'Be a Model'

ByYe Shan October 28, 2021
'Be a Model'
Wu Benli visits her grandfather, Wu Yuzhang's exhibition [Photo by Deng Wei]


Wu Yuzhang was the first president of Renmin University of China (RUC). In his hometown, in Southwest China's Sichuan Province, a pair of couplets are carved on the door to a living room, and those couplets urge members of the Wu family to do real deeds and to try to "be a model," regardless of the fields in which they work. Wu Benli, Wu Yuzhang's eldest granddaughter, remembers the time her grandfather explained the meaning of the couplets to her and her brother. "My grandfather said we should do our best, no matter what we do, and we ought to be models." The words of the couplets, she adds, describe exactly how her grandfather acted throughout his life. That virtue has been passed from generation to generation in Wu's family.

"Dear Grandpa, it has been a long time since I talked to you. I can never forget the old days, when I was living with you. You had shown to me your love, which was so deep and sweet." Wu Benli said those words, as a greeting to her grandfather, in 2019 when she participated in the filming of China Central Television (CCTV)'s program, Thanks, My Home. Wu Benli, a retired professor from the School of Information, under RUC, and who turned 80 earlier this year, shared her family's story, especially some precious memories of her grandfather, during that CCTV program.

"My father died in 1949. At the beginning of 1950, my grandfather brought my mother and her four children, including me, to Beijing to live with him. Over the following dozen years, I grew up under the strict guidance, and with a deep and great love, given by my grandfather," Wu Benli recalled.

Wu Yuzhang was an outstanding proletarian revolutionist, and a renowned educator, historian and linguist in the modern history of China. He was an important pioneer, who explored ways of improving higher education after the People's Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949. He was one of the revolutionists regarded as "the five seniors in Yan'an" — the others being Xu Teli, Xie Juezai, Dong Biwu and Lin Boqu.

Following the founding of PRC, Wu Yuzhang was responsible for promoting linguistic reform. He played a key role in developing the plan to promote both simplified Chinese characters and pinyin, the phonetic transcription rules of the Chinese language. He also advanced the use of Mandarin nationwide. Wu Yuzhang was the first president of RUC, which was established on October 3, 1950. He held that post for 17 years, until he passed away, and he made tremendous contributions to the advancement of education in New China.

Wu Benli says her grandfather was a selfless person, who gave everything he had in support of the revolution. "He cared nothing about his fame, status, wealth and leisure. He dedicated his whole life only to his work," Wu Benli says. In fact, the virtues of acting exactly as promised, working earnestly and precisely, leading a simple and thrifty life, and striving for justice and fairness, have been passed down from generation to generation in Wu's family.

'Be a Model'
Wu Yuzhang and his wife, You Binglian


'Be a Model'
Wu Yuzhang with his daughter, daughter-in-law and grandchildren


'Be a Model'
Wu Benli looks through her grandfather's photo album.


'Extraordinary Love'

Wu Yuzhang was born in 1878, in Rongxian, a county in today's Zigong, a city in Sichuan Province. He was the youngest of his siblings. He wrote in a collection of his articles, "My grandmother was strict and diligent. She liked to keep everything clean and in order. Grandma told us if a person steals a needle when he/she is young, that person will steal gold after he/she grows up. Grandma warned us we should never accept illegally obtained wealth, even if we starve to death."

Wu Yuzhang was clever, quiet and reliable, even as a child. "Grandma was strict with me. She asked our relatives and friends not to praise me too much. I remembered everything she taught me. I urged myself not to disappoint the older generation of my family," Wu Yuzhang wrote.

In February 1903, Wu Yuzhang went to Japan to study electrical science. "My grandfather followed his second brother to Japan. He wanted to seek a way to save his home country and Chinese people. My father was less than three years old when my grandfather left home. My grandmother, You Binglian, stayed in their hometown (Rongxian) and raised their two children," Wu Benli says. You died in  1946. Given that the  revolution was a pressing situation, Wu Yuzhang stayed in Chongqing (also in Southwest China), and he could not return to his hometown to see his wife. As part of the CCTV program, Wu Benli read what her grandfather wrote to mourn for her grandmother. Most in the audience were moved to tears.

"I cry for Binglian. I cry because she has sacrificed for the era. We have been married for 50 years, during which I was apart from her for 44 years. She endured all of the difficulties while our little babies were starving." Wu Benli said she could imagine his grief over missing his wife. "Dear Binglian, I have to say farewell to you. I dare not cry; I cannot cry; I don't want to cry. Because a great amount of outstanding people of our Chinese nation have sacrificed." Wu Benli said her grandfather knew clearly he should never lessen his responsibility of saving the Chinese nation.

"My grandfather taught me and my siblings the most important thing, which was the extraordinary love he showed by his own deeds and throughout his life," Wu Benli explained.

'Be a Model'
Wu Benli tells young students of Renmin University of China stories about her grandfather, Wu Yuzhang, at the exhibition on the university's old campus. [Photo by Deng Wei]


'Good Deeds Throughout Life'

The old campus of RUC is situated on Zhangzizhong Road, in Beijing's Dongcheng District. An exhibition about Wu Yuzhang, with the theme "Good Deeds Throughout Life," is on permanent display on the old campus. During an interview with Beijing Daily, earlier this year, Wu Benli said, "The theme came from Chairman Mao's praise for my grandfather, when my grandfather celebrated his 60th birthday in Yan'an. Chairman Mao praised my grandfather, saying he has done good deeds throughout his life, and he always does things beneficial to the people, the youth and the revolution."

Wu Yuzhang met and got to know Sun Yat-sen when they were both in Japan. Wu Yuzhang was one of the core members of the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance (Tong Meng Hui), which was formed in 1905. At the invitation of Sun, Wu Yuzhang began working for Sun in the temporary office of the president in Nanjing,  in early 1912. After Sun resigned from the temporary president's post in February 1912 and Yuan Shikai took over the post, Yuan ordered the arrest of Wu Yuzhang, who had opposed Yuan. Wu Yuzhang was forced to escape to France.

"It was in France that my grandfather studied political economics. He completed his transformation from a democratic revolutionist to a communist," Wu Benli says. After Wu Yuzhang returned to China, in 1916, he established preparatory schools in places such as Beijing and Sichuan, and he helped Chinese students go to France for their studies. Many of those students later acted as pillars of the revolution in China.

In 1924, Wu Yuzhang and Yang Angong, brother of former Chinese President Yang Shangkun, established the Youth Communist Party of China (YC) in Chengdu (in Sichuan Province). At that time, they did not know the Communist Party of China (CPC) had been established in Shanghai in 1921. At the beginning of 1925, Wu Yuzhang visited Beijing, where he learned about the establishment of CPC from one of his students. Wu Yuzhang and Yang agreed to disband YC, and the former YC members could apply to join CPC. In April 1925, Wu Yuzhang, then 46, joined CPC.

In 1927, after the first cooperation between Kuomintang (KMT) and CPC broke up, the CPC Central Committee dispatched Wu Yuzhang to the then-Soviet Union, so he could avoid arrest by the KMT. While he was overseas, Wu Yuzhang began systematically researching history and linguistics, and he started his career in education.

In 1938, to form the national united front against Japanese aggression, the CPC Central Committee asked Wu Yuzhang to return to China, where he worked successively as president of LuXun Academy of Fine Arts, Yan'an University and North China University. On October 3, 1950, North China University was renamed Renmin University of China (RUC), the first modern university founded by the PRC. Wu Yuzhang became RUC's first president.

Wu Benli has learned many virtues from her grandfather: Striving for justice and fairness, being strict with oneself and honest with others, and treating everyone equally. As a teacher, Wu Benli has taught those virtues to her students. She believes a teacher should "perform" at his/her best, like an actor/actress who tries his/her best to act as a positive character. "A teacher teaches knowledge and skills to students, acting like a tool to help the students grow. All I think about is how to teach my students, and I must consider everything they may find not easy to understand," Wu Benli says.

In July 2016, RUC's graduates, who enrolled in 1986, organized an event to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their enrollment in the university. They chose Wu Benli to be the only teacher to welcome them back to RUC. "The students called me 'teacher of Class 86', and I was so honored," Wu Benli recalls. She learned from her grandfather to love her students — more important than anything else she should do. As she witnessed, over the years, her students passing on the virtues she inherited from her grandfather, Wu Benli said she felt like she was the "happiest and richest" person in the world.

'Be a Model'
Wu Benli is called "teacher of Class 86"


Photos Supplied by Zhang Jiamin and Wu Benli 

(Women of China English Monthly September 2021 issue)


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