A Chinese reporter recently called the Shanghai Education Bureau to find out what was going on with regard to the newly revised high school history textbooks that supposedly minimize Mao and other Chinese historical figures and represent a somewhat radical departure from the kind of history taught in China in the past.
The reporter was surprised by the reply: No one related to the writing or editing of the new history textbooks would be allowed to accept interviews from the media (report in Chinese). Baffled, the reporter asked why, and was told by one of the editors, Shanghai Normal University professor Zhou Chunsheng, that this was because of a certain New York Times report.
That report was entitled “Where’s Mao? Chinese Revise History Books,” written by Joseph Kahn. The first three paragraphs of this report are as follows:
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 goals.
What was wrong with Kahn’s article? According to Zhou, this report and the foreign media completely took his remarks and even the issue as a whole “out of context” (境外媒体断章取义的报道) . In fact, it seems that the circulation of Kahn’s report around the internet and its translation into Chinese caused much of the controversy. Netizens and education experts have been weighing in on the new history textbooks, which are said to be “under testing” and are thus limited to Shanghai for the time being.
The Chinese article (first link above) singles out some of the things people have taken an issue with in the new textbooks:
- Less content. More general terms like “river civilizations” and “plains civilizations” rather than concrete discussions of historical events and figures. The point of this was to emphasize “innovation and creativity,” rather than burdening the students with too much information — once taught over three years, Chinese and world history are now covered in two years.
- The periodization of history has changed. Less emphasis is placed on historical epochs, especially as linked to the reign of emperors. More emphasis placed on productivity, economy, trade. This is Kahn’s take on it:
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 harmony.
We can see how these remarks might have made some people unhappy.
- More emphasis on global rather than just Chinese history. The proponents say that this is just what is needed in the era of globalization. The opponents say that patriotic education demands more than just that.
- More emphasis on the characteristics of the age and less on the pivotal events. Again, what this means is that there is less attention devoted to the achievements of world-historical figure and more to culture, society, economy, etc. This is where all the mention of J.P. Morgan and Bill Gates comes in.
Shanghaiist has yet to get our hands on one of these history books, though we think it would make for an interesting read. Of course, we don’t know if Kahn really took quotes out of context, or whether or not the Education Bureau was just caught off guard by a report that didn’t quite have the gloss they were looking for.
If we manage to obtain a copy of those textbooks, we’ll update you on what we find.
Image from theshanghaieye.