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Former coal miner becomes top Chinese educator
STANFORD - Whenever Weifang Min visits Stanford, where he received his doctorate in education in 1987, he honors his former professors by cooking a northern Chinese banquet.
The ritual has an even deeper meaning for Weifang, now one of China's leading educators. At 17, during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, he was sent to Beijing's Mentougou coal mines; a brother was made a cook in factory cafeterias.
"It's from him that I learned my cooking skills," says the educator who was once voted "Coal Miner of the Year." "Potstickers, spring rolls, chicken, pork, beef dishes - it's all very much family-style cooking."
Now, at 42, Min has become one of the youngest full professors at Beijing University, where he is deputy director for research at the university's Institute of Higher Education and vice-director of its Center for Research on Contemporary China. He also is one of the World Bank's most heavily requested international consultants on education.
Min has never forgotten the years of his "re-education" during the Cultural Revolution. His mother was a schoolteacher; his father was a senior accountant for national railways. The whole family, the Red Guards decided, needed "ideological remolding."
His father was sent to the farms "for quite long periods"; his mother was sent to do manual labor "for shorter periods," since teachers were in high demand even during the Cultural Revolution.
For Min, however, the notification that he would be sent to the coal mines was a blow to his hopes for a university education in physics and electronics, his first ambition.
He had just graduated from one of the most select, competitive high schools in Beijing. Although he says he did "very well" in high school, no enrollments were accepted at the university that year, 1968.
"At home, we discussed it, but we had no choice," he said. "Of course I was upset. I felt very depressed about being sent to the coal mines. But in public, you had to agree. It was easy then for people to call you an anti-socialist ideologue."
"The 10-year Cultural Revolution set China 20 years back in science and technology. It was really a disaster. They sent peasants to the university, without regard to academic qualifications, beginning in 1970. The peasants didn't know linear algebra, but they wanted them to learn nuclear physics. But the intellectuals suffered most of all."
Min's mother told him, "Do something useful with your life. Don't just do like the others in the mines - smoking and drinking a lot."
And then she sent Min off to became one of the thousands of anonymous coal miners in the Beijing region.
"It changed my whole life," Min said.
Studying by oil lamp and candle light
Despite his mother's characterization, Min became more and more impressed by the courage, endurance and industry of his fellow miners.
"They were relatively less educated," he said. "Many of them had only a primary school education," having entered the mines in the early 1950s.
"Gradually, more and more, I came to respect and like them. I was concerned about their concerns. I became integrated with them.
"It was a very tough job - I saw some of my classmates injured. Others died."
Min almost was among the fatalities. He recalls two incidents, in particular: Once, during the few minutes of a meal break, a miner risked his own life by rushing to protect Min from a ledge of rock that was about to collapse. In a second incident, Min broke his leg and was carried to safety by another miner.
Min still bears the scars on his shoulder from a large kettle of molten iron that spilled on him, burning through the stifling leather shirt that miners wear to protect themselves from injuries. One of his foot also is scarred from another accident.
Initially, Min continued his studies in college electronics, math and physics by himself, on the one day a week he had off.
"I still dreamed of entering university and studying these subjects," he said. "But, spending so much time among miners doing the hardest work, I began to turn my attention toward social issues. Gradually I shifted my studies to education, economics, sociology."
He studied late into the night.
"From time to time, the electricity would be shut off," he said. But he would continue his studies "with an oil lamp or candle."
He turned to philosophers for guidance. Some of them - Hsun Tzu, Dong Zhonshu, Wang Yang-Ming and Zhu Xi - were authors of ancient Chinese classics. Perhaps anticipating his future in the West, he also studied Locke, Hume and Descartes.
"I didn't waste time during the Cultural Revolution," he says.
He didn't waste time in the mines, either.
"After four years, I had become really skillful," he said.
Enough so that at age 22, he was elected "miner of the year" by his co-workers in 1972.
In 1976, Mao Tse-tung, leader of the Cultural Revolution, died. His successor, Teng Hsiao-ping, reinstituted the national exams for university entrance.
"I got very good scores." Min said. "Some of my classmates had lost hope. But I think after five years of mining, I had become a very tough guy."
He points out that his name --"Wei-fang" - means "to hold direction."
He finally received his bachelor's degree - in education, not physics - from Beijing Normal University in 1982. He came to Stanford's School of Education for his doctorate the next year. He was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, offering $24,000 a year for study abroad.
"As a coal miner, my whole life's salary would not be enough to pay for one year at Stanford," Weifang said. "I'm not that much smarter than the others, but I am luckier. Also, I did work very hard."
Min recalls studying nonstop, with the same momentum that had characterized his work and study in the coal mines: "No Saturdays off, no weekends - and during the summer I took a full load of courses." He earned three degrees in four years.
With another Fulbright grant, Min returned to the United States to study the American higher education system. In Austin, he worked with the University of Texas' chancellor and "shadowed" the dean of academic affairs for a year. He returned to China, despite many opportunities to stay in the United States.
"Not a lot of people went back to China with Ph.D.s in 1987," he said. "But in China, I think there are more opportunities for me to use my skills."
Awards and conflicts
In China, Min rose from lecturer to associate professor within a few months. Last January, he was promoted to full professor - a rare honor at Beijing University, the most prestigious university in the country, where the average age of promotion hovers around 59 years old.
"Stanford graduates should do well," he said. "We are trained for the development of the whole world."
Last year, he received the nation's "Guanghua-Antai Award for Excellence in Teaching," the Beijing University's award for "excellence in social science research" and another for "excellence in teaching," and the Beijing Social Science Society's "First Prize for Excellence in Social Science Research." In 1990, he was given a national award for "Excellence in Higher Education Research."
Min's World Bank consulting work, particularly in Romania and Nepal, has won him such accolades as "diligent," "thoughtful," "brilliant," "insightful," and "uniformly excellent."
In Romania, Min "managed single-handedly to forge consensus between the Ministries of Finance and Education...on measures to improve education financing and management," according to Terrice Bassler, a World Bank project manager.
"I can honestly say there is very likely to be a second revolution in Romania if Mr. Min is not able to return with the team for the final review. . . .
In the last 10-month period, he has logged 170,000 miles.
"If you can't sleep on a plane, you're in trouble," he said.
"It's very exhausting. I have too many commitments, too many projects."
"People say to me, 'You work too hard! You work too hard!' But I tell them this isn't hard at all. Compared with working in a coal mine, it's easy."
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