CHINESE REVISE HISTORY BOOKS
When I was home in Montana this past summer, I found an old National Geographic from July 1991 that had a story in it entitled "China's Youth Wait for Tommorrow." The lead-in stated:
"Two forces pull today's young Chinese: the Maoist legacy and the path to reform. The student-led democracy movement of 1989 gave hope for a free future, but government gunfire at Tiananmen Square in Beijing killed hundreds of people and untold dreams. An opera singer puts on a face of tradition, but rock star Cui Jian, masked in protest, sings another song: "The future I'd been seeing sure isn't here today."
Tommorrow is here, and what are yesterday's youth doing now? They're rewriting history (see article below). In new school textbooks Mao has been reduced to one mention in a chapter on etiquette.
But why even include him there? Why not just say that Mao was a mascot for a cat food company, emphasizing the country's marketing brilliance. Then again, why bother with the textbooks? How about just streaming in the Chinese equivaltent of Fox News to all classrooms?
Yet, why even bother with that -- how about just handing out Abercrombie & Fitch catalogues, highlighting the pride that most of the clothes were made in China, and give them a pile of credit card applications.
Where's Mao? Chinese Revise History Books
By JOSEPH KAHN, The New York Times
BEIJING, Aug. 31 — When high school students in Shanghai crack their
history textbooks this fall they may be in for a surprise. The new
standard world history text drops wars, dynasties and Communist
revolutions in favor of colorful tutorials on economics, technology,
social customs and globalization.
Socialism has been reduced to a single, short chapter in the senior high
school history course. Chinese Communism before the economic reform
that began in 1979 is covered in a sentence. The text mentions Mao only
once — in a chapter on etiquette.
Nearly overnight the country's most prosperous schools have shelved the
Marxist template that had dominated standard history texts since the
1950's. The changes passed high-level scrutiny, the authors say, and
are part of a broader effort to promote a more stable, less violent
view of Chinese history that serves today's economic and political
Supporters say the overhaul enlivens mandatory history courses for
junior and senior high school students and better prepares them for
life in the real world. The old textbooks, not unlike the ruling
Communist Party, changed relatively little in the last quarter-century
of market-oriented economic reforms. They were glaringly out of sync
with realities students face outside the classroom. But critics say the
textbooks trade one political agenda for another.
They do not so much rewrite history as diminish it. The one-party
state, having largely abandoned its official ideology, prefers people
to think more about the future than the past.
The new text focuses on ideas and buzzwords that dominate the state-run
media and official discourse: economic growth, innovation, foreign
trade, political stability, respect for diverse cultures and social
J. P. Morgan, Bill Gates, the New York Stock Exchange, the space
shuttle and Japan's bullet train are all highlighted. There is a lesson
on how neckties became fashionable.
The French and Bolshevik Revolutions, once seen as turning points in
world history, now get far less attention. Mao, the Long March,
colonial oppression of China and the Rape of Nanjing are taught only in
a compressed history curriculum in junior high.
"Our traditional version of history was focused on ideology and
national identity," said Zhu Xueqin, a historian at Shanghai
University. "The new history is less ideological, and that suits the
political goals of today."
The changes are at least initially limited to Shanghai. That elite
urban region has leeway to alter its curriculum and textbooks, and in
the past it has introduced advances that the central government has
instructed the rest of the country to follow.
But the textbooks have provoked a lively debate among historians ahead
of their full-scale introduction in Shanghai in the fall term. Several
Shanghai schools began using the texts experimentally in the last
Many scholars said they did not regret leaving behind the Marxist
perspective in history courses. It is still taught in required classes
on politics. But some criticized what they saw as an effort to minimize
history altogether. Chinese and world history in junior high have been
compressed into two years from three, while the single year in senior
high devoted to history now focuses on cultures, ideas and
"The junior high textbook castrates history, while the senior high
school textbook eliminates it entirely," one Shanghai history teacher
wrote in an online discussion. The teacher asked to remain anonymous
because he was criticizing the education authorities.
Zhou Chunsheng, a professor at Shanghai Normal University and one of
the lead authors of the new textbook series, said his purpose was to
rescue history from its traditional emphasis on leaders and wars and to
make people and societies the central theme.
"History does not belong to emperors or generals," Mr. Zhou said in an
interview. "It belongs to the people. It may take some time for others
to accept this, naturally, but a similar process has long been under
way in Europe and the United States."
Mr. Zhou said the new textbooks followed the ideas of the French
historian Fernand Braudel. Mr. Braudel advocated including culture,
religion, social customs, economics and ideology into a new "total
history." That approach has been popular in many Western countries for
more than half a century.
Mr. Braudel elevated history above the ideology of any nation. China
has steadily moved away from its ruling ideology of Communism, but the
Shanghai textbooks are the first to try examining it as a phenomenon
rather than preaching it as the truth.
Socialism is still referred to as having a "glorious future." But the
concept is reduced to one of 52 chapters in the senior high school
text. Revolutionary socialism gets less emphasis than the Industrial
Revolution and the information revolution.
Students now study Mao — still officially revered as the founding
father of modern China but no longer regularly promoted as an influence
on policy — only in junior high. In the senior high school text, he is
mentioned fleetingly as part of a lesson on the custom of lowering
flags to half-staff at state funerals, like Mao's in 1976.
Deng Xiaoping, who began China's market-oriented reforms, appears in
the junior and senior high school versions, with emphasis on his
Gerald A. Postiglione, an associate professor of education at the
University of Hong Kong, said mainland Chinese education authorities
had searched for ways to make the school curriculum more relevant.
"The emphasis is on producing innovative thinking and preparing
students for a global discourse," he said. "It is natural that they
would ask whether a history textbook that talks so much about Chinese
suffering during the colonial era is really creating the kind of
sophisticated talent they want for today's Shanghai."
That does not mean history and politics have been disentangled. Early
this year a prominent Chinese historian, Yuan Weishi, wrote an essay
that criticized Chinese textbooks for whitewashing the savagery of the
Boxer Rebellion, the violent movement against foreigners in China at
the beginning of the 20th century. He called for a more balanced
analysis of what provoked foreign interventions at the time.
In response, the popular newspaper supplement Freezing Point, which
carried his essay, was temporarily shut down and its editors were
fired. When it reopened, Freezing Point ran an essay that rebuked Mr.
Yuan, a warning that many historical topics remained too delicate to
discuss in the popular media.
The Shanghai textbook revisions do not address many domestic and
foreign concerns about the biased way Chinese schools teach recent
history. Like the old textbooks, for example, the new ones play down
historic errors or atrocities like the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural
Revolution and the army crackdown on peaceful pro-democracy
demonstrators in 1989.
The junior high school textbook still uses boilerplate idioms to
condemn Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930's and includes little
about Tokyo's peaceful, democratic postwar development. It will do
little to assuage Japanese concerns that Chinese imbibe hatred of Japan
from a young age.
Yet over all, the reduction in time spent studying history and the
inclusion of new topics, like culture and technology, mean that the
content of the core Chinese history course has contracted sharply.
The new textbook leaves out some milestones of ancient history.
Shanghai students will no longer learn that Qin Shihuang, who unified
the country and became China's first emperor, ordered a campaign to
burn books and kill scholars, to wipe out intellectual resistance to
his rule. The text bypasses well-known rebellions and coups that shook
or toppled the Zhou, Sui, Tang and Ming dynasties.
It does not mention the resistance by Han Chinese, the country's
dominant ethnic group, to Kublai Khan’s invasion and the founding of
the Mongol-controlled Yuan dynasty. Wen Tianxiang, a Han Chinese prime
minister who became the country's most transcendent symbol of loyalty
and patriotism when he refused to serve the Mongol invaders, is also
Some of those historic facts and personalities have been replaced with
references to old customs and fashions, prompting some critics to say
that history teaching has lost focus.
"Would you rather students remember the design of ancient robes, or
that the Qin dynasty unified China in 221 B.C.?" one high school
teacher quipped in an online forum for history experts.
Others speculated that the Shanghai textbooks reflected the political
viewpoints of China's top leaders, including Jiang Zemin, the former
president and Communist Party chief, and his successor, Hu Jintao.
Mr. Jiang's "Three Represents" slogan aimed to broaden the Communist
Party's mandate and dilute its traditional emphasis on class struggle.
Mr. Hu coined the phrase "harmonious society," which analysts say aims
to persuade people to build a stable, prosperous, unified China under
The new textbooks de-emphasize dynastic change, peasant struggle,
ethnic rivalry and war, some critics say, because the leadership does
not want people thinking that such things matter a great deal.
Officials prefer to create the impression that Chinese through the ages
cared more about innovation, technology and trade relationships with
the outside world.
Mr. Zhou, the Shanghai scholar who helped write the textbooks, says the
new history does present a more harmonious image of China's past. But
he says the alterations "do not come from someone's political slogan,"
but rather reflect a sea change in thinking about what students need to
"The government has a big role in approving textbooks," he said. "But
the goal of our work is not politics. It is to make the study of
history more mainstream and prepare our students for a new era."