Before I became a provost and dean of faculty, I taught Chinese history. This week, for several reasons, I have been thinking a lot about teaching China. I have been remembering with some sadness the extraordinary feeling of walking into a classroom knowing that for the next hour I would transport students into a new world. That kind of excitement is rare in the provost business.
This morning when I was walking my dog and thinking about what I might say today, I was struck with a devilish thought: I have a captive audience, so why not indulge myself by imparting a little Chinese history? So, here we go. There will be no exam at the end.
There was a great Chinese leader by the name of Mao Zedong who died in 1976. Some of you may have heard of Chairman Mao and the eccentricities and excesses of his later years most readily visible in a ten-year civil war-the Cultural Revolution-that rocked China. Mao's forte was not administration; it was revolution. Among many brilliant Chinese revolutionaries of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, Mao was the most brilliant.
He was the first to lead a war of "national liberation"-revolutions that combined Marxist ideology with patriotic fervor. In the late 1930s, Mao told the American journalist Edgar Snow that he was a Chinese first and a Marxist second. And that was, indeed, the way he led the revolution. By harnessing the discontent of the masses and appealing to their nationalism, Mao allied with the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek to defeat the Japanese occupiers in 1945. In 1949, he defeated Chiang Kai-shek himself and became leader of the new People's Republic of China.
Mao Zedong had an intuitive understanding of China and its people and an ability to integrate Marxist revolutionary ideology with the pragmatic demands of the disgruntled masses. A poet and scholar of Chinese history, he often sought to relay his message in terms even the most uneducated could understand. In some cases that meant turning to traditional folk tales.
One that Mao often used was an ancient Chinese fable called "The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains." (Mao Tse-tung [Mao Zedong]. The Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung [Mao Zedong], Vol. III. Peking [Beijing]: Foreign Languages Press, 1967, p. 272.)
It tells of an old man who lived in northern China long, long ago and was known as the Foolish Old Man of North Mountain. His house faced south and beyond his doorway stood the two great peaks, Taihang and Wangwu, obstructing the way. He called his sons, and hoe in hand they began to dig up these mountains with great determination. Another greybeard, known as the Wise Old Man, saw them and said derisively, "How silly of you to do this! It is quite impossible for you few to dig up these two huge mountains." The Foolish Old Man replied, "When I die, my sons will carry on; when they die, there will be my grandsons, and then their sons and grandsons, and so on to infinity. High as they are, the mountains cannot grow any higher and with every bit we dig, they will be that much lower. Why can't we clear them away?" Having refuted the Wise Old Man's wrong view, he went on digging every day, unshaken in his conviction. God was moved by this, and he sent down two angels, who carried the mountains away on their backs."
Now, Mao was talking about the twin threats of the Japanese and the Nationalists and exhorting people not to be discouraged at overcoming what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles in winning the revolution. But Mao's words have relevance to us today. What Mao Zedong is saying is this: there are enormous impediments to overcome in life and, while they may be undefeatable in the near term, if people remain committed to removing them and stay focused on the goal, they can, in fact, eliminate those barriers.
It seems to me that this is a very good fable to keep in mind as you embark upon the rest of your life. There are so many obstacles facing our world today: poverty, pollution, health issues, race, and peace to name a few. You and those of your generation have the opportunity and the talent to change the world, so who are you going to be like? The Wise Old Man who sees the tall mountains and deems them to be impossible to remove, so chooses to do nothing but make fun? Or are you going to be like the Foolish Old Man, who understands that within his lifetime he may not remove the mountains but who, nevertheless, begins to chip away, believing resolutely that if he and his sons cannot finish the task, then his grandchildren and their children will? I ask you today to become Foolish Old Men (and women) committed to making the world a better place for all people.
Thank you and congratulations.
"The Foolish Old Man Who Removed The Mountain," Patricia Stranahan, provost and dean of faculty
May 12, 2003