Shanghaiist has posted before about the controversy surrounding the new high school history textbooks in Shanghai, which were thrown under the media spotlight after an article in the New York Times by Joseph Kahn claimed that the new history books were a big departure from the old books and went so far as to nearly remove Mao from China’s history. You can read what the folks over at the Peking Duck thought about it this issue here and here. It seems that only one or two people there managed to compare the new history textbooks in Shanghai, which move away from the “great man” theory of history, with a somewhat similar movement in teaching of American history towards more social and cultural history, along the lines of (and this perhaps isn’t the best or only example) Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
Other commenters in the Peking Duck forum pointed out that “purging” Mao from the history books is the Maoist method par excellence. What’s interesting about that argument is that similar arguments have been used by the supporters of the books against its critics.
We recently read, in what is rapidly becoming our favorite Chinese periodical, the Southern Metropolis Weekly (南都周刊), an interview with Shanghai University historian Zhu Xueqin (朱学勤) about his views on the new history textbooks. He provides an interesting perspective on it — but we aren’t going to say that it’s a Chinese perspective, since there is, by his own admission, a good deal of dissension within China about these new books. In the following, we’ve translated some of that interview. “J” is for journalist, and “Z” is Zhu Xueqin.
Zhu Xueqin： The new Shanghai history textbooks are an improvement
No choice but to reform
J: What did you think after seeing reports about the revision of history textbooks?
Z: I felt pretty good about them. I used to be a middle school history teacher, if you take these books and compare them with the books from back them, there’s just no way to compare them. There’s been some real progress.
J: In what areas, specifically?
Z: Firstly, in terms of the system, using the history of civilization instead of the history of class struggle, using the changes in the ways that people lived instead of dynastic history and succession, using civilization instead of violence, using the changes that happened in thousands of ordinary lives instead of taking the lives of a few emperors, officials and generals. This is a big sign of progress.
Secondly, is the way that the textbooks were written and edited, which I think broke through the mold of top-down inculcation and rote memorization. (The new books) have several lessons and modules that allow for participation. For example, there are the sea voyages of the explorer Zheng He. You can see this lesson in a boxed off section on the page, where it discusses the various reasons behind his explorations. Was it to find the Jian Wen emperor? What do you think? Have you heard of any other reasons? And so forth …
Consider these textbooks as part of a new teaching environment where there is greater interaction between teachers and students, rather than the old ways, where it was top-down, teacher dictating to the students and rote memorization. I think this represents a huge step forward.
J: So you think it represents a new way of thinking about history?
Z: Yes, it’s more civilized and open to the world, for example. In the first year history textbooks, where various aspects of Chinese and world history are woven together based on certain themes: early civilizations, life (shenghuo) in civilizations, culture. Compared to how we used to teach history, with the five stages of development, one after the other, this new way of teaching is much closer to life and also more credible.
So abandoning the five stages of development theory is one aspect, and the second is that it de-emphasizes class struggle and violent revolution and the concomitant view of history. Instead we emphasize civilization, culture, science and technology, and also instruct students about what law is, where the earliest origins of laws were, why society needs a judicial system, where the concept of a jury came from, etc. Finally, it asks students to think about and discuss these questions. Isn’t that interesting? These books ask you what kinds of rights and obligations you have. The kids that grow up reading these kinds of history textbooks will have been weaned on human milk, and not by wolves’ milk.
As far as the various misunderstandings, attacks and criticisms of these books, I believe that we ought to deal with them separately as follows:
One view focuses on the relative emphasis or neglect of certain things and says that these have political implications, for example, saying less about Mao and the Chinese revolution. Of course the textbooks will mention Mao and the revolution, it’s just that there is relatively less space devoted to these subjects than before.
Regarding the merits and demerits of Mao, his achievements and his mistakes, even the academic world has yet to come any kind of consensus. In light of this, that the writers and editors of the new history textbooks would choose to paint Mao and the associated history in broad strokes is both out of lack of better choice and the most rational way of dealing with it. Besides, these books are written in an open-ended fashion, meaning that each teacher can feel free to (de)emphasize certain aspects as they see fit.
As for those who consider these new textbooks as a “theoretical debate” and the start of a “color revolution,” all I can say is that these people have read too much into this and that to even use such language seems to suggest a way of thinking that is itself a remnant of the historical view and way that history was taught maybe 10 or 20 years ago, a historical view of violent revolution and upheaval with class struggle at its center. This kind of thinking is a product, or perhaps better yet, the victim of this kind of historical view. In fact, that so many people on the internet used this kind of language to attack the historical textbooks shows that although we are 30 years past that era, that there are so many people whose way of thinking is still stuck in that era — which proves the need for such revisions has never been more urgent and that rather than changing our textbooks too early, we have, on the contrary, changed them too late! …
We need greater pluralism when it comes colonial history
J: A Hong Kong University professor said that these new history textbooks are advanced in that they emphasize innovation, creativity, and the new age of globalization; if you overly emphasize colonialism and the suffering of peoples under colonial rule, you might not produce the people with talents and skills that are needed in today’s modern society. What are your thoughts on that?
Z: Regarding the history of colonialism and anti-colonialism, I feel we ought to discuss what it means to be colonized by another race or people, while at the same time seeing this phenomena in a global context and how it brought some positive contributions with it rather than just leaving at the hatred between colonizer and colonized, in which case there would be no reason for the Bund to exist. We can say that colonialism and anti-colonial and anti-imperialism is not just a history of rule and resistance but also one of the introduction of new civilizations or the expansion of civilizations. In fact, I think it is the confluence of these various factors that has lead to our unique, coastal culture.
J: It seems that we often hear that in other countries they use their history textbooks as a means of patriotic education.
Z: Cultivating the students’ patriotism happens in every country, but there is no country that did it the way that we used to. I’ve seen American history textbooks and firstly, they don’t have a standardized textbook, and I think only in this way can you cultivate the ways of thinking appropriate to a pluralistic and multicultural society; secondly, even if Americans books have a chapter on patriotism, it wouldn’t be as dull as ours and nor would it be forced inculcation. For example, when it talks about the anti-colonial struggles against the English, it will mention that many of the American revolutionary leaders were, before the revolution, legislators and representatives in the various colonies in which they lived. It was precisely because they had absorbed so much from the English that they were able to efficiently, effectively and successfully rebel against the unjust English rule, they didn’t want a complete break or rupture with the past.
Of course, we don’t have to write our history in the way the Americans have. However, this style of thinking and this approach is something that wasn’t present in the old books. And this has just begun. As I see it, the new history textbooks contain both historical knowledge and a historical world view, and presents this to students in a more lively, interesting, and respectful manner. …
J: And this new view of history, is this the new mainstream in Chinese historical scholarship?
Z: It can be said that although it isn’t quite the mainstream, it is part of a growing consensus among historians.
Picture of Zhu Xueqin in his “wassup homey?” pose from 9e3.com.