What Teaching Film Taught Me About Political Sensitivity

As a college teacher from China, I had to remain aware of divergent regional history and culture.

Good Men, Good Women.

Recently, while in the second year of my Ph.D. course at National Taiwan University, I was unexpectedly offered a part-time teaching position at another college in central Taiwan. The administration wanted me to design a course centering on the relationship between politics and film.

I approached the role with some trepidation, given that my political experiences growing up were quite different from those of my students, all Taiwan millennials. Born and raised in Beijing, I was educated entirely in China prior to turning 21 years old. I later spent six years studying and working in Hong Kong before finally moving to Taiwan to pursue my Ph.D.

Having flitted between studying film, new media, and now political science, I’m fascinated with drawing analogies between different frameworks of knowledge, and I thought it might be worthwhile to share my interdisciplinary mindset with new students as an adjunct professor.

Chi Nan University is at the lower end of Taiwan’s public university rankings. I kept my expectations modest while designing the elective course I planned to teach. I was stunned, however, when I entered the classroom to find 30 students had enrolled. It was a number that exceeded my wildest dreams.

Many students said they chose the class because the school had never offered a class on movies before. As I looked out at their bright eyes and hopeful expressions, I suddenly felt conscious of the sense of responsibility and purpose that comes with teaching.

Teaching is a significant commitment; you have to invest huge amounts of energy and emotion into your work. The weight of the role naturally makes you more attentive to what you say. You know your students are listening to and absorbing your words, yet you don’t know which casual comment will end up influencing their thoughts.

For some time, I doubted my abilities as a teacher. My students were six or seven years younger than me, on average, but due to more access to the internet and learning resources, they have absorbed much more information than I had when I was their age. As a teacher, what more could I hope to give them?

At my lowest point, I went to some of the other teachers with my concerns. One of the older teachers told me: “The role of the teacher is to help students learn what they need to know in ways that resonate with them best. Share your experiences with them, and they’ll learn more efficiently.”

Sharing one’s experience is a humbling process. As a result of my background, I have to be sensitive to political differences between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan. For example, whenever we discuss important events in Taiwanese political history, such as the February 28 Incident — a bloody 1947 anti-government protest in Taiwan that was suppressed by the nationalist Kuomintang and ushered in a period of so-called White Terror — I have a hard time maintaining a teaching mindset. What right do I have to teach a group of native Taiwanese about their own history and their own native memories?

The question also applies to identity issues. As someone who grew up in China, how am I supposed to talk about, say, the allegedly irrational Taiwan nostalgia for Japanese rule? Or colonial symbols? Or the anti-mainland China sentiment in Taiwan’s contemporary public discourse? Every time I was faced with an emotionally charged topic, I felt I had to reduce my own role in the classroom.

As a result, whenever we covered films that dealt with sensitive material from Taiwan history, such as Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness or Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, I would always emphasize the importance of reflection and discussion. This led to a number of interesting questions. Can historical narratives be told from different perspectives with equal validity? Is it possible to make considered judgments about events from the past? And is it possible to get people excited about these issues without resorting to pejoratives, oversimplification, or partisanship?

Getting Taiwan students to actively speak up in class is no mean feat, however. One way I got them to engage with the material was through grading. Before each class, I posted interactive questions to a Facebook group and asked my students to respond to them. One question might read, “How should our generation try to understand the February 28 Incident and the White Terror? What is the significance of these events to us?” Another day I might ask: “Can we trust novels, movies, and other media as records? Or do we need to think of a way to get ourselves closer to the historical truth?’”

Throughout the semester, I felt like I was spending most of my time forcing my reluctant students to speak out in class. There were no right or wrong answers in my lessons; what mattered was that they participated in the discussion. I just hoped that they would be more active and cultivate an interest in the subject.

Because of the difficulties inherent in teaching Taiwan politics to Taiwan students, I never acted as though I was there to teach them anything in particular. I was simply sharing, taking on the role of a facilitator who encouraged them to open up on the topic. The classroom belonged to them, not to me.

The most memorable moment of the semester came when I showed students Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1995 film Good Men, Good Women, based on the real story of two victims of the White Terror that followed the February 28 Incident: Chiang Bi-yu and her husband, Chung Hao-tung. I explained to my students why the movie was my favorite out of all of Hou’s works, telling them about the tragic fate of the era’s Taiwanese communists and the way mainstream historical narratives have ignored the idealism and passion of their movement.

By the end of the movie, as Chiang Bi-yu — played by Annie Yi — burst into tears while reading her executed husband’s farewell letter, my students were enraptured, staring at the screen in silent sorrow. A black and white film of the White Terror, an event so far removed from our own time, had profoundly moved them.

After class, a young student hung back, looking as though she wanted to say something. She was silent for several minutes, but I didn’t rush her. Finally, she opened her mouth and in a quiet voice said, “Miss, I feel very upset after watching that. But if I hadn’t taken this class, I would never have known their story.”

In that moment, I honestly felt that what I was doing mattered. I had exposed her to a world she had never encountered in her previous studies of Taiwan history. Even if I accomplished nothing else, I thought, this would be enough.

The most enjoyable parts of being a “teacher” are those moments when your students are willing to open up to you. It’s like what the older teachers told me when I was struggling with self-doubt: These days, teaching isn’t about some “master” passing on sanctified concepts or ideas to their students. The most a teacher can do is help them to clear up any questions or confusion, and to give them a platform to engage with each other.

— This article was previously published on Sixth Tone.