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July 4, 2010

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Fudan boss knows adversity

FUDAN University President Yang Yuliang didn't graduate from high school but sheer hard work got him through university to become an eminent scientist and administrator, as Liang Yiwen reports.

There's a popular belief that China's top universities can be compared to different styles of martial arts to reflect their individual character: Tsinghua University is like Shaolin, Peking University is like Wudang and Fudan University is like Emei.

Unlike the scholars and students from the first two outstanding schools, Fudan University's educators and pupils are deemed to be quieter and non-assertive, gentle and nimble.

Yang Yuliang, president of Fudan University, gave some weight to the comparison when he spoke about the institution's philosophy and his time as head of China's "Emei School" which celebrated its 105th anniversary last week.

"I will give myself 65 to 70 points," he said modestly in response to being asked to grade his work as principal. "I'm still learning."

Fudan alumnus Yang's character reflects the school's low-profile and spirit of practicality.

With an air of always being preoccupied by thought, he looks straight ahead as he walks quickly to his next stop and some young faculty members strive to keep pace with him.

Despite a full administrative and research schedule, he lunches with students and spends at least four hours at night reading and studying before sleeping.

"I envy you very much because I didn't finish secondary school studies," he told pupils recently when speaking at a local high school.

Though an eminent scientist with a post-doctoral degree from a German university, he never forgets his harsh life as a youth, using it to motivate him through continuing study and hard work, despite reaching a peak position in his career.

Yang was born into a humble family in Zhejiang Province's Haiyan County in 1952 and received a primary school education in the city. His mother was illiterate while his father only attended school for three years.

The "cultural revolution" (1966-76) broke out when Yang was a middle school student in first grade and classes were stopped.

He was repatriated to his hometown in 1968 during the national move to send educated urban youth to work in rural areas.

"I worked in the countryside for six years and my back was injured badly," he recalled. "I was very short and very young. The food was inadequate but I had to do lots of heavy work."

He suffered a lumbar disc hernia and couldn't sit for long when the pain occurred. He has had six operations to fix the problem.

Despite the damage to his health, Yang tends to regard the experience from a positive perspective.

"The suffering strengthened my will and I transferred it to my intellectual might," he said. "The experience told me that there were still many poor places in the country and the Chinese are diligent and good-natured.

"I felt obliged to study hard to improve the country's status when I later had the opportunity to pursue my studies."

In the countryside, Yang had to do all kinds of farm work, as well as practicing as a barefoot doctor in the rice paddies, a system developed in the "cultural revolution" to bring health care to rural areas by using educated urban youth.

After a day at work, Yang stayed up late to learn acupuncture and practiced on himself by pushing special needles into his body.

"I may have become a good doctor by now if I went to a medical school," he said.

But the normal pace of the education system and entrance examinations were disrupted during the period and students were selected based on political influence and family background.

Despite his desire to be a doctor, he was recommended to Fudan University's chemistry department in 1974 to study polymer materials as one of the "worker-peasant-soldier" college students.

"But I lacked the basic education background (six years of secondary school studies)," Yang observed.

He studied hard and only slept three to four hours a day after entering university to make up for education gaps as well as learning new knowledge.

Apart from the hard work, he also developed a meticulous study method. He used at least three versions of subject textbooks - two domestic ones and one overseas interpretation for each course.

He graduated in 1977 but continued studying. He was awarded a Doctoral degree in the country's first batch of domestic macromolecular science PhDs and won the Chinese Chemistry Society's Young Chemist Award in 1984.

He went to Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Germany for post-doctoral studies in 1986 and returned to Fudan in 1988.

He was promoted to deputy principal of the university in 1999 and was elected a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2003. In 2006, he was appointed a Ministry of Education (MOE) official in charge of degree awards and postgraduate education.

"As a university and MOE official, I learned about the country's education status and its future need for professionals."

Yang was appointed president of Fudan University last January and is now working out how to develop the vast institution into a first-class international school.

"China needs to assume more responsibilities in global affairs in the next 20 years in line with its rapid economic development," Yang said. "More and more Chinese will work in international firms, associations and federations.

"We need to prepare our students with a global perspective by sending them to study abroad and also attract more overseas students and faculty members into the school. We also need to develop the university into a world-class school."

Overseas students account for 11 percent of the school's bachelor degree students, the biggest proportion among all universities in China. About 5 percent of faculty members at Fudan University are expats. Yang said that these proportions will be further enlarged in the next 20 years.

Meanwhile, the university sends about 1,700 students abroad in exchange program and summer schools, compared with 3,000 newcomers.

Fudan plans to give all graduate students at least one overseas study experience in 10 years' time by attracting more donations.

Similar to the Emei-style kung fu, Yang expects Fudan students to be flexible and tolerant of different cultures. "They need to understand different cultures and be able to communicate with people from them," he said.


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