Senior Sam Sherraden, an international affairs major and former Hatchet photo editor, spent the summer studying abroad in Beijing, China and will spend the fall semester further north in Harbin, China. Twice a month, he will share his experiences and observations from East Asia as one of GW’s many expats.
I came to Harbin to study at the infamous Ha Gong Da, or Harbin Institute of Technology – the center for military research in the mid-twentieth century and now known as China’s MIT of sub-zero temperatures. But this week, I’ve found myself visiting quite an unexpected place – a university still, but one of a different sort. One that I had never seen.
Right now I’m writing from the top floor of Elderly University, or Lao Nian Da Xue, a government-funded and -regulated “university” where retired Chinese elderly gather to study and socialize. It functions much in the way a Methodist church would in many parts of America – hosting social events, crafts classes and moral education. But it is unlike a Methodist church in that Lao Nian Da Xue’s 12-story building holds some 12,000 retired “students” who attend class for up to five hours per day. It’s the largest of its kind in China and students have the choice of studying in up to eight different departments including Chinese calligraphy, piano, singing and computers.
Oddly enough, since I have arrived at Harbin, I have become closer to the elderly than I have with students my own age. My professor at HIT, who also happens to be an editor at Senior Citizen’s Daily, a local publication, introduced me to the university and suggested I familiarize myself with a different “college life” atmosphere.
I went, accompanied by a photographer and writer from Senior Citizen’s Daily thinking that we were covering the school together, but I was wrong. We were not “on assignment” together. In fact, I was the assignment. And Friday morning I woke to find my picture on the front of Senior Citizen’s Daily with a headline that read, “Elderly University Welcomes American Youngster.” As I said, I’m in.
The university opened in 1983 and provides education to approximately 1 percent of Harbin’s 1.1 million elderly population. The fees for students are low – ranging from $6 to $22 per semester. Qualifying students must be at least 45 years of age, which puts their birth year at 1961 at the latest. Those familiar with Chinese history know that Elderly University’s students are children of the Cultural Revolution – the tumultuous reorganization of Chinese society from 1966 to 1976. During this decade, all Chinese universities were closed and China was completely isolated. As Elderly University headmaster Ms. Xue Xing said, “They didn’t have a chance to live their dreams.”
Wang Peilin, 79, a super-super-senior at Elderly University’s calligraphy department, worked as a nurse for over 35 years before she retired at age 55. After retirement, she suffered from pains in her arms and neck. Following her childhood dream of being a famous painter, she joined Elderly University’s calligraphy and painting department and “After only two years of painting,” she smilingly said, “the pains I once had vanished.” She sat hunched over her desk and said to me, “My health is good now. I tell my kids not to worry.”
In a similar conversation in Chinese calligraphy class, a woman leaned over to me and the first thing she said to me was, “I had cancer in my brain. After studying calligraphy for a year it vanished.”
A retired army official and later bank manager, 67-year-old Li Peixin said to me, “I want you to understand one thing: our sincere thanks to the Chinese government for giving us the opportunity to study here. Old people still have use. Old people can still enjoy life.”
Across China, there are some 20,000 similar universities, which were founded sometime in the 1980s during China’s internal reforms. They all receive government funds and return all income to the government. As with all organs of the state, a Communist Party official oversees the office affairs.
While in Beijing over the summer, when walking on the streets in the evening, I often would see large groups of elderly citizens dancing in parks. Some would be doing the waltz, others may be square dancing, but all had a red banner with white lettering, which announced the congregation of the dance class on behalf of the local community government.
These institutions, whether they are as small as a late-night dance social or a part of the Elderly University network, are a regular part of life in China. Our first reaction may be to criticize this sort of heavy-handed government involvement in everyday life, but we shouldn’t jump to conclusions. How critical can we really be when elderly universities all over China are healing pains and curing cancer?