so that got added to the complaints and then freedom of speech got added so one thing after another and the students never really went back, things just kept happening. Hu Yaobang died in mid-April and in mid-May the hunger strike began and then more and more questions about things. Then the crackdown and tragic end to it on June 3.

On that Central Committee the general secretary was called Zhao Ziyang. Now he's well known in the west, he's travelled in the west. He's also a close friend of Deng Xiaoping, certainly by our standards no liberal, but sophisticated and intelligent and he is the general secretary of the party and his main responsibility was this economic reform which has been going on in China, encouraging at least some private businesses and some competition among businesses to improve economic conditions in China. Then the premier is Li Peng, another member of the Central Committee, who is very conservative, an engineer, I don't think particularly intelligent and he, of course, hasn't liked or maybe never has liked Zhao Ziyang feeling that Zhao Ziyang was threatening him. These economic reforms that China needs, Li Peng decided really better be stopped or slowed down. If China slows down much, they'll just go backwards. So they've never liked each other or they certainly don't these days so Zhao Ziyang did the same that Hu Yaobang did, he was somewhat sympathic to the students, and at least showed some compassion, especially after the hunger strike began. He went out to the students and saw them there really willing to die and the students wanted an independent student union which is one of the things the government said you can't have, that was one of their demands, and they did make demands, and Zhao Ziyang realized when he went out there, he said "You know we've come too late." He saw what terrible condition the students were in and he said "You know we do have to end corruption, starting with my own son." The students had accused his son of being corrupt which is probably true. Zhao Ziyang was probably arrested that same night and put under house arrest. He never spoke in public again after that, he lost his position.

Then there was another one called Hu Qi Li, another member of that Central Committee who doesn't seemed to be discussed but he was also considered to be pro-student and he lost his job too, but no one knows him very well, so two of the five went. They were both put under house arrest. Now they've got other people more malleable who critize the students' movement.

I don't know how many students died because I wasn't there, but it really seems likely that more than 2,000 students died. I think maybe more, I don't know when we will ever know the truth of that. The Army closed in on all four sides of the Square, there was no escaping. You saw on television much more than we did, people just being shot, in the head, in the back, shot anywhere and the bodies were piled up at the hospitals. I think there must have been more than 2,000. For a while they said 23 students were killed and then they said no students were killed.

Martial law was declared and the army around Beijing was supposedly meant to come marching into the city but they weren't able because all the citizens went out en masse and just blocked the roads and the army got stopped. Now that army, they were Beijingers just like everybody else, most of them, they had no deep desire to shoot the students, none at all. Probably they sympathized and they didn't go in and they just stayed on the outskirts of the city. So the leaders, of course, were in a very embarrassing position because they declared martial law but yet the military was not there. It was on the outskirts of the city unable to get in so then Li Peng made a speech. He said, "Well, martial law in China isn't like martial law in the west. We don't have to have the soldiers in the center of the city." Well, that's because he couldn't get them in so he had to make this big speech that martial law was altogether different in China. Deng Xiaoping apparently left Beijing secretly and went to a place called Wuhan, sort of in the center of China and talked to leaders of other army units about this problem. That seemed to be what happened.

So in the end they got other troops. There are many dialects in China, a lot of people don't understand the Beijing dialect, the Shanghai dialect is completely different. Guanzhou is so different that if my students went to Guanzhou which is Canton they wouldn't be able to understand anything. So apparently they got soldiers from Mongolia, which is north and those soldiers had been kept in isolation, they knew nothing about what was happening, they didn't have any idea. They were told there was a serious uprising in Beijing and their help was urgently needed and that they must reach the Square. So they were taken to the outskirts of the city probably other soldiers too and of course the Beijingers couldn't talk to them because the dialect was different. They had no way of communicating with them. The soldiers had been probably told something completely untrue and they were in no position to know what was true and what wasn't, and they were told it was a serious insurrection, counterrevolutionaries, the translation for that is people involved in treason and treason is a high crime in any country. So they had no compunctions apparently about shooting to kill to save the motherland, so they did. There was no stopping them no matter how big a crowd.

At first the American Embassy said that everybody in Beijing had better leave and then they widened that to everybody better leave. And other embassies also advised their citizens to leave. It seemed like good advice, but I was in Jinan and the trains weren't going to either Beijing or Shanghai so I couldn't leave very conveniently. But I did decide to leave so I went to Qingdao, which is a city in my province, a seaside city which had a plane to Hong Kong. My students came and stayed all night and packed up everything and I took the train on about June 8 to Qingdao where I also have students. I have students who have graduated so everywhere I go in Shandong province I have students and friends, so one of my very good students was waiting for me at the station and I went to Qingdao University to stay for a few days to see about this ticket for Hong Kong which you certainly had to wait for. Then I decided, well I'll go back and finish my classes and give my final exams and leave. So I went back after about five days and I got back about Thursday and the students came back that Sunday. We had a week of classes and then I gave my exams June 26 and 27. June 28 I went to Beijing which was under martial law, soldiers with their rifles standing all around everywhere but no trouble really and I flew home on the last day of June.

I was correcting my exams the last night in the hotel before I left until three in the morning. Yes, I got everything done but it was a terrible rush. I'm planning to return. I don't advocate people going to China now if they've never been before because some sort of protest is definitely in line but because I have been there so long and I have so many friends and I'm so involved in my teaching, I don't consider my actions are in support of the government at all. I'm totally opposed but I do know exactly what happened. People who go now are going to be lied to so extensively and you'll have to just accept those lies but I know what happened and people aren't going to try to lie to me. They do need teachers and they do need to learn English. Especially engineers need to learn English because so much engineering literature is written in English. English is very, very necessary in China for advancement of science and techology, so I'm going back. If anything terrible happens, I think I really have to be prepared to leave again if other serious things happen. Now I know how to leave in a hurry if I have to.

I'm going back to the same city. In February of this past year my university decided they wouldn't renew my contract. People are very shortsighted in China, they just decided that was enough of foreign teaching. I was doing too well and the other teachers didn't like it because the students liked learning in this way so they said that was enough. Actually they were fairly reasonable to me.

So another university, an architectural college actually was very happy to hire me; I had several job offers as a matter of fact. When I came to my university, Shandong Institute of Engineering, 6,000 students and one foreigner. Now they have a couple of other foreigners there, but in my new college I'll be the only foreigner. So initially everybody will be very nice, they really want me to come. I'll be able to see my old students, they're just a mile away. It's just moving down the road a way.

Text mounted 29th September 2012..Revised and rewriten-over 28 September 2016. RCWH.