Schools into Fields and Factories: Anarchists, the Guomindang, and the National Labor University in Shanghai, 1927-1932

Schools into Fields and Factories: Anarchists, the Guomindang, and the National Labor University in Shanghai, 1927-1932

by Ming K. Chan, Arif Dirlik

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In this collaborative effort by two leading scholars of modern Chinese history, Ming K. Chan and Arif Dirlik investigate how the short-lived National Labor University in Shanghai was both a reflection of the revolutionary concerns of its time and a catalyst for future radical experiments in education. Under the slogan “Turn schools into fields and factories, fields and factories into schools,” the university attempted to bridge the gap between intellectual and manual labor that its founders saw as a central problem of capitalism, and which remains a persistent theme in Chinese revolutionary thinking.
During its five years of existence, Labor University was the most impressive institutional embodiment in twentieth-century China of the labor-learning ideal, which was introduced by anarchists in the first decade of the century and came to be shared by a diverse group of revolutionaries in the 1920s. This detailed study places Labor University within the broad context of anarchist social ideals and educational experiments that inspired it directly, as well as comparable socialist experiments within labor education in Europe that Labor University’s founders used as models. The authors bring to bear the perspectives of institutional and intellectual history on their examination of the structure and operation of the University, presenting new material on its faculty, curriculum, physical plant, and history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822397960
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 06/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
File size: 672 KB

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Schools into Fields and Factories

Anarchists, the Guomindang, and the National Labor University in Shanghai, 1927â"1932

By Ming K. Chan, Arif Dirlik

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1991 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9796-0



In September 1927 a new educational institution opened its doors to public instruction in Shanghai. The Labor University, or more precisely the National Labor University (Guoli laodong daxue), was a new kind of educational institution. Its goal was expressed in the slogan "Turn schools into fields and factories, fields and factories into schools" (xuexiao nongchang gongchanhua, nongchang gongchan xuexiaohua). Its founders hoped that it would provide a model for transforming the whole educational system in China and help realize their dream of a genuinely popular education. When it was forced to close down in mid-1932, the disillusionment its demise evoked was as deep as the enthusiasm that had greeted its founding. One graduate later described its closing as "a great defeat for Chinese education and a great loss to the nation."

Were Labor University to be judged by its impact on Chinese education or educational thinking, this assessment might indicate little more than the nostalgia of a former student. Indeed, few traces of the university remain in the historical record. The occasional reference in histories of Chinese education suggests that it was little more than a liberal or "mildly radical" educational experiment that quickly fell victim to Guomindang conservatism. The university was too short lived to make a significant impact on Chinese education, and it was not very successful. Even before the Japanese attack on Shanghai damaged its campus and compelled it to shut down, there was evidence that as an educational experiment it had fallen short of the goals its founders had envisaged.

This study argues that Labor University was much more significant as an educational experiment than the historical record suggests. The significance may rest less on what the university accomplished than on what it represented; but what it represented is not to be ignored: the ideal of an education that combined labor and learning and sought thereby to create a new kind of individual–and a new society. Rather than a liberal or mildly radical educational experiment, Labor University represented an attempt to break with liberal assumptions about education, as contemporary liberals were quick to notice. Hu Shi, who was opposed to it, described it as a "center for anarchism." Though its founders rejected that indictment, the origins of the University as well as its structure and curriculum attest to the validity of the charge. It was a radical vision of education, which in turn rested on a radical anarchist social vision, that motivated the university's founding. This vision, moreover, carried far greater weight with contemporaries than it has with historians. The founders of the university included some of the most prominent names in Chinese education–chief among them Cai Yuanpei, a former minister of education and chancellor of Beijing University–who viewed it as one of the key institutions in the transformation of the Chinese educational system that they envisaged. In historical hindsight the university may have little to show in the way of accomplishment, as might be expected of any educational institution that was in existence for only about five years, but its underlying vision, and potential promise, as an alternative educational institution help put in perspective the socially restricted vision that would guide Chinese education in subsequent years. True, it was apparent from the beginning that the university might fall victim to the same social forces it sought to overcome, but in the end it did not merely fail; it was made to fail by the forces arraigned against it in Chinese education and politics. These forces have had little interest in keeping alive the memories of the institution. Those who might, namely the Communists, who shared some of the same goals, have had little interest in doing so because they would prefer to claim those goals for themselves.

Short-lived though the Labor University was, therefore, its career brings into focus a number of issues of more than passing interest. First is the relationship between revolution and education (which was of particular concern throughout the twentieth century)–in this case a particular notion of education that sought to abolish the separation of learning from labor. As the most ambitious (peaceful) effort to achieve this goal in twentieth-century Chinese history, Labor University is an important episode in the history of the idea of Labor in the Chinese Revolution, if not of the labor movement itself. The concern with integrating labor and learning in education was demonstrated dramatically during the Cultural Revolution, when it took the form of a mass social movement. It has come forward, although in different forms and with different emphases, in recent years under Mao Zedong's successors. But it has not been restricted to Maoists or even to Marxists. In 1934 Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) himself stated:

Everyone ought to understand that education and labor are inseparable; if one just studies and does not labor, simply talks without doing, it does not matter how great one's learning and ideals might be. This kind of learning is not real learning. The so-called education, learning, and doing must be integrated. Labor, production, and education are all linked together; most basic is to enable students to cultivate habits of labor, and the spirit of service.

While it is possible to argue, as we will below, that Chinese radicals and leaders have assigned different functions to combining labor and learning in education, and sought different means to do so, the need to do so has been one of the most persistent themes in radical thinking, which has perceived in the education of the laborer and, perhaps more important, the cultivation of labor by intellectuals a fundamental means to remake China and bring about a revolutionary society. In this sense, the labor-learning ideal has been integral to a revolutionary discourse that has cut across political and ideological divides. Labor University, which antedated the Cultural Revolution by four decades, provides prima facie evidence of the pervasiveness of this concern. Its origins also reveal that it was through the agency of anarchism that the ideal was introduced into revolutionary discourse, a fact that neither the Guomindang nor the Communist Party has been anxious to advertise. As with anarchism in general, Labor University was "forgotten" in the thirties as memories of it dissipated before the more urgent tasks of national survival and revolution. But the ideal of labor learning survived in revolutionary discourse, if only in a form assimilated into other political forms and aspirations–and, we might add, contrary to original anarchist intentions.

Second, Labor University provides a Chinese instance of socialist experiments with alternative education that have sought a means to the creation of socialism through the integration of labor and education, among which we may count the Labor University at Charleroi in Belgium (which served as a direct inspiration for the Labor University in Shanghai), Ruskin College at Oxford, and the Rand School of Social Sciences in New York. While these experiments differed in goals and institutional structure, they had in common a premise that the separation of mental and manual labor is a fundamental source of problems in modern capitalist society. Bridging the gap between the two kinds of labor is not merely a task of but a precondition to the creation of socialism because the division points ultimately to the fundamental problem of the division of labor in society. Mao was not the only one concerned with the problem. With the apparent failure of existing socialist societies to overcome the division of labor, and therefore the problem of social hierarchy, the concern with the gap between intellectual and manual labor has once again moved to the forefront of socialist thinking–in some cases with an explicit acknowledgment of its debt to anarchism, in others through a return to those aspects of Marx's texts that emphasize this problem (and which have much in common with anarchism).

The founding of Labor University may be viewed as part of an intensified worldwide interest in labor education in the aftermath of World War I (and the Russian Revolution), especially since its founders consciously modeled the university after the highly successful labor education institutions in Belgium. A comparison between the latter and Labor University in China, however, also reveals a fatal flaw that may have doomed the more radical aspirations of the Labor University from the beginning: its total dependence on the Guomindang and the Guomindang-controlled national government. The experiments with labor education in Belgium (and elsewhere) seem to have been successful only to the extent that they had the support of strong labor unions. In China in 1927, the labor movement of the previous years was in total disarray after the Guomindang's suppression of the revolutionary movement; indeed, rather than expressing the needs of an autonomous labor movement (as the more radical among the anarchists hoped), Labor University was perceived by the Guomindang as a means for creating a labor movement amenable to its power. The university's dependence on the Guomindang was important in shaping the political aspects of education there; much to the dismay of the anarchists, political education took the form of indoctrination of the students in accordance with party and government goals. The same dependence made the university vulnerable to power (and ideological) shifts in the Guomindang, which brought it down when its founders lost their ability to shape Guomindang educational policy. We note in passing here that this also may offer clues to the fate of similar experiments in China after 1949 which, for all their revolutionary claims, conceived of labor education (for laborers or intellectuals) in terms of party or national power that severely circumscribed and undermined their professed radical aspirations–and, indeed, turned the experiments into instruments of oppression rather than liberation. Anarchists were probably right in their initial premise that any such education must be free of the control of politics and political parties.

Third, for these reasons, then, the career of Labor University has much to tell us about a specific moment of the Chinese Revolution: the attempted reconstruction of political order under the Guomindang regime. At its broadest, this involved the construction of a new political order out of a revolutionary movement. In 1927 it was not yet clear that the revolution would still continue into the future, and the Guomindang, in spite of a visible move to the right in response to the social revolutionary challenge of the Communists, continued to view itself as the foremost revolutionary force in the country. The problem it faced was how to convert revolution into a stable political order; that is, what to incorporate into the new order of the revolution that had brought it to power and what to repudiate. It became evident very quickly that building a strong, centralized state was the Guomindang's top priority, and that anything that interfered with this goal, including its own social revolutionary legacy, would be repudiated as counterrevolutionary. Labor University was both a product and a victim of this transformation of the revolution as the Guomindang came to identify political order with a strong state.

In a narrower sense, the career of the university highlights problems in the politics of education in Guomindang China, which was shaped by a complex interaction of alternative political visions, conflicting ideas of education (often based on the institutional commitments, as well as the individual experiences, of educators), and petty factionalism (not to mention less noble motivations) in the leadership of the political and educational establishments. The anarchists who were instrumental in founding Labor University were not outsiders to the politics of education; on the contrary, they held very important positions in both the political and the educational establishments. The founding of Labor University was a testament to their ability to mobilize resources in both realms to realize their goals, and the fate of the university depended very much on their continued ability to do so. This ability declined rapidly as revolution gave way before state building. Political factionalism, including among themselves, contributed to the process in no small way.

Finally, unique though it was as an educational institution, Labor University is also important as an example of an institution of higher education in Guomindang China. Apart from its unique ideals, Labor University is unique in another sense: there is a rich body of documentation available concerning its structure, its curriculum, and the nature of its faculty and students. This we may owe to the impressive number of well-trained sociologists on its faculty, who seem to have been as anxious to document the makeup of the university as they were to conduct general surveys among the population. It may also have been due indirectly to the university's ideals, which gave priority to openness to society and social accountability.

Some elaboration of the political and ideological circumstances of Labor University is necessary here to provide a framework for the discussion below. Labor University owed its inspiration to Chinese anarchists, who played a central part in its founding. As early as 1924, anarchists active in the labor movement had drawn up plans for a labor university. The Guomindang's termination in April 1927 of its three-year-old united front with the Communist Party inspired in anarchists the hope that by cooperating with the victorious Guomindang, they could redirect its revolutionary energies along the lines of anarchist social ideals, a hope that was encapsulated in the phrase "use the Three People's Principles as a means to achieve anarchism" (yi sanmin zhuyi wei shouduan, yi wuzhengfu zhuyi wei mubiao; literally, "take the Three People's Principles as means, anarchism as goal"). Labor University was to be the key to this anarchist project.

Unexpected as an alliance between anarchists and a political party may seem, especially a political party which had just demonstrated its counterrevolutionary potential and was already established as a government party, the anarchists' cooperation with the Guomindang was nothing new, and the idea seemed quite feasible in the complex environment of radical politics in 192,7, when it was not always easy to distinguish revolutionaries from counterrevolutionaries. The alliance had its roots deep in the origins of the revolutionary movement in China. Instrumental in the founding of Labor University were Li Shizeng and Wu Zhihui, the two most prominent figures among the group of Chinese intellectuals who in the early 1900s had introduced anarchism into Chinese radicalism while they were students in Paris. Even as they began to propagate anarchism in 1906, they had joined the antimonarchic revolutionary organization initiated in Tokyo by Sun Zhongshan (Sun Yat-sen) the previous year. The Revolutionary Alliance (Tongmeng hui) was reorganized as the Guomindang following the establishment of the Republic in 1912. Li and Wu retained close ties to Sun and the Guomindang in ensuing years, and were widely regarded by the mid-1920s as party "elders"–and, because of their opposition to the Guomindang's united front with the Communist Party and to Marxists within the Guomindang, as leaders of the party's right wing. Their activities in the Guomindang in 1927–28 were undertaken in their capacity as leaders in the party. Their anarchist commitments were not lost on their leftist opponents, however, and as we shall seek to demonstrate below, the founding of Labor University represented the fulfillment of a dream that went back to the earliest days of Chinese anarchism.

While some anarchists were quick to note the contradiction of anarchists, who opposed nations and governments, working under a government (and in a university that bore the word "national" [guoli] in its very name), such objections were easily overwhelmed in 1927–28 by a deep anarchist hostility to communism and a sense among the anarchists, who had been losing revolutionary ground to the Communists over the past few years, that here was an unprecedented opportunity to bring anarchism once again to the forefront of the Chinese Revolution. Contradictory the alliance was, but possibly no more contradictory than the Communists' alliance with the Guomindang of the previous three years. The alliance was ultimately imbedded in the peculiarities of the history of the Chinese Revolution.


Excerpted from Schools into Fields and Factories by Ming K. Chan, Arif Dirlik. Copyright © 1991 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents


1 Introduction,
2 Anarchism and the Labor-Learning Ideal in Chinese Revolutionary Discourse,
3 Anarchists and the Guomindang: The Founding and Goals of Labor University,
4 The Structure of Labor University: Physical Plant and Curriculum,
5 Labor University Faculty and Scholarship,
6 Laoda Students, Organizations, Campus Life, and Politics,
7 Labor Education Programs and Outreach Activities,
8 Politics, Finances, and the Demise of Laoda,
9 In Retrospect,
Appendix: Number, Distribution, Age, and Provincial Origin of Laoda Students, 1928–31,

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