In my post about Confucius Institutes being featured on the Daily Show just now, I mentioned that, while there’s no reason to be as paranoid as the people lampooned in the segment, there also isn’t reason to think China’s opinion of itself wouldn’t be any less biased than that of an American textbook – with a link to the amazing award-winning resource Lies My Teacher Told Me. Then I found out the book was translated into Chinese for China. Also, that the author’s preface for the Chinese version was censored out.
On The China Beat, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen, talks about the publishing of the Chinese translation of his book in 2009. He had originally written a preface that emphasized his own reasons for writing the book: to reveal how sanitized American history books are to both Americans and the world, and to hopefully convince people that the best way to learn history is with everything included, good and bad.
Unfortunately, China didn’t feel the same way. Says Loewen:
Lies exposes seamy aspects of the U.S. past. The preface I wrote for the Chinese edition suggests that a similar exposé might be useful in China. As I wrote, I realized that saying this in China might be problematic, but on behalf of the publisher, Central Chinese Compilation & Translation Press, one of the largest publishers in China, Ma Wanli assured me that my preface would not be censored. I finished the preface in late fall, and the Chinese translation reached me in December of 2008. My U.S. publisher had it translated back into English and assured me that my meaning had not been changed. All seemed well.
In late spring 2009, however, the translator emailed to request that I use “more Aesopian language,” particularly in making points about the individual’s relationship to the society.
Despite revising aspects of the preface (especially ones involved with Tibet and the one-party system), revisions the translator called “magnanimous:”
…at the end of the process, my book came out in China in November, 2009, without the preface, but with an afterword in which Ma Wanli spoke of his “sympathy” for the book and looked forward to its “translation spurring much self-criticism among Chinese academic and education circles.”
When I was spewing off the Daily Show post, I had planned to expand on the thought of sanitizing past events, which I feel points out the fundamental difference between the U.S. and China, something frequent commenters on our site (and, I guess, all around the nation) don’t seem to get. As biased and blindingly patriotic as American textbooks can be, a book like Lies CAN get published, sell over a million copies and become a standard part of school curricula.
In China, even a preface to another country’s history book is scrapped when it asks Chinese to examine the possibility that their own history might be altered. The full original preface is on China Beat and is worth a read not just because of this great quote: “The closer history gets to the present, the more political it becomes.”