Mathematics in China and Vietnam — What Can We Learn? 

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Mathematics in China and Vietnam — What Can We Learn?

by Chandler Davis

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 4, No. 2, March 1972, p. 19 – 21

Chandler Davis, a mathematician at Toronto, visited Vietnam and China a few months ago. Below we present excerpts from some material he sent us which describes the practice and attitudes of the Vietnamese and Chinese mathematicians. Chandler is primarily concerned with the question of what we can learn about our own practice from our revolutionary sisters and brothers in Asia. He finds, not “answers to our problems,” but “a new view of the questions.”

Let science serve the people!
Work to serve revolution, not to serve yourself!
Culture must belong to the masses, not to an elite!
Full equality for women!
Full equality for national minorities!
End the worship of foreign models!
Make the past serve the present!

Though the phrasing varies, these simple principles are constantly referred to by the Vietnamese and Chinese—not just in explaining to the foreigner but also in conducting their own affairs. Notice there are no slogans “Protect academic freedom” or “let students make the decisions which affect their own lives”: the principles of the academy’s immunity from outside interference and of local participatory democracy, however prominent in American rhetoric, are unheard of in theirs. The principles they do state are quite familiar in the West.” They are supported by the Soviet-bloc Communists, and (except the one about “foreign models”, which is irrelevant in those countries like the U.S. and France which set the fashions) they are current in our own left.

How well do they live up to their stated objective-? Can we borrow from them where they have succeeded? No—even the successes are to be understood rather than copied.

Mathematicians in pre-revolutionary China had a pattern of study, pubIication and appointment to professorships which was roughly modeled after the West; mathematicians in North Vietnam still model their research activity largely on the USSR and France and thus tend to accept research papers with named authors as an important index of it. Nor is competition an unassimilated recent graft. Both countries had for many centuries a powerful civil service which was entered by a competitive examination. Granted, the enormous majority remained illiterate and without hope of becoming mandarins; still, a Vietnamese mathematician says it was important to have the tradition that learning had rewards and was measured by an exam. How do mathematicians in socialist Asia reconcile these individualistic forms with the surrounding collectivism?

They are not as competitive as we are: generosity between peers comes easily. I observed this among Hanoi analysts, and I believe the reports that undergraduates also help each other so that almost no one is left behind.

But it is in China that a sweeping answer is attempted. The Cultural Revolution aims to eliminate bourgeois individualism from university life altogether. It is quite an experience to hear the mathematics group at Futan University in Shanghai describe the remolding of the old professors. From the non-mathematician members of the Mao Tse-tung Propaganda Team and the young students, to the most august professor of all, Su Pu-ching, they join in deriding the old ways. “I used to say that just because a man had passed all our tests and finished his degree, he was entitled to special freedom and a higher standard of living,” says Professor Su with mock incredulity. Or he chuckles, “You know I just wanted to write anything that would be publishable. If my method wouldn’t solve a problem, I would change the hypothesis until it did.”

As the group approaches the rebuilding of Chinese mathematics in its new socialist form, are the old-generation mathematicians trusted? They are members of a heterogeneous group which works together intimately. On the other hand, they are stated not to have completed their remolding; they are assumed still to have a lot to learn from their students and other real revolutionaries in the group. The Cultural Revolution has followed its policy of “killing none and arresting most”(Lin Piao) toward the ideologically backward professors; but all professors seem to have been classified as ideologically backward—after all, they were all living by the norms of the old-style university—and all must have been made pretty uncomfortable in the process of rectification.

The senior Vietnamese mathematicians have some old-style prestige symbols and have not been stigmatized as bourgeois; their university administrative structures (having no students or outside agitators) may give them fewer reminders of any contradiction with the principles of the society. They are concerned with the question anyway, and uncertain what the structures should eventually become. Though I see no sign of North Vietnam undertaking drastic measures like the Cultural Revolution, I have seen Vietnam make some remarkable achievements with remarkably little fuss, and it would be consistent if it quietly and continuously and without recriminations developed a new and co-operative way to carry on mathematical study and research.

The Viet Minh, during the Resistance against the French (1946-1954), built up a whole system of education. They started from very slim resources: there were few Vietnamese with advanced education, and many of them were “francises” and remained behind French lines (along with most of the books). The educators began with a literacy program, and worked upward, training a new teaching corps and writing a new set of textbooks in Vietnamese. I don’t know how much they benefited from the similar effort of the Chinese Communists in the period 1937-1949. But there was a significant difference: the Chinese after 1950 took over the university system which had existed in the Nationalist cities and welcomed a stream of returning emigres, whereas the withdrawal of the French in 1954 left almost no teachers in the Hanoi schools. The present North Vietnamese educational and scientific community is descended entirely from that which developed in the Resistance.

I asked the North Vietnamese about the class structure of their intelligentsia. In the early years, needing every literate teacher they could find, they drew most of them from the tiny minority given opportunities under the colonial regime. From then on, students were recruited from the whole population. “Our country is 80% peasant, of course our trained personnel come mostly from the peasantry.” They never had the painful problem of keeping out privileged children in favor of proletarian and peasant children, which was seen in the USSR, later in Eastern Europe, and in a different form now in China. Nor are they concerned about the possible separation of a new educated elite: after all, entrance to higher education is by competitive exam, and enrollments are still rising much faster than population. The emphasis is on growth, on achievement by the available means, and the intellectuals come from those willing and able to become intellectuals.

The achievement is impressive. Already during the American air war on the North, Laurent Schwartz reported that North Vietnam was one of the few poor·countries which, if it could get the material products of advanced technology, would have the technical training to put them immediately into use: their educational development has outpaced their material. They did so well by virtue of their great unity and dedication behind Ho Chi Minh. That in turn depends not only on the quality of leadership (though that was undoubtedly high), but on the nation’s memories of the ungentle French, on the experience of the vicious U.S. attack—and on the fact that those middle-class Vietnamese who chose to make their peace with the colonial powers did so, and removed themselves from internal politics.

It is easy to imagine that the Vietnamese may be far less casual about the class composition of their student body after the war—at least in the South, where the simple society of the liberated zones will have to absorb the demoralized refugees and collaborators of Saigon (a much larger and less digestible addition than was in Hanoi in 1954), and where professors from the liberated zones may find themselves outnumbered on the faculties by professors now in Saigon or Paris. My friends in Hanoi are sure there e will be a rush of emigres to return, and they welcome them. “Vietnamese got along together much better than foreigners think,” says the mathematician Hoang Tuy; “aid to Vietnamese culture is aid to us.” They welcome the present Saigon professors and expect them to work loyally for the new independent country. At the same time they emphasize that the South will need to develop its own institutions, supported by but independent of theirs.

I have yet to mention the principal sense in which mathematics is being brought to the masses. Not only students are educated, after all. Vietnamese mathematicians figured out how to apply modern techniques to problems of Vietnam’s present technology, but they had no motive to restrict the understanding to themselves; they set about spreading it to every technician who could apply it, whether he had advanced education or not. Vietnamese intellectuals were kept in touch with the uneducated by the needs of survival during the Resistance and the bombardment. Chinese professors had to be turned out of their campuses by their own sense of duty to the Revolution, or failing that by the insistence of the Red Guards; but by now they too have all had a total immersion in the life and needs of the workers. And they tell similar stories about the wide dissemination of modern applicable mathematics.

The “new students” in China—those now on campus, admitted after the Cultural Revolution—are thought of as seeds of such dissemination. Not only have they all been sent to the university by their factory or farm work units, they are mostly to return to the same units. Fraternal relations are encouraged between scientific institutes and nearby factories, serving the same purpose.

Unity of work and study is held up as a principle in North Vietnam too. A few special work-study secondary schools, both rural and urban, have existed for ten years; they are model institutions where dedicated young people (a) run modern productive units, (b) spread the modern methods to nearby workers and learn from them, and (c) complete the full secondary curriculum, preparing for the same nationwide exam as anyone else if they want to go on to post-secondary education. A significant fraction of Hanoi students will play the role of disseminating culture after graduation: thus most mechanical engineers will be working in less industrial areas, and the thesis projects which I saw were working machine tools of a simple versatile sort.

To teach the simplex method or differentiation to a busy carpenter requires new methods. For one thing, he [or she?] will be impatient. For another, he [she] is not trying to prove himself [herself] to you. Better not jiggle promised rewards out of reach and prod him [her] to jump for them, he [she] might just not bother. Better let your proofs be proofs of effectiveness.

Does it follow that where great emphasis is put on immediate usability, a cookbook approach will replace understanding? This is sometimes said to be unavoidable in rapidly modernizing societies. The Vietnamese are clearly rejecting it. The Chinese Cultural Revolutionaries, while iconoclastically encouraging the new students to play the role of the skeptical carpenter even on campus, are not downgrading theory. They are doing something which might be called equally anti-intellectual: seeking the “real” theory, the “real” understanding of mathematics in the operational testing of the applier rather than in the testing-for-consistency of the rigorizer. I find this program hopeful. Anyway, when the whole mathematical community of a country embarks on a re-examination of fundamentals {even though it was political agitators who put them up to it), something interesting should result. But it will clearly be months or even years before they will be able to tell us anything definite enough to take hold of.

Meanwhile mathematical research in China consists mostly of solutions of concrete problems of production. Recreational mathematics and puzzles? special topics for enrichment of elementary subjects? additive number theory? I do not know.

I am left, after my visit to the Orient, not with answers to our problems, but with a new view of the questions. For instance—How much of what we teach to non specialists would be any use to a. Vietnamese engineer? to anyone? If we set out to tell the Vietnamese engineer something he really needed to know, what might it be?

How much of the scant attention students pay to what we do teach is motivated by its role in certifying them for admission to unearned privileges? On the other hand, are we sure we can do without any selection of a corps of adept mathematicians? If the Chinese try to do without competitive exams in mathematics, will they find they are teaching the subject to students unable to learn it?

One idea underlying the New Math has been to teach everyone a stance and methodology (rigorous proof) thought appropriate for testing novel propositions’ validity. Even if the stance and methodology are appropriate at the frontier, does it follow that they are an appropriate way to relate to an established body of knowledge?

How much of mathematical research can be called productive labor? Bellman calls it a criminal waste of resources to train algebraic topologists. Maybe some activities intolerably wasteful in Vietnam are justifiable here; and conversely. Then too—in our society, where much production (especially the “advanced” sort) goes to destructive ends, do we want to work productively? If so, why, and how? If not, why should we accept high salaries? If we forego high salaries, and hence choose our labor uninfluenced by university standards, will we then be able to think of really useful work to do? Will it be mathematics?


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