In 1998-2000, I taught law at one of China's most prominent
universities, Wuhan University. A Fulbright took me there for the
first year, but remarkable students held me for another year. The
university extended me an offer to continue as a visiting professor
at Mother Teresa wages (about $400 a month), and I eagerly
accepted. The experience was one of the most rewarding of my
career, whether as academic or practitioner.
Wuhan sits on the banks of the Yangtze River in central China.
It's an artificial geographical entity composed of three separate
cities: Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang. Wuhan appears polluted, gray,
crowded and featureless to many travelers, especially since
guidebooks tell them that there are few reasons to tarry here. But
one reason to tarry is to visit China's most beautiful campus,
about a half-hour's taxi ride away from downtown Hankou and its
touristy Holiday Inn.
Walk into the university and you'll find thousands of students
strolling over the forested hills of the vast campus and, at the
far end of the campus, you'll overlook a panorama of lakes,
pavilions, woods and parks. If you went in 1998, you'd have seen
various deteriorated buildings accommodating the law department and
its 500 or so students. Now, with its new, state-of-the-art
building, there is a center for hundreds more students seeking to
join an increasingly prominent profession. They pursue its promises
of good money, social esteem and a chance to influence China's
destiny at home and in the world. And they study with a fervor you
won't find among their American counterparts.
Chinese law students' curriculum includes international law,
maritime law, intellectual property law and European Community law.
They read voraciously and do legal research over the Internet.
Currently, two Wuhan students have completed their L.L.M. at
Harvard, and another has just been accepted. One graduate practices
with a leading American firm in Beijing, one works with the UN's
environmental program in Thailand, several have posts in the
ministries, some are doing corporate and securities work, one is an
assistant professor teaching jurisprudence and law and literature
Although their courses include international subjects, they also
have to sit through grinding lectures and spew back rote learning
in many classes. Other courses, like Marxist theory, "are very
boring and have no direct relation to law," in the words of one
disgruntled student. By and large they welcomed my teaching style,
a blend of gentle Socratic method with dramatic enactments of
lawyers' arguments and the litigants' imagined negotiations over
their contracts. "You give us some air that we've never smelled
before. And we like it," said one student.
My students were undergraduate and graduate law students, all of
whom had studied English for many years. Some, even those from poor
peasant villages, had studied English for 13 years and had
formidable vocabularies. Words like "degenerate" and "truculent"
rolled off their tongues easily. They knew English literature -
Shakespeare and Hemingway especially - as well as music and film.
They spoke of Prince and the Beatles and Madonna, or films like
"Saving Private Ryan," "Titanic" and "Forrest Gump," the latter of
which many had seen several times. Some of the young men told me
that they cried when they read Gone With the Wind. They
spoke colloquial and sometimes frighteningly current slang, for
whose interpretation I became dependent on e-mails from my teenage
China's imminent entry into WTO excited them; the idea of rule
of law and of transparent government excited them. It was a time
when China was abandoning its unwieldy and confusing legislation on
contracts in favor of a streamlined statute resembling
international commercial law and provisions of the Uniform
Commercial Code. The government's latest crackdown on corruption
promised room to them to fulfill their ideals.
Students told me that they wanted to be brilliant lawyers,
exemplary judges, astute law professors, prosecutors devoted to the
public interest, environmentalists and practitioners skilled in
international trade, intellectual property and securities law. Many
wanted to work in the ministries. Some had stars in their eyes and
many had yen signs as well. Among the graduate students, some
seemed far more cautious and a few more cynical than the young
undergraduates, but they showed subtle minds, cautious thinking and
unfailing affection that utterly seduced me. At the time, they
displayed a healthy interest in the Clinton scandal as well at the
process of impeachment. The American constitutional experiment
fascinated them. But when NATO bombs mistakenly rained on the
Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, the same students marched in outrage
against the American government - and brought me flowers because it
was Mother's Day.
I should add that I didn't go to China willingly. I had applied
for a Fulbright to Cairo and failed. But Washington told me law
professors were needed in China. With very little preparation and
no Chinese but a few tourist words, I took off with my husband and
considerable misgivings. The culture shock plunged me into a kind
of exuberant joy at the utterly novel experience in a central
Chinese city. Students, the dean and a few English-speaking
colleagues were generous, kind, open, inquisitive and in sometimes
boisterous good spirits. Their intelligence and love of ideas were
some of the most seductive aspects of teaching at Wuhan.
There were many memorable moments. In the first weeks, students
in my contracts class volunteered - or rather insisted - to hold a
mock trial based upon a case we studied in the casebook. They
rewrote the script and took over the class for an hour with judge,
jury, witnesses, direct and cross-examination, introduction of
exhibits, bench conferences, rulings on evidence, opening and
closing statements, verdict, judgment and even swearing "to tell
the whole truth and nothing but the truth" (they left out the "God"
part). For lack of a Bible, we used the blue and gold-lettered
casebook. And this was all in English.
In studying contracts, we struggled with offer and acceptance,
damages for breach and even current law and economics theories,
some students having read the works of Judge Richard Posner.
Students considered the limits of contract law in cases involving
surrogate mothers and in Shylock's famous bargain. They went to the
blackboard to compare subtle contracts' questions under the UCC,
the UN Convention on Contracts for the International Sales of Goods
and China's new contract law. Bankruptcy students mastered thorny
issues of bankruptcy law, including exemptions, rights of secured
creditors, priority claims and "cram-down" of Chapter 11 creditors.
Their diligence often astounded me. It was not unusual to see a
thumb-nail sized comment in a dozen tiny Chinese characters written
next to a knotty provision of their photocopied American Bankruptcy
Code. In one hilarious exercise, students took turns
mock-counseling Bill Gates in his envisioned corporate and personal
|Judith Koffler gathers with the students she taught law to for
two years at Wuhan University in China. The students and Koffler
often met outside of the classroom to talk about law, visit, play
Scrabble and partake in other fun activities.
For several weeks of one semester, we had an experiment with
Westlaw, courtesy of the Fulbright office. Students did research on
corporate subsidiary rights, joint ventures, environmental
subrogation, corporate mergers, admiralty law, mortgage
foreclosures and legal issues of nuclear waste disposal (Karen
Silkwood's case appeared on the screen). Students patiently waited
a good half-hour for the Westlaw connection and were unperturbed
when the connection repeatedly broke down. Silently, I bit back a
well of profanities that had collected in my throat.
My subscription to the National Law Journal arrived
irregularly. One issue carried a story about rampant depression
among Harvard law students and the efforts of the administration to
determine its causes. My students were deeply touched and wrote
heartfelt letters inviting Harvard students to visit them. Rosie, a
dark-eyed beauty with a mane of glossy hair, was typical.
"I know little about Harvard Law School, mainly by reading some
articles and seeing movies. The famous 'Love Story' is one of my
favorite foreign movies. I appreciate Oliver Barett IV and Jennifer
very much because of their truly love with each other through their
sad experience. Could you let me know more about HLS, more about
you? It's always said that the study in HLS is so strict and hard
that many students give up and have psychiatric problems because of
the study burden. It's terrible. But I really admire you for
studying there. Maybe several years later you will become one of
the most successful lawyers in American history."
Those who welcomed Harvard students to Wuhan University did not
mention that in winter the concrete classroom buildings had no heat
and that they studied with layers of long underwear, woolen
clothing, coats and hats and mittens to protect them from the
blasts of cold air blowing in through open windows. Nor did they
reveal that their dormitory conditions were atrocious, nor that
rats sometimes bit them at night as they slept.
Outside of class, many students questioned prevailing
orthodoxies. Some courageously criticized the repression of the
Falun Gong movement, some were angry about the Tiananmen incident
and lost all faith in the government. Others were disturbed by the
harsh persecution of the China Democratic Party, a branch of which
had developed in Wuhan. During my first year, just after I had
witnessed a homicide trial and supped on turtle soup with the
judges, the courtroom doors were locked and the CDP's adherents
tried and sent to prison or labor camps. On the Taiwan issue as
well, students doubted the government's saber rattling and asked
why Taiwan shouldn't go its own way. They demonstrated fired-up
conviction in the face of reports of imprisonment and torture of
lawyers in the provinces. At the same time, a student who railed to
an audience against government corruption mysteriously disappeared
Most of my contact with the students was outside of the
classroom. They came over to my apartment nearly every day,
sometimes in groups of seven or eight, often bearing fruit and
flowers. We would connect to the Internet over my laptop, play
fierce games of Monopoly and Scrabble, watch world soccer on the
TV, have parties, eat mountains of food in the Barbarian Cafeteria
downstairs. We went on long bike rides through the lovely
surrounding countryside, enjoyed class "environmental appreciation"
days at the parks and explored the local sights, the museums and
restaurants in Wuchang. Often, I would take a few with me to Hankou
for shopping or to Beijing to buy books and visit other
universities. They were bright, voluble, good-natured and
affectionate, full of questions and curiosity about American life,
my family and American education. Many dreamed of studying in the
On lazy weekends, we would go boating on the lake and row to one
of the parks where pavilions memorialized great poets. They would
talk to me about ancient Chinese jurisprudence, tell me stories
about their lives in remote villages or as sons and daughters of
party officials, or quietly complain about discrimination against
women in the job market.
Many students were members of the Community Party, not out of
conviction but convenience. Jobs often depended on it. And even so,
students still complain that Wuhan graduates do not find good jobs.
"Sometimes, I am frustrated to think Chinese legal education has
failed because so many excellent students cannot find a suitable
position to serve society," lamented one student.
It was hard to leave them and return to the States. Indeed, for
a time, I had planned on taking a job in Shanghai to help set up a
new comparative law school and was studying Chinese. Messages from
my former students frequently come over e-mail. One in particular
stands out. It came from a rather shy young man whose intelligence
and proficiency in English seemed to me extraordinary. He wrote
that he had won a moot court contest in Hong Kong, principally
because when asked a direct question about the law involved in the
case, he put his index finger to his chin and said thoughtfully,
"It depends." I suddenly imagined some 200 of my former students
going around China with the same gesture and the same words. The
student ended his e-mail with this comment, "Koffler, you gave us
the inexhaustible treasure of learning to think independently.
Thank you." But the real thanks are due to them.