Dana E. Abizaid
2005

Besides a handful of riot police strategically placed around the perimeter of Tiananmen Square to thwart any type of commemoration dedicated to the hundreds of Chinese protesters who were gunned down on June 4, 1989 , another anniversary of that dreadful day recently passed without much notice. Chinese society, especially in the urban centers, has undergone a great transformation since the tanks rolled on Tiananmen, making the contemporary visitor to Beijing acutely aware of the increasingly capitalistic nature of one of the world's fasting growing economies. Although opening economically, however, the Chinese Communist Party still retains tight political control and uses subtle and overt propaganda to strike an effective balance between economic openness and political repression. If the opening of the Chinese economy will lead to broader political participation and a rise in the standard of living for all Chinese remains to be seen.

One could argue that the current pace of change in China, motivated by the Asian technological revolution of the last twenty years, has its counterpart in early 19th Century America. Whereas today Chinese young people blissfully send cell phone text-messages, surf the internet, and seek greater freedom of movement by purchasing imported cars, early Americans were equally affected by the telegraph, steam engine, and railroad. And in the same way that the faster pace in communication and travel in 19th century America led many to view their place in the larger nation differently, many young Chinese are beginning to look at China and the Communist Party through a new lens. For these and many other reasons, a fresh reading of Walden, Henry David Thoreau's masterful analysis of man's relation to nature, technology, and the state in an evolving society, is enticing to teachers and students in China .

Thoreau challenged the state and its citizens to analyze the effects of technological, economic, and political change on American society. In a much repeated phrase from Walden, Thoreau states, "We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough." The telegraph's descendent, the Internet, could provide eager Chinese students with news and information necessary to help them adapt to their rapidly changing society. Ironically, though, the Chinese government blocks many reliable sources critical of China, allowing only mainstream American media headlines that scream of runaway brides, Hollywood trials, and other banal trivialities to get through.

Thoreau also confronted his Concord neighbors concerning the moral questions of war and slavery. In opposition to the Mexican War, a conflict he considered perpetrated in slaveholders' interests, Henry spent a night in jail for not paying his poll tax. A longtime abolitionist, Thoreau threw his lot in for freedom on the eve of the Civil War by supporting the radical John Brown and his plan to build a renegade army of freed slaves to wreak havoc in the South. In the same way, many young Chinese are being made aware of and carefully challenging China 's persecution of Chinese minorities (most notably, Tibetans and Uighurs) and the astronomically high number of state executions.

Despite the complexity of his language and ideas, Thoreau resonates strongly with Chinese students. In reading excerpts from Walden, my sophomore students at China Agricultural University have been looking through Thoreau's eyes at their own society and asking many of the same questions Henry asked in the 1840s. The philosopher's inquiries concerning prejudice, patriotism, work, and life struck a chord with many students who are feeling the pressure to "succeed" in the new China . The fact that most Chinese students are living a social life preordained for them by their parents and a passive political life prescribed by the Communist Party made it initially difficult to elicit much discussion about Thoreau. The first reactions were that he was a radical who went too far in questioning the status quo. Yet, as our reading and discussion continued, the majority of my students began to challenge each other on the nature of their hate for the Japanese, discrimination against Chinese minorities, and the government's proclamation that China is a nation that seeks only peace. In a closed discussion room with a foreign teacher, students began to chip away at their rock solid notions concerning the Chinese state.

A critical reading of Thoreau in contemporary China (and the U.S. ) is essential for young people to begin to understand the causes, effects, and consequences of the rapid economic and technological growth that is changing their lives. Although some of my students claimed that there are no philosophers left in China, I tend to believe there remain young people on the verge of questioning the political, economic, and social direction of their country. Men like Thoreau helped verbalize a lot of internalized American angst in the 1840s and gave voice to many who disapproved of slavery, the destruction of Native Americans, and the decimation of forests and rivers in the name of progress. Likewise, he inspires many young Chinese.

Although Thoreau, too, feared there were an abundance of philosophy professors in the United States but no philosophers, he himself, as well as many of his neighbors in Massachusetts and peers in Washington, certainly were. They had a vision for an America that would not progress without a reassessment of the slave and industrial economies of the South and North and the effect of technology on people and the environment. Such thinkers also exist in China.