In the three years I have taught Chinese history at the University of Kentucky, I have assigned the writings of the dissident Fang Lizhi in my courses.
The Chinese astrophysicist, born in 1936, became well known in the 1980s for his critique of the Communist system and gained a significant student following in the relatively open years of that decade.
Fearing arrest in the wake of the Tiananmen student movement, Fang sought refuge in the American embassy and went into exile in the United States, where he was professor of physics at the University of Arizona. I consider Fang's work to be required reading for my students.
Last Thursday, as I asked the students in History 296 how Fang conceptualized democracy in scientific terms, I did not know it would be his last day with us.
I want my students to read Fang Lizhi's 1986 speech, "Democracy, Reform, and Modernization," for a number of reasons. It shows the importance of historical thinking; Fang argued in favor of Westernization as openness, alluding to the nineteenth century Self-Strengthening movement, "Open China up and face the challenge of more advanced societies head on, in every aspect from technology to politics. What is good will stand up, and what is not good will be swept away."
Fang's writing also reflected the 1919 May Fourth Movement's linkage of science and democracy. Applying his scientific outlook to the recent Chinese past, Fang asked, "Are the things done in the name of socialism actually socialist? And, do they make any sense? We have to take a fresh look at these questions, and the first step in that process is to free our minds from the narrow confines of orthodox Marxism."
Finally, I want my students to read Fang's work for its commentary on the American system; Fang reflected on his experience as a visiting professor at Princeton in two ways: he spoke of the freedom of academic discourse in the United States, and he also explained how his New Jersey representative reached out to him to explain his actions in the past congressional session.
For Fang, this experience was revelatory; instead of the National People's Congress inspecting him, as it might in China, Fang's local representative was "reporting" to him. "In democratic countries," Fang concluded, "democracy begins with the individual."
When my students in Chinese history class read Fang's writings, it is as if a switch is flipped in the classroom. All semester they read political writings from China, but much of it is not easily accessible and requires that we discuss and analyze it together. But they come to class after reading Fang Lizhi energized and inspired; after several weeks of Mao, Fang's voice is familiar in its humanity.
The experience of the students mirrors my own when I first read Fang as an American studying Chinese in Beijing in 1999. After weeks of reading the People's Daily in my textbook, and feeling both Chinese language and culture to be often impenetrable, I too was inspired and motivated to learn more.
It is perhaps because I heard Fang's fresh, reasoned voice, and because I realized that the human yearnings he spoke of were no different from my own, that I became more drawn to the Chinese historical experience.
In the obituaries that have appeared since Fang passed away on Friday, April 6, many have spoken of his influence on a generation. On his Facebook page, Tiananmen student leader Wang Dan wrote of the tears he has shed, explaining that he started going to Fang's home from age 19, and that he was not only a teacher but a family member.
I can make no similar claim, but will continue to place Fang Lizhi's writings on every syllabus. Over the last three years, his words have pushed my Kentucky students to think differently about China, in the same way that he lit up the 1989 generation.
May Fang Lizhi's ability to inspire young people — Chinese or American, past or present — to think differently about China continue to be his legacy.