Yuan Teng Fei (袁腾飞; born February 8, 1972, in Beijing) is a former history teacher in the People's Republic of China. His fans gave him the nickname "the most awesome history teacher in history" for his entertaining and comedic lectures.
Yuan graduated from Capital Normal University with a major in Chinese history, and had taught Chinese history in various Beijing high schools. He came to popular attention when videos of his history courses were posted online in 2008. The videos were classroom recordings made by a Beijing cram school, for which Yuan was moonlighting, and made available online behind the school's paywall. The videos were copied, presumably without any authorization, and posted to other free video-sharing websites. According to himself, he taught at high schools from 1994 to 2007. What prompted him to leave teaching was a combination of several factors. note As for his viral videos, his side of the story was that they were posted online on Youku by the cram school as advertisements, and that he did not realize their significance until much later. note On his troubles with the Chinese authorities, his version is that he offered to resign as a public servant in 2011, but was kept on the payroll until 2013. His works remain officially Banned in China as of 2021.
Although Yuan is not a political dissident, his lectures on modern Chinese history covered sensitive topics such as the Great Chinese Famine and the Cultural Revolution in details that are not ordinarily required in the history curriculum in China. In particular, he is deeply critical of Mao Zedong and his policies. Yuan called Mao one of the "three great despots" of the 20th Century, rivaled by only Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin; he also once called the Mao Zedong Mausoleum in Tiananmen Square "China's Yasukuni Shrine". His lectures on such topics became an object of government attention and attacks from leftist conservatives, including threats of lawsuits for defamation. In addition, certain principles which he advocated as a teacher of history, such as critical thinking, made the CCP authorities very uncomfortable.
Eventually, Yuan quit teaching, and became a full-time social media personality. He has an official Youtube channel, an official Dailymotion channel and a personal Youtube channel. At the height of his troubles, he also used the pseudonym "Fang Sheng" (方生, "Mr Fang"); the name still pops up from time to time in his recent works.
Before he got into trouble with the authorities, he gave two series of lectures on CCTV's Lecture Room programme (百家讲坛; literally "(The) Hundred Schools of Thought Forum"):
- Intrigue of the two Songs (两宋风云): Covers the fall of the Northern Song Dynasty, and the subsequent rise of the Southern Song. It touches on the reigns of three emperors: Emperor Huizong, Qinzong and Gaozong, and also goes into detail on the Song empire's relationships with the Liao and Jurchen Jin empires. After going online, he re-recorded this series under the title "New Intrigue of the two Songs" (新两宋风云), and expanded it to include the entire Northern and Southern Song eras.
- The Three Dynasties North of the Frontier: Liao (塞北三朝之辽): Covers the history of the Khitan Liao Empire. Yuan intended to cover the Jurchen Jin and the Western Xia empires as well, but was forced to take the latter two series online after his trouble with the authorities. He also re-recorded his series on the Liao Empire.
His online series includes:
- Tengfei's 5000 Years (腾飞五千年): his flagship series on 5000 years of Chinese history. In Feb 2021, he finished recording his final sub-series (which covered the Sui and Tang dynasties as well as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms era).
- This History's Rather Reliable (这个历史挺靠谱): Two seasons as of 2020. Each episode is less than 15 minutes in length, thus providing bite-size pieces of information.
- Hi History! (嗨历史): Another series of bite-size videos, with each episode less than 10 minutes. The title is also a pun on "(getting) high on history".
- Yuan's View (袁视角; literally "Yuan's Perspective"): A series where Yuan mainly critiques and analyses the historicity of movies. Hollywood movies "reviewed" by him include Kingdom of Heaven and The Last Samurai.
- Yuan's Travels (袁游): his visits to locations with historical significance.
- Chatting while Following (the) Track (循迹漫聊): a series of short videos whereby he responds to queries posed by online users; like Hi History!, the series also features bite-size videos on various historical topics (although clips on certain topics may be more than 10 minutes long). The series does not come with Chinese subtitles, and his videos are actually a subsection of the series. note In 2020, the subsection where he responds to queries was given a new name: "Yuan-sir flips the tablet(s)" (袁色翻牌, "Yuan se fan pai") note
- The Crusaders Are Very "Nice" (十字军很耐撕): A series of seven videos giving a brief outline on the causes and events of the First Crusade.
- The Time of Heroes (英雄的时代): A continuation series exploring the aftermath of the First Crusade, and the events leading up to and surrounding the Second and Third Crusades.
- The Abandoned Cross (被抛弃的十字架): Another continuation series, this time narrating the events leading up to and surrounding the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Crusades. Yuan noted that the Fourth was the first Crusade to target fellow Christians instead of the non-Christians during the first three Crusades.
- (The) Era of Broken Dreams (幻想破灭的时代): The finale of the Crusader series. Starting from the Seventh Crusade, Yuan looks at how the era of the Crusades came to an end.
- The Unkillable Ottomans (打不死的奥斯曼): Yuan narrates the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, starting from its founder Osman Ghazi. However, there is a huge Time Skip in the last episode; the last two events mentioned were the Treaty of Constantinople signed in 1700 and the founding of modern Turkey in 1923.
His videos provide examples of:
- Amicable Exes: In a video on his personal channel, he revealed that he was a divorcee, but his ex-wife is on good terms with his current one, and both love Chinese opera.
- At Least I Admit It: In many of his videos, he freely acknowledges that he became a social media personality in order to earn a living for his family, something he claims his critics are less than open with.
- Armchair Military: In Liao, he noted that Song Taizong and his son Zhenzong were this, as they prohibited generals from adapting to battlefield conditions, insisting that military campaigns be conducted according to the maps and instructions entrusted to said generals prior to deployment. Unsurprisingly, Song military defeats were common during their reigns, with Taizong eventually dying of the arrow wounds he sustained during the Battle of Gaoliang River about 18 years prior.
- Big, Screwed-Up Family: His first lectures coincidentally had two such screwed up families: the imperial Zhao clan of Song, and the imperial Yelyu clan of Liao.
- He noted that Emperor Huizong was Unfit for Greatness as his passion was in the arts, and that his ascension to the throne was largely due to accident. Emperor Huizong was also noted for his vast number of children note . He also noted the sad childhood of Emperor Gaozong, which may have played a part in his leaving his father and brother in the lurch after their abduction during the Disaster of Jingkang. note
- For the Yelyus, he noted the three rebellions which Liao Taizu had to put down, which involved his brothers. His wife Empress Shulyu, a high Queen through and through, denied their eldest son the throne, and constantly interfered with their second son's (Taizong) reign. After Taizong's death, Empress Dowager Shulyu risked civil war in an attempt to put her favorite and youngest son on the throne, over her eldest grandson (Shizong). In addition, Yuan noted that unlike the dynasties of the Central Plains, the Khitan Liao never gave up the practice of allowing male members of the imperial family to accumulate military/ political power. To make matters worse, the relatives of the empresses often found ways and means to accumulate such power as well. The result is that Liao history was filled with disturbances from disgruntled members of the royal Yelyu and Xiao note clans.
- But Now I Must Go: In his overseas lectures, he repeatedly emphasizes that he cannot speak as freely as his audience would like him to, for one simple reason: he has to return to China.
- Celebrity Resemblance: During the lectures covering the late Qing era, the production team used footage from Towards the Republic as illustration. In said footage, several characters bore uncannily resemblances to their historical counterparts. This includes the actor portraying Kang Youwei (Sun Ning), and the actor portraying Japanese prime minister Ito Hirobumi (Hirata Yasuyuki).
- The trope reached a meta level when footage from the 2013 Chinese series "The Last Emperor" was used to illustrate the abdication of Puyi and Empress Dowager Longyu. While actress Kara Wai's resemblance to the historical Empress Dowager Longyu was not strong, she actually hailed from the same clan as Longyu (the Yehenara clan). note
- Civil War: He covered many during his various lectures. In his Yuan's View episode on Admiral, he espouses the viewpoint that both sides in a civil war should move on quickly, citing The American Civil War as an example, as opposed to the Chinese (read: CCP) tendency to make the opposing side perpetual enemies.
- Cultural Posturing: Averted and warned against. In his lectures on the Song dynasty and the co-existing trio of non-Han dynasties, Yuan consistently emphasized that the trio had made great contributions to Chinese civilization, but instead were demonized in Han folklore and literature all the way up to recent times; he cited the demonizing of the Khitans in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils by Jin Yong.
- In the first episode of" Yuan's View", he called out the "strange" (in his words) viewpoint of many Chinese that while it is alright for an emperor to be deposed by his own (Han Chinese) subordinates, it is considered shameful to be deposed by ethnic minorities.
- Deadpan Snarker: His dry wit wasn't that obvious in his debut lecture "Intrigue of the two Songs". From Three Dynasties onwards, and especially after going online, this aspect became more pronounced.
- In Liao, while noting that Empress Dowager Shulyu's house arrest under Liao Shizong involved her residing near her husband's mausoleum, Yuan was quick to add (to laughter from the audience) that she "obviously was not accompanying Taizu inside the mausoleum". Counts as a Brick Joke as well, as Yuan had previously noted that the euphemism which Shulyu used before she executed Khitan nobility and officials was that she "was sending them to accompany Taizu".
- Double Agent: He noted one unusual example in Wang Jizhong. note
- The Emperor: Napoléon Bonaparte. He was one of the few historical characters to get his own dedicated series (the other being Genghis Khan), and Yuan argued that his becoming the Emperor of the French was not a betrayal to the French Revolution, as the pre-Revolution feudal order did not return with his coronation. As Yuan put it, the coronation was "new wine in old bottles".
- Full-Circle Revolution: He is personally very opposed to the phenomenon. In many of his lectures, he expresses the viewpoint that an old order is better than no order (which he observed had happened frequently with many new regimes). In his view, the best situation is where "an old driver heads down new roads" (the existing ruling class reforms itself by trying new ideas); the greatest tragedy is where "a new driver heads down the old roads", i.e. the trope.
- Going Native: He noted that whether or not to go ahead with this trope is a dilemma every non-Han regime faced after conquering the Central Plains. Should they refuse to sinicize, the Han people would defy their rule at every turn. But, should they sinicize, they would then be assimilated and lose their military prowess. According to his analysis, only the Khitan Liao managed to avoid both pitfalls by ruling the populations separately, with the Han governed by Han laws and the Khitan by their own laws and customs.
- I Know You Know I Know: When lecturing on the downfall of Liang Song, he noted that Chinese emperors sometimes trumped up lame excuses to have a person executed; most of the time, people knew that the reasons cited were indeed nonsense and the emperor knew that the people knew, and yet went ahead anyway. note
- Insistent Terminology: After he became a social media personality, he insisted that he is now a "storyteller" rather than a "history teacher".
- He also insists that he is not well versed in archaeology and collecting artifacts; he noted that as disciplines, archaeology is very different from history, which is again very different from collecting artifacts. He also noted that a love of history is very different from acing history exams, which is why he expressed his skepticism of admirers who claimed that they would have done much better in their history exams if he had been their history teacher.
- While he joins tour groups visiting various historical/ cultural landmarks as a paid guide, he insists that he is not a "tour guide", as he only handles the lecturing aspect of the tour.
- Love at First Note: In the Yuan's Travels episode where he visited the Zhengyici Peking Opera Theatre, his host, Peking opera actor Liu Xinran, asked him to confirm the rumour that he had met his (first) wife through Peking opera. Yuan confirmed it, and the episode even had a clip of Mrs Yuan performing in costume.
- Mundane Made Awesome: When the act of planting rice becomes part of the preparations for a rebellion, you know it is this. note
- Older Than They Look: In his debut lecture, he was already well over 35, but could pass off as someone in his late 20s. This became more pronounced in his videos for 2020. For someone pushing 50, he could still pass off as someone in his 30s.
- Pyrrhic Victory: Several examples, but one noteworthy one was Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Yuan noted that Japan had expended much blood and treasure over the course of the war, but due to the terms of the Treaty of Portsmouth, her gains were very much outweighed by her sacrifices.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: In the lectures on imperial Chinese history, he leans ever so heavily on the cynical side.
- He noted that a main reason why Song Gaozong had an ambivalent stance towards the Jurchen Jin was that if the Jin were too weak, the Southern Song military would then be able to rescue Huizong and Qinzong from captivity, which would threaten his position as emperor. If they are too strong, it obviously spells trouble for his Southern Song regime.
- In Liao, he noted that the Treaty of Hengdu between Empress Dowager Shulyu and Liao Shizong was signed while both factions were of relatively equal strength. Once Shizong consolidated his position, Yuan noted that he essentially tore up the treaty and placed his grandmother and uncle under house arrest.
- In his series on the First Crusade, he noted the cynical reasons behind the crusade, namely Pope Urban II's bid to outshine Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich IV politically, and Eastern Roman Emperor Alexios I Komnenos's desire to recover territory at the crusaders' expense.
- Take That!: In his lectures, Yuan consistently emphasized that for civilizations or nations to become powerful, freedom of thought and flow of information are major factors. He then uses modern examples to illustrate oppression of thought, such as "having your WeChat or Weibo accounts frozen". note
- In the Yuan's Travels episode where he and his guest visited the tomb of Ming-era eunuch Tian Yi, his guest asked him if there was anything in common between eunuchs who fell from grace during imperial times and PRC officials who suffered the same fate during Xi Jinping's rule. Yuan's response was that while there were no more eunuchs in the physiological sense, people with the mentality of eunuchs were all too common. These people, like eunuchs, "concealed from those above and bullied those below" (Original: 瞒上欺下). In his opinion, such people can never truly serve the people. Then, he stopped himself by declaring that they should be talking about ancient history and not current affairs.
- In the Yuan's Travels episode where he and his guest visited the tomb of Kuomintang soldiers who fought at the Battle of Gubeikou, he mused that old KMT soldiers should be recognized for their efforts during the war against Japan, as opposed to the official CCP stand which tend to downplay the contributions of the KMT.
- In some videos on his personal channel, the shirt he wore bears the characters "Mo Tan Guo Shi" (莫谈国事; "Don't talk about national affairs").
- In lectures which involved Korean regimes such as Goguryeo and Joseon, he takes pot shots at modern Koreans' attempts to appropriate Chinese culture. Controversially, he claimed that Goguryeo is a Chinese regime rather than a Korean one. note
- Troll: In his personal Youtube channel, he tends to pin one troll comment per video; his fans/supporters would predictably rip into the troll.
- Unfit for Greatness: Several examples pop up during his lectures, but one unusual example is the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the Chongzhen Emperor. Yuan noted that while he had the correct attitude (hardworking), he unfortunately did not have the aptitude (suspicious of officials, killing them out of pride).
- Warts and All: In the Yuan's Travels episode where he and his guest visited the tomb of Ming-era official Hai Rui, he noted that while Hai was incorruptible and had high morals, he actually was not a good administrator; his policies were utopian and he consistently sided with the poor, whether they are in the right or not.