Book Review: Awakening from a Dream with Cai Yuanpei and his “New Year’s Dream”

Cai Yuanpei with Students from Peking University stuyding abroad at Columbia University © Unknown Author / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

The turbulence of this century’s roaring twenties have inspired that a time has come again to start dreaming. Many are looking forward to a world after Covid, while others are longing for the personal pursuit of happiness, or even a world in harmony. However, not only individuals but whole nations are dreaming of a path into a better future for each individual. Besides the American Dream and the European Dream, recently, the Chinese Dream stands among the potential directions towards prosperity. Building upon the role of utopian thinking for an education to the future this contribution invites the reader on journey of thought, taking Cai Yuanpai (蔡元培) iconic short story “New Year’s Dream” (新年夢”) as a starting point.

Dreaming about Time and Space and the Destination of the Future

“Greetings! Congratulations! It’s the New Year, a new world has come, what a truly joyful occasion!” (Cai, 2019, p. 199). Those are the first words of Cai Yuanpai´s (蔡元培) iconic short story, “New Year’s Dream” (新年夢”) written in 1904. Here, on New Year's Morning, a simple Chinese man called Zhongguo Yimin (中国益民), which translates as “upstanding citizens” wakes up full of hopes, that a better world might be on the rise. Looking back at the world on the brink of the 20th century, was truly a world full of hope with new technologies and possibilities, people in earlier times have not even dared to dream about, considering it utopian thinking. However, the reality looked gloomier for China, with a defeat in the opium and Sino-Japanese war, the Taiping and Boxer rebellion, and the experienced superiority of the West.

Around 1900, many Chinese intellectuals were appalled by the status of the Chinese society. Like their Western counterparts those reformers were searching for leading their country and compatriots into modernity through the power of education. Among those was the educationist Cai Yuanpai (蔡元培), emphasising his mission as : "Educators are not for the past, nor for the present, but for the future” (Zhang, 2020, p. 359). New Year´s Dream expresses the desire for “social dreaming” , exploring how groups of people arrange their lives while envisioning a radically different society (Sargent, 1994, p. 4). In that context, utopian thinking serves as a method for the “Imaginary Reconstruction of the Society” (Levitas, 2010, p. 542) fathoming about the conditions that might be needed for improving the status quo (Levitas, 2013, p. 147).

The New Year’s Dream as an Introduction into the World of Dreams

“A New Year’s Dream,” reflects upon the biography of the author himself. Cai Yuanpai witnessed the decay of his homeland China against the rising influence of a superior West. Searching for modernisation like his compatriots, he authored the aforementioned short story in 1904.

The protagonist of the story, Zhongguo Yimin (中国益民), comes from a wealthy family from the Jiangnan region. Always curious about learning, at the age of sixteen, he leaves his family to discover the world. Beginning at trading ports, he masters the learning of foreign languages such as English, French, and German. From there, he visits the United States, being passionate about American notions of freedom. After that he continues his journey in Germany, learning more about the technological ingenuity of the country. There he gets into contact with radical Russian parties, which encourages him to visit Russia. Eventually, he turns back to China via the Manchurian province, rediscovering his own country. Disappointed by the experience of his selfish nation he returns to the port, where his journey has started. In the West, the protagonist has witnessed the rising national states, with people investing in nationalism. During his visit in Russia, he observed the rising demand of Slavic people for national sovereignty. Meanwhile those nations are competing against each other, he bemoans, that in China there is not a least a sense for a Chinese nation: “ They endlessly refer to themselves as ‘Chinese,’ but very few of them are really concerned with this issue” (Cai, 2019, p. 200). When he arrived at the port, Russia and Japan had just entered a war over the control of China. Yet, people do not yet seem to be aware of this, as they are busy with celebrating the New Year. However, Zhongguo Yimin (中国益民) does not share this euphoria, considering the day just like any other day: “These people really are concerned only about their own families! If only one day these people would be able to take the further step and from being homebodies to actually become national citizens, and from national citizens to become citizens of the world, everything would be different then, and only if that day comes could we celebrate this day as being worthy of commemoration!”(ibid. p.200). However, acknowledging humanity being split into national rivalries, he bemoans the human energy wasted in squabbles between nations.

Later he gets selected as representative to a national assembly set up to reform, to modernise and to create a sovereign Chinese nation. Besides a reform of the occupation system, the debates are revolving around how to recover Manchuria, abolish the concessions made to Western powers and expel the foreign influences out of the country. While modernization is progressing fast, Yimin is sent on a diplomatic mission to Russia to get Manchuria back. Successfully he returns home to become the manager of a factory. However, things get rough when foreign nations do not want to concede their privileges. Therefore, those agree on attacking China together. However, while the attackers were fighting for material gains, the Chinese defenders were united by patriotism for their country. Eventually, due to unity, the war ends with a victory for China. Astoundingly, after the war China does not search for revenge, but proposes to set up an international army and an international court to settle conflicts. Eventually, through democratic peace as promoted by Kant, national boundaries become superfluous. Obviously, this very utopian thinking stands into contrast to the belligerent period of the early 20th century.

Furthermore, the dichotomy between ruler and subject gets abolished, such as the concept of father and son, with the whole society taking care of each other. Any restrictions on marriage are abolished, allowing everybody to pursue its own happiness. At the end, united by a common language on the 90th birthday of Zhongguo Yimin (中国益民) an international conference is summoned: “Everyone discussed convening an international meeting to eliminate national boundaries and abolish the international court and world army, which by that time had become merely nominal institutions. Because people did not have any more reason to fight with each other, they planned to join in a common effort to overcome nature and to take control over the climate and the seasons, also making plans to conquer the atmosphere and colonize space, the ultimate destination of the competitive spirit of the world’s humans” (ibib.p.212). However, on the last day of the conference a bell wakes him up, and Yimin has to realise that the world is still in the dark, but now with a new dream, which might enlighten the way to the future.

Learning from the Past for the Future: Traditional Western and Chinese Utopian Thinking

A central element of this story is the utopian thinking of a better and more peaceful future. Utopian fiction thrives in times of crisis, when “dominant ideologies can no longer answer the needs of the day” (Fokkema, 2011, p. 16). Such a crisis also affected the educational reformer Cai Yuanpai (蔡元培). Born into a wealthy family of bankers in 1886, he was destined for a classical education to follow a career as a Chinese official. Besides his traditional upbringing, Cai Yuanpai became a witness of the defeat in the Sino-Japanese war 1894-95. Therefore, he focused on translating European books to get a better understanding of the technological superiority of the West. In 1901 he published his first book “On the School Curriculum “(学堂教科论 Xuétáng jiàokē lùn) in which he describes his childhood as “wasted”. In this way, the only purpose of his education was put into being a successful candidate at the exams for Chinese civil service. According to his findings the whole educational system was not able to progressively transform itself to the needs of its time. Instead of thinking about what Chinese students might learn for the future, the curriculum consisted in memorising classical texts (Zhang, 1993, 147f.). Therefore, he became an eager reformer, who put high hopes onto the power of education combining Chinese and European concepts, fathoming what parts of Chinese tradition should be persevered to modernity (Zhang 1993:147).

Core to Cai´s educational aspirations was the utopian ideal to erase boundaries between persons. Therefore, Cai put high hopes in the power of aesthetic education to establish modern citizenship (Zarrow, 2020, p. 176). Consequently, his ambitions were always buttressed by the claim for academic freedom and creativity, stating that: “ We must follow the general rule of freedom of thought and freedom of expression, and not allow any one branch of philosophy or any one tenet of religion to confine our minds, but always aim at a lofty universal point of view which is valid without regard to space or time. For such an education I can think of no other name than education for a worldview” (Zhang 1993:149). Referring to New Year´s Dream this becomes obvious with the focus not just on China but putting it into a wider global context.

The improvement of the world is dependent on proper education. One the one side, right education will lead to the good, educating human beings for the common good in a social community. On the other side, false education will stabilise the bad, dissociating people from each other (Oelkers, 1990, p. 12). Building onto that “utopia [..] provides an ideal image of the ‘intrinsic connectedness’ of time and space through and in the literary text” reflecting upon the own contexts of time and space” (Andolfatto, 2021, p. 124). Utopian thinking provides an imaginative way to transcend the own temporal and spatial boundaries, encouraging to reflect upon the possible functioning of other or even better societies (Oelkers, 1990, p. 12).

Waking Up in a New World with the New Year´s Dream

Discussing utopia serves as “imaginary projection of a society that is substantially different from the one in which the author lives’ (Claeys and Sargent, 1999, p. 1). During the early 20th century many Chinese intellectuals came into contact with different ideas about science and technology. Among those translations was Evolution and Ethics'' written by Thomas Huxley and translated by Yan Fu (嚴復). Here, Huxley argues that humanity should emancipate from “the state of nature” by creating a “ earthly garden of Eden” to the greater good of the gardener (Huxley, 1891, p. 19). Fu took this occasion to coin the neologism “wutuobang” (乌托邦 ) for utopia as a plead for an “leap of imagination beyond one's own culture” (Andolfatto, 2021, p. 124). Cai Yuanpai was highly impressed by the ideas and concepts of evolution theory, presenting himself as a staunch reformer (Lee, 2009, p. 44).

Many scholars during the early 20th century went to Europe and Japan to study the principles and mechanisms of Western thinking. Like Yan Fu, who had studied in England, in 1904 Cai Yuanpai went to France to study philosophy, anthropology and psychology, resettling for Leipzig in 1907. After his return back to China, Cai was appointed as first Minister of Education by the Republican Government. Frustrated by the anarchist rule of Yuan Shikai, he returned to France. Later in 1916 he became president of the University of Beijing and a founding member of the Academia Sinica, which gained international reputation (Zhang, 1993, 147f.). After his return, he was convinced, that reforming education will be the key to reform the Chinese nation, through providing education for all, including schools for educating women (Lee, 2009, p. 66).

Building upon the concept of evolutionary thoughts, he was convinced that starting from the principles of mutual aid, over the abolishment of autocracies, eventually democracies will prevail, what will lead to the principle of “Great Commonweal thinking” (大同主义Dàtóng zhǔyì). Therefore, his intention was to educate students not only to become Chinese citizens but democratic citizens of the world (ibid. p. 177ff.). For achieving this, he proposed a new education based on five concepts, which should all receive equal attention. Those were: national militarism (junguominzhuyi 军国民主义), pragmatism (shilizhuyi 实力主义), moral educationalism (deyuzhuyi 德育主义), Weltanschauung (shijieguan 世界观), and aesthetic educationalism (meiyuzhuyi 美育主义). Firstly, national militarism should educate students to be aware of their nation, which, after a period of nationalism should lead to a consciousness of internationalism. After that, pragmatism should be educated in the Western science and progress, learning about their concepts of progress. Moreover, moral education should preserve and promote traditional ideas of morality that will support the republican spirit. Furthermore, educating for a worldview should promote the cultivation of a proper worldview, which would help foster more altruistic and elevated sentiment. Eventually the concept of aesthetic education was put at the centre of his proposal (Zhang, 1993, 150ff.). According to Cai´s belief, “aesthetic education is the backbone of modern education” (Pingyuan, 2011, p. 200). It had been helping to extinguish the distinction between the self and the other for thousands of years, as with Greek temples in ancient times or public museums, concerts, and theatres in modern times (Zarrow, 2020, p. 182). During his term as president of the Beijing University, he established research societies for calligraphy, painting as music seminar or a drama research and a drama practice society (Pingyuan, 2011, p. 186). In 1916 even the Beijing University Music Society was set up, consisting of two sections, one for Chinese music and one for Western music (ibid. p.192). After his term as president of the Beijing University in 1928 he became first president of the Academica Sinica (中央研究院, Zhōngyāng Yánjiùyuàn), where he served until his retirement in 1936. Eventually he died in Hongkong in 1940 at the age of 72 (Zhang 1993, 148).

Waking Up in a Modern World: The Educational Power of Dreaming

Concluding this contribution about Cai Yuanpai and his New Year´s Dream, education provided wherever and by whomever equips people to foresee the future searching for a common purpose (Brumlik, 1992, p. 532). Often misunderstood as lunatic, utopian thinking in a pedagogical sense does not claim for implementation of ideas but a critical reflection of the status quo, encouraging the powers of creative mind in human beings (Schölderle, 2007, p. 15).

During his long trajectory Cai Yuanpai witnessed many disruptions affecting his country. However, eagerly committed to education, he also proposed a method on how to not just passively react to those changes, but actively shape them. Especially, in a time, when mental models of the world were competing for superiority, either emulating or rejecting the European tradition, he advocated for a synthesis of both worlds, preserving the past while preparing for the future. Reading New Year´s Dream from the perspective of the 21st century a new world has come. Several dreams such as the American, the European and the Chinese dream are united in the promise for prosperity and a better society, despite pursuing different directions in that way. Giving an outlook Cai Yuanpai´s ideas nowadays still can be understood as an invitation for looking onto the world with curiosity, trying to understand the evolution of other cultures and their history or to conclude in his own words: “National prosperity unaccompanied by a worldview will create restlessness, discontent and chaos” (Zhang, 1993, p.151).

Stephan Raab holds two M.A. in political science and adult education from the Otto-Friedrich- University Bamberg. Currently, he works as advisor for civic education at the German conference of Bishops. Besides that, he is an editor for the Institute for Greater Europe. His research interests are mostly in the field of educational diplomacy and global education, focusing on global interrelatedness. You can find his works on Twitter.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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