# Story

# Up to the Mountains, Down to the Countryside

“When I was young, I grew up in a courtyard full of teachers, mostly university professors. There is a saying called ‘follow in the footsteps of one’s father.’ When everyone around you is a teacher, you can’t help but feel that you should grow up to be a teacher too. What else could you do if not be a teacher?

“I never thought I would experience the Cultural Revolution. When the revolution came, there were no teachers left. My family belonged to the working-class, my grandfather was a bank worker, classified as a member of the ‘black five categories.’ I ended up classified as an ‘educable child.’ Whether this education was successful or not, I don’t know, but at that time, I had to be educated. Since I was labeled as ‘educable,’ I had to go up to the mountains and down to the countryside. At that time, there was no question of not going, everyone had to go, so I had to go too.

“At that time, I had just graduated from junior high school.

“The days of going up to the mountains and down to the countryside were like being in a prison, not much better than an actual prison. We worked from dawn till dusk every day. Thinking about going home? It was too frightening to even imagine. If you dared to run away, someone would chase you back. At that time, I still had a bit of eagerness to learn, since I couldn’t go back home, I had to find books to read everywhere. I had two educated youth companions who liked to study classical Chinese and English. I borrowed some books from them, and managed to learn a little bit of knowledge.

“English was considered taboo at that time. If someone heard you reading English, you would be caught. But everyone knew that unlike Chinese and Mathematics, English couldn’t be learned without practice. So, I had to find a haystack, dig a hole, crawl inside and cover it up with some hay, then secretly read. I had no idea if I was reading correctly, no teacher to guide me anyway.

“During the period in the countryside, I had the opportunity to apply for a job I really wanted. I submitted my application, but the review didn’t pass. The reason? My mother wrote a letter suggesting that the position was good and I should consider applying if possible. They thought this showed my improper thinking - going to the mountains and countryside meant a lifetime of labor, how could I talk about leaving with my family? So, they didn’t want me anymore.”

# College Entrance Examination

“Some time later, there was good news - the college entrance examination was being reinstated. Unlike today, during the first college entrance examination, nobody knew what subjects would be tested. We had to study all subjects like Chinese, Mathematics, English, Physics, Chemistry. With only two months left, I was really in a bind. How could I study so much in such a short time! I planned my daily schedule meticulously, determining times for studying Chinese, English, Mathematics, etc., and studied tirelessly every day. I really struggled with the science subjects - I remember studying Algebra, Geometry, and up to Trigonometry, but couldn’t go further; in Physics, I studied Mechanics and Electricity, but that was my limit. Just when I was worried, I received another good news. The college entrance examination was divided into Arts and Science sections, where you didn’t have to take Physics or Chemistry for Arts. I was thrilled and immediately dropped Physics and Chemistry to focus on History and Geography, as they were just about memorization, simple to learn once you memorized it.

“Time flew, and on the day of the exam, I traveled to Heilongjiang for the test. The examination was divided into two sessions, with the first session consisting of Chinese and Mathematics. The examination venue was a primary school, with over 500 students. I thought the competition would be tough. Once I entered the exam hall, I focused solely on the test. When I finished and left the exam hall, a glance reassured me. I was the third last to submit - those who submit early usually didn’t know the answers and left quickly, only those who knew stayed to answer the questions.

“As expected, I smoothly proceeded to the second session, where the number of students was reduced to only 15. They probably knew that 99% of the students wouldn’t know the answers and were just there to participate, so they set a threshold with the first session.

“I could also choose to take a Foreign Language test as an elective, a very casual selection, and I had never taken it before. What to take? Take what you know. If you know English, take Japanese; if you know French, take French; if you know Japanese, take Japanese. I was the only one at our farm who knew a foreign language, so I took English. No one knew how the test would be, and the invigilator brought the papers to me. When we reached the examination room and saw that only one person was taking the test, he said, ‘Well, you can’t cheat anyway, it’s cold here, shall we find a warmer place to take the test?’ So, we found a room with heating, and he said, ‘Since you can’t cheat here, just do your test, and come find me when you’re done.’

“I diligently completed the paper, handed it to the invigilator, and felt that I did better in English than in Chinese. After the results were out, I thought since I did well in English, why not study English? Eventually, I chose to study English at Heilongjiang University.”

# Heilongjiang University

“The years I spent in university were truly torturous. Do you know that every person has a natural language learning ability? A child when born doesn’t need to be taught or do exercises to learn a language; before the age of 12, they can learn to the level of a Native Speaker; before 20, they can reach a level of fluent communication with a Native Speaker; after that age, no matter how hard you try, you can’t reach that level anymore. The students in my English department were as young as 15, eleven years younger than me. There was no way I could compete with them!

“So, I studied tirelessly, thinking that I just needed to survive university. Do you know what my graduation thesis was about? It was pure nonsense. I didn’t want to write anything related to English, so I randomly picked a topic from the corners - Linguistics. Linguistics was good because it didn’t involve analyzing English literature, I could combine it with physics and chemistry knowledge for research. I wrote about ‘how language thinking is converted into neural signals through the brain and then transformed into audio signals for expression’—

“What ignorance means is that ignorant people have the most courage, because they dare to write anything!

“Think about it. I didn’t even understand basic physiological and physical knowledge, how could I understand neural signals, audio signals? It was complete nonsense. However, this thesis helped me graduate and relieved some of the pressure.

“After finishing university, it was time to find a job, and our jobs were allocated back then. You might think that job allocation was a good thing, but it wasn’t. Job allocation meant you had no choice. I was allocated to work in a research institute for international relations. When they were finalizing the specific positions, someone asked me if I wanted to work in the African studies department, and I gladly accepted, thinking it was a good research direction. Later on, I found out that only right-wing elements worked in that department. It goes to show, with a poor background like mine, you always end up where you belong.”

# Surviving in America

“After completing my master’s, it was almost natural for me to start considering going abroad. It’s just following the trend, you see, when two-thirds of your classmates plan to study abroad, if you don’t, you become an outlier. So, without much thought, I began preparing to study abroad.

“As fate would have it, my future advisor, Carl Rosberg, came to China to help Chinese scholars with African research, and I worked as his translator. I tried to reach out to him, asking if he could help me get into his school, Berkeley. Chinese people always rely on connections!

“At that time, I had no idea about Berkeley or its reputation because we didn’t have the internet or email then. In fact, Duke University was the first one to accept me, but I declined it. Why? They only offered partial scholarships, covering tuition costs, but with no living stipend. How could I survive in the US? Carl helped me secure a doctoral program at Berkeley with a living stipend scholarship, and that’s when I decided to study there, purely because I couldn’t afford it!

“When you go to study in America, the first problem you face is how to get from the airport to your school. Some students arrive with only $40 in their pockets, while the transportation cost from the airport to the school was $45. What could they do? They had to rely on the Chinese Student Association to pick them up from the airport, take them to the association’s office where they had a few mats, and spend their first night sleeping on the floor. The office walls were covered with accommodation information, so they had to call and find a place to stay. This was unimaginable for us Chinese students at that time. We couldn’t understand why we had to pay to sleep, with each night costing $10 - where in China couldn’t you sleep for free!

It’s hard to imagine how those students with only $40 managed to survive. When I attended an academic conference in the US, I had a bit of cash left over, which was enough to take a cab, find lodging.

“But money was still not enough. There was no time to work during the semester, so I only had the $6000 annual living stipend that the school provided, after paying the $4000+ tuition fees, I was left with $2000. After paying rent, I had only $400 remaining, which meant I only had $1 to spend each day. I could eat, yes, but I also needed transportation! Where would I get the money to commute? I had to save from my food expenses.

“To save money, I had to shop at supermarkets. How do you shop? You look for products that are not expired, right? We, on the other hand, went for expired products, because who buys non-expired items anyway? Only expired products are on discount! So, every month, we would go to the supermarket to buy the cheapest chicken we could find, a large bag that would last us a month.

“Every day, I have to attend classes; who has the time to cook every day. Every week, I stew a pot of chicken from Monday to Sunday, and then on Monday again, I stew another pot of chicken, and repeat the cycle from Monday to Sunday. This is how we get by. Survival in America is tough and bitter for us, but I would say that it’s nothing for us from the military region. We are used to surviving with nothing but the clothes on our back. I once talked to a beggar on the street near Berkeley, he asked me, ‘Can you find food within a hundred meters on this street?’ I couldn’t help but laugh; isn’t it just rummaging through trash cans, what’s so hard about that?”

# The Difficulty of Studying in the United States

“It can be said that the hardships of survival are really nothing for me, the real challenge is in studying. It’s not just the language barrier; for example, in your classes, the teacher will tell you about one scholar’s viewpoint and another scholar’s perspective. In our classes, it’s not like that. The teacher will say that two scholars are from the same school, but their academic viewpoints contradict each other. I didn’t even know what the viewpoints of these two scholars were. I recorded the lectures and listened to them over and over again, but still couldn’t understand their perspectives; that’s where the problem lies.

“At that time, Waltz was my professor for a course. After the midterm exam, he came to me and said, ‘Your midterm grades are not good, so I won’t give you a mid-term grade. I will calculate your final grade once it’s out.’ It shows how difficult my studies had become.

“With such a learning environment, I often felt like I couldn’t continue studying. It was torturous every day; however, not getting a degree meant I couldn’t face my parents. When weighing my options, I had no choice but to grit my teeth and keep studying.

“In my first semester, I took a course on non-policy. For the midterm, I wrote a paper about China’s policy towards non-policy and how it helps Africa in development. Thinking I did well based on my research in China, I was confident. But to my surprise, the teacher called me in and said that my article was unacceptable. Feeling uneasy, I asked why. The teacher told me I couldn’t just focus on China’s policy towards non-policy as the Soviet Union was also involved in Africa and there was competition between them; I needed to include that. I was bewildered and didn’t quite understand, but I agreed. By the end of the semester, with other courses keeping me busy, I made slight changes to my paper, removed the Soviet Union part, and submitted it. I thought everything was fine, but it turned out to be a disaster; I got a B-. Note that at Berkeley, a B+ is just passing, a B is already failing, and B- is failing within the failing grade. When my advisor heard about it, he called me to his office. I was crestfallen when I received the call, but I had to go; so, I hurried to his office. As soon as my advisor saw me, he bluntly asked, ‘You used to research Africa, why did you get a B-?’ I was speechless.

“When the semester ended, I started working during the break. My first job was delivering newspapers; I threw the newspapers at every doorstep. I also helped families organize their bookshelves, and more. I thought that I couldn’t neglect my studies while working. So, I revisited my paper on China’s policy towards non-policy and made changes. I heard about a journal called African Notes, and decided to submit my paper. Surprisingly, the editor called me and said it could be published, asking if I could use my real name. I was taken aback; in China, don’t we use pen names? Wouldn’t using my real name make me responsible for the article? I didn’t want that responsibility! But the editor insisted on my real name for publication. Eager to publish, I reluctantly agreed. I had no idea academic papers were usually published using real names!

“At the start of the school year, I sought praise from my advisor, thinking he would be delighted to hear about my publication. However, my advisor’s reaction was unexpected; he didn’t smile and told me, ‘Young man, you should understand that the world is not fair. Don’t get too high or too low.’ Eventually, my relationship with my advisor Carl improved, he would ask me to look after his cat when he was away on business, and he also visited my home to see my daughter.

“Overall, studying in America was challenging, but at the time, I felt the rewards were substantial. My mentor in China wrote to me, asking about the biggest difference between studying in America and studying in China. I replied, ‘The fundamental difference between American and Chinese education is that American teachers teach what is wrong, whereas Chinese teachers teach what is right. For example, in the U.S., a biology teacher would say, ‘What I have taught you this semester has not been proven wrong yet, but it might be tomorrow; you have to research it yourself.’ In China, just one statement of what is right is enough; in America, you have to understand everything that is wrong, learn it on your own, and figure out what is right. This complexity makes American education much more challenging.

“The two most rewarding courses for me during my studies were Quantitative Methodology. If I were to categorize my courses, some I could study on my own, some I could learn when taught, and then, there were those, like Quantitative Methodology, that I couldn’t fully grasp even with teaching. This is why I always stress the importance of learning Quantitative Methodology.”

# Returning Home

“After returning home, I immersed myself in work. I initially worked at the Institute of International Relations in Beijing, conducting policy research. However, the constraints of policy research became too much, so I transitioned to teaching at Tsinghua University, where I could have a bit more freedom.”

# Preconditions for Researching Academically

  1. Material conditions for research: require prolonged focus.
  2. Strong interest.
    • Often, students pursuing a doctoral degree cannot persist due to societal distractions.
    • Isn’t finding a girlfriend to run to the library with me all about studying?
    • Society doesn’t attract me, allowing me to stay focused.
  3. Perseverance in hardship.
    • People may start by producing poor work, but some cannot even produce that.
    • Professor Yan’s attempts to categorize the country failed thrice; failure is normal in research, and a series of failures are necessary for success.
  4. Gift of innovation.
    • Accumulation of Ph.D. students -> lack of innovation.
    • Children’s schooling—can’t ignore the drop-out issue, a disgrace in socialism -> Chinese education suppresses innovation.

# The Psychological Struggles of Academic Research

Professor Yan: Our field is not understood by others, Xīnbó, you might have encountered this issue as well.

Xīnbó Professor: Hehe (I don’t want to agree with you).

  1. Not understood by family.
  2. Poor interpersonal relationships; leaders not fond of.
    • What movies do Ph.D. students watch?
    • In principle, Ph.D. students usually have poor interpersonal relationships, as pursuing a Ph.D. involves a process of alienation.
    • Submitting an assignment and then having it returned for revisions within 2 seconds -> excellent critical and error-finding skills, but poor social skills.
  3. Unable to find answers and nowhere to seek help.
    • Feeling helpless appearing in a dream signifies entering a research-focused state.
  4. Academic achievements denied or ignored.
    • The phrase “Chinese believe China’s rise is inevitable” is widely referenced, but the thoughtful work “Peace Is Not” goes unnoticed.

# The Solitary Pleasure of Academic Research

  1. Learning new knowledge.
  2. Innovating knowledge.
    • Discovery of DNA by humans -> Dare to innovate.
    • Theories derived through dialectics, where both affirmative and negative arguments hold, lacking logical consistency, are not scientific.
  3. Identifying errors of authoritative scholars.

# Professor Yan Xuetong’s Story

# Q&A

  1. The Difference Between Policy Analysis and Academic Research

    The core of policy analysis is, well, policy analysis. You need to explain why your suggestions are feasible. Of course, to make a suggestion, you need to (1) understand the current policies, (2) why the current policies aren’t working, (3) why they aren’t working, and (4) why your suggestions could work. This requires having connections and understanding the inside story.

    For example, China’s aid to Africa, aiding in building stadiums might result in the buildings aging and being criticized in a few years. It might be better to invest in production instead.

    Academic research requires operationalization – using understandable scientific methods to explain things.

    Which one is better? You need to try and see which one suits you best.

    Most people are not good at multitasking. It’s important to understand where your strengths lie. For example, the role of parents is to help children discover their strengths.

  2. Why Invest Heavily in Disciplinary Development, Providing Public Goods, Organizing Training Workshops, and Publishing Academic Journals

    Someone once said, “Are the conclusions drawn from the American method biased towards the U.S.?” That made me angry.

    Some journals claim that comments are not important and can be removed to make space for more articles. In the case of Asian youth articles, innovative content is removed, leaving only unoriginal summary sections.

    The domestic academic association has high barriers to entry, while communities do not require registration and have no high participation thresholds. Therefore, I have decided to create a community for international relations studies.

  3. Are There Any Other Options?

    Since childhood, I have been looked down upon by my family members who are in science and engineering. When our school emblems were compared, Harbin University’s was longer compared to the rest. My sister even said it resembled a wooden pole.

    My daughter even called international relations a pseudo-science.

    1. Our methodology involves variables that are difficult to control, requiring strong judgment and a high level of knowledge in methodology. Students from science and engineering backgrounds come to Prof. Yan’s classes to learn because that’s the only way to answer “why conduct experiments in that manner”?
    2. Our variables do not have uniform dimensions.