- - Thursday, October 22, 2015

One of China’s most outrageously cool superstars is a high school history teacher, wildly popular among the nation’s young, who follow him online and offline in the tens of millions. Ironically, he is also one of the nation’s most censored public intellectuals.

Yuan Teng-fei, a boyish 43-year-old teacher in Beijing, has a wicked sense of humor and a passion for anonymity. His enormous fame came about by accident, almost entirely in spite of himself, when someone posted to the Internet some video clips of his lectures in 2008 meant originally for internal use only within the small school where he was moonlighting as a history instructor. The leaked lessons quickly made him a household name, albeit a name that usually is uttered in hushed tones as his analysis is considered highly toxic and subversive to the official Chinese government line.

Consider, for example, Mr. Yuan’s take on the very history textbook he is using in his classroom, which follows exactly the Chinese Communist Party’s interpretations of world events.

“The distortions in the history textbook in Japan are far fewer than the distortions in our own history textbook,” Mr. Yuan said in one of the lecture clips posted online. “If you ask me how much truth is contained in China’s history textbook, I’d say it’s below 5 percent. I urge you to burn your history textbook after you have taken the exam. You let it stay in your home for one day, it will dirty your home, which is why I never bring the history textbook home. It’s full of BS!”

This was said in the midst of a high-pitched government propaganda campaign against a controversial Japanese history textbook that has never been adopted by more than 2 percent of all Japanese schools, while all China’s students must use the only version of history textbook written and approved by the Chinese Communist Party.

Mr. Yuan’s stardom reached its zenith in May 2010 when another batch of his taped lectures on the history of Communist China under Mao Zedong was uploaded by someone on the popular video portal Youku, a Chinese knockoff version of YouTube, which is banned in China by the government.

In these lectures, Mr. Yuan delivered devastating blows to the officially sanctioned version of the PRC history under Mao, accompanied by humor and acerbic observations. After narrating the detailed carnage and stupefying human suffering under Mao’s rule, Mr. Yuan concluded that “Mao Zedong was a butcher whose hands were soaked with blood of Chinese people he had killed!”

He went on: “Mao Zedong was addicted to talking nonsense. In fact he was an ‘IBM,’ an ‘international big mouth’ whose poems were just unbearably lousy. Mao Zedong was clueless as to how to govern a country, but was an expert in harassing the Chinese people.”

Similar salvos went on for nearly three hours, peppered with jokes, sarcasm, personal experiences and eruptive laughter from the audience.

The video clips caused a sensation in a nation where any open and frank discussion of Mao and his maniac policies remains a taboo nearly 40 years after his death. Within days, more than 4 million visits were registered for the Youku website. The nation was shocked by the boldness and detailed narratives of Mao’s pogroms as detailed in Mr. Yuan’s lectures. He became an instant Internet phenomenon.

Government censors moved quickly, taking down all of Mr. Yuan’s contrarian lectures from the Youku site. But officials also recognized the uncomfortable reality that the meek high school history teacher had become a national hero among tens of millions Internet users for his frankness.

Nevertheless, Mr. Yuan was summoned by the Beijing District Education Department officials for a severe dressing down. He was forced to appear on the Internet to admit “mistakes” made in his lectures. And his public appearances have since been closely followed by Maoists, who disrupt and verbally abuse Mr. Yuan on a routine basis.

But it has proved too little too late. Countless fans are solidly behind him. There are fan clubs all over the country, with supporters discussing obsessively whether and when Mr. Yuan will be arrested by the authorities for his views. While Google is banned in China, Baidu, the nation’s largest search engine, features results about the huge number of searches for information about Mr. Yuan’s safety and whether he has been jailed.

Even more significantly, his fans have reposted all of his banned lectures to U.S.-based YouTube, which is only accessible to ordinary Chinese for those who dare to “climb over” the Great Firewall of China. Up to this day, those lectures, highly entertaining yet utterly somber, are among the most visited Chinese-content videos on YouTube.

Perhaps due to his national stardom and huge cyberfollowing, Mr. Yuan has not yet been locked up by the government, which no doubt fears the eruption of public outrage that might spark. Instead, the government has prohibited him from giving any lessons on recent Chinese history, while granting him a spot on national TV, against his own wishes, to deliver entertaining and humorous lectures about ancient Chinese history.

But dead emperors and past dynasties are not what the people really want to hear from the witty Mr. Yuan. His YouTube lectures on the history of Communist China are more popular than ever, making him one of the most effective and subversive voices against a political order that survives only on historical untruth.

• Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail.com and @Yu_miles.

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