Guangzhou professor teaches class on death amidst controversy

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2016/10/28 5:03:40

Hu Yian teaches a class. Photo: CFP

Hu Yian teaches a class. Photo: CFP

For 16 years, there's one homework assignment Hu Yian always gives his class: to write a will.

When his students hear this, the class usually breaks into chaos, but Hu always insists.

Hu is a professor at the School of Marxism of Guangzhou University and teaches a required course on socialist values. But he's famous for his elective class called "Discussion of Life and Death," which has won a fair amount of praise as well as criticism.

During the first period, he always circles the classroom, asking, "Does talking about death mean you are pessimistic?" "Why is it that society is full of voices talking about youth and energy, not death and decay?"

Breaking the taboo

He began the class in 2000, when Guangzhou University underwent reforms and asked teachers to develop elective courses. At that time, Hu met a professor in Jiangxi Normal University who encouraged him to take on the topic of life and death and even write a textbook on it. Hu thought not many people in China dare talking about this topic, so he went ahead.

A story Hu likes to tell is about a question on the national college entrance examination in 1998: write a simile for time.

One student wrote, "Time is like a boat that takes us to victory" and received full score for an optimistic viewpoint. Another wrote, "Time is like sand in our hands, leaking out and never returning," and received zero for being negative. But Hu thinks there's nothing negative about this viewpoint, it's the fact.

In the face of this fear, Hu thinks someone has to bring up the issue of death. He thinks there is no point to keeping silent on the topic until one is caught off guard when a relative or friend passes away. 

The class is made up of eight sections, each taught on a weekly basis. The contents are fixed on issues such as disease, growing old, disaster, losing a family member, euthanasia, abortion and suicide.

Hu Yian still remembers how he felt when a car hit him in 2007. At that moment, the sky turned upside down and he flew from one side of the road to the other, only two meters away from hitting a giant rock and instantly dying.

"At that moment, my mind was blank," he said.

After staying in the hospital for a week, Hu went back to work. He incorporated his own experience into his teaching, telling his students how he felt being so close to death.

Every year, he introduces some new topics into the discussion, such as disasters or tragedies he sees in the news. He has discussed the Wenchuan earthquake, the Malaysian airplane crash, as well as the case where one college student in Shanghai poisoned his roommate. He even invites nurses and funeral home workers to his class to give lectures.

Hu is also the first Chinese person to write a textbook on life and death. But when he teaches the class, he doesn't require students to read the textbook. He wants students to participate in class discussion and finish some homework, which includes writing a will, volunteering at an old age home, attending a funeral or visiting a cemetery.

Over the last 16 years, he went from teaching with chalk and blackboard, to teaching with PowerPoint presentations and videos. Now his course also available online. 

Regarded as freak

In 16 years of executing this course, Hu has been questioned many times on whether it's necessary.

He believes it's because Chinese culture deems it inauspicious to talk about death and people automatically avoid even thinking about it. Besides, officials don't think it's necessary to offer such a course, when a course in language or science might be more practical for the students' future.

Hu says in Taiwan, some schools designate a class on death as a required course. School officials there even allow students to lie in a casket to experience how it feels.

"But officials probably have a different way of thinking on what should be required," he said. "I hope with the media influence and my own contributions, people can start at least discussing this topic."

Over the years, he has also received criticism, sometimes direct, sometimes behind his back.

Once, a reporter interviewed one of Hu's students about the course. Delighted, Hu sent the reporter an outline of his class. But the reporter wrote a story headlined "Weird courses we've taken these years."

Outraged, Hu called up the reporter to see what was going on, but the reporter simply said to him, "It's true, isn't it? The class is just entertainment."

Bringing some warmth

But Hu is also happy to see his class at least opened up some room for discussion and influenced a few people. By talking about death, the ultimate goal is for people to understand how precious life is, Hu said.

Over many years of teaching, about one third of his students personally came to discuss life and death with him, through e-mail, telephone calls or on Internet forums. He has received good feedback, even from students who came back to visit 10 years later.

One student said his grandfather passed away during high school, but no one mentioned the burial site. It's not until the student came to Guangzhou and attended the class that he gradually accepted his grandfather's death.

Some students discuss these issues in the online forum for the course, according to Xinhua News Agency. A student said that two classmates of hers have passed away, one because of cancer, the other in a car crash. She said she chose this class so that she could deal with the concept of death. But after completing the course, she realized she could only face life with positivity.

"I'm glad to see changes over the years," Hu said. "More and more people are at least aware of the concept now."

Newspaper headline: Facing the final chapter

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