A Joint Approach to History

The Chinese edition of a new history textbook, jointly edited by scholars from China, South Korea, and Japan, was released with great fanfare this week. This text is intended to act as a supplement to nationally approved curriculum, and represents a unified view on the part of the three countries toward certain controversial events.

Or, at least a mostly unified view on the part of interested scholars from the three countries. The Japanese Society for Textbook Reform certainly would disagree with the presentation. And a common headline announcing the book's release in China read, "Nanjing Massacre death statistics still controversial."

Launched just last Thursday, the book's circulation is still getting started. After failing to find it at several branches of the Xinhua bookstore chain, I finally found a copy yesterday at the main Beijing Books Building in Xidan, where it occupied a large display just inside the main entrance. Periodic announcements over the PA system invited patrons to browse through it, and indeed there was quite a large group of people standing around the display, reading.

Glancing through the book, there were a few things that caught my eye, so I bought a copy. What follows are my own impressions after reading the book.


The title of the book (as Xinhua translates it) is The Contemporary and Modern History of Three East Asian Countries. The three countries are China, Korea, and Japan, of course, and the history discussed in the book is the history of their interactions. The focus is primarily on the societal changes the countries experienced over the course of their modernization drives. Since part of Japan's modernization took the form of imperial expansion, a great deal of the book concerns the causes and effects of the Japanese invasion, while each country's domestic affairs and their dealings with non-Asian countries dealt with only briefly.

Xinhua's translation of 近现代史 as "Contemporary and Modern History" does not make it immediately obvious what time period the book covers. When talking about Chinese history, 近代 (Xinhua's "contemporary") stretches from the middle of the 19th century until the May 4th New Culture movement in 1919, and 现代 ("modern") comes up to the present day. This is roughly the period of history covered in the book.

In a prologue, the book touches on the interactions throughout history among the three nations, but the main text starts off with the opening of ports to the west, and ostensibly continues until the present day. However, with the exception of the perpetual attempts to resolve problems still existing from WWII, most of the second half of the 20th century is elided. The Korean War, for example, is dispensed with in two pages, mainly to illustrate that after WWII was over, conflict still existed among the three nations.


The subtitle of the textbook is Facing the future using history as a mirror: building together a new framework of peace and friendship in East Asia. The editors explain their motives in three prefaces, one from each country's delegation. The Korean and Japanese prefaces are directed at Chinese readers, so it is possible that the text is different in other translations.

The Chinese editors begin by pointing out that when Chinese, Korean, and Japanese students study the history of the second world war, the emphasis is placed on their own country's victimization and their own people's suffering. This textbook then is an attempt to give students in each country a window into the experience of the other two.

A second goal is to counter the Japanese rightists. The Chinese publishers deny that the book is a reaction to the recent controversy over the new history text put out by the Japanese Society for Textbook Reform, a reasonable statement given that this joint textbook has been in preparation for three years. It's only half the truth, however, since the Chinese editors say in their preface:

Today, when Japanese rightist forces insanely deny and whitewash the history of the invasion and the war, Chinese readers hope that this book of ours might be a dagger and a spear to strike at the rightist forces. We strongly emphasize the principles that "the past should not be forgotten, but should instruct the future," and "the past is a mirror to face the future." Going stroke for stroke with the Japanese rightist forces on the question of historical understanding is what we plainly strive to do
The Japanese rightist forces absolutely detest our determination. They believe that establishing a common understanding of history is impossible, and they have done their utmost to belittle the cause of a common understanding."
The Korean editors point to the historically close links between China's and Korea's culture, government, and economics, as well as a shared experience during the war. The lasting effects of that war led to divisions between the two nations that are even now still being worked out.

The Japanese editors have two objectives: (1) to explain the history of Japan's imperial invasions in a unified Chinese-Japanese voice to let Japanese students understand the Chinese experience (2) to give Chinese students an idea of the suffering the Japanese people endured at the end of the war.

Given these objectives, the cynical reader might speculate that the textbook is nothing more than a harmony of each country's victim narratives. The front cover illustration tends to bolster this view - while there are no country borders marked (to avoid problems over island ownership), it is clear from the map outline that each country's disputed territorial claims are affirmed. China's territorial boundary line is drawn extending around contested islands in the South China Sea. Sakhalin (Karafuto) is included, presumably as belonging to Japan since the map contains no other Russian territory [this has been removed in the second edition of the book, published in late June].


After a brief prologue outlining the cultural and economic exchanges that existed throughout history among the three countries, the book begins with the port openings and modernization movements in the 19th century. The second section, "The expansion of Japanese imperialism and the resistance of China and Korea" follows events up through the 1920s, including such societal changes as education and women's rights.

It is the third section, "Invasion and the people's sufferings," that contains the material whose treatment in other textbooks has been the focus of intense controversy: the massacres, weapons testing, and comfort women. Discussion of these issues is buttressed with copious archival photos and personal anecdotes, though like most middle-school texts there are no specific references given for the information.

The fourth section, "Postwar East Asia," is relatively short, covering national rebuilding, reparations, and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. The entire text is written in a directed reading style; sections start out with a question and follow with a general description of the situation. More in-depth material, like discussions of specific events or biographies of both major historical characters and common people, round out each chapter.

An epilogue, "For a peaceful future of East Asia," contains the latest information on the continuing controversies: compensation for comfort women, revisionist textbooks, and the Yasukuni Shrine visits. There's also a summary of international anti-war sentiment, making reference to protests against the war in Iraq and photos of demonstrations. Bringing us back to the beginning, the section closes with highlights of cultural and scholarly exchanges among the three countries - a poster for a Korean soap opera playing in Japan will appeal to Chinese readers who are also enthusiastic about Korean pop culture.

The final thoughts before the postscript read:

We should reflect on the history of invasion and war, and strive to avoid the reenactment of that history. The Japanese government should unambiguously apologize for its past errors and offer compensation to the victims. Only by doing this will the neighboring countries of Korea and China, as well as their citizens, be able to truly accept it.

Peace, human rights, and democracy are important values as East Asia, and the entire world, approaches a glorious future. To realize these values, not only Japan but the governments of other Asian countries as well must put aside overly selfish policies. Citizens, too, should reach beyond a self-centered outlook, working toward the wisdom to live together with neighboring countries. The international interaction and cooperation among citizen movements will be one of many channels to realize all of this. Realizing true reconciliation and peace by learning from history is the task of every East Asian person today.

As this quotation demonstrates, the history covered in the textbook is contained within a lofty idealism. From the mascots dancing happily on the back cover, essentially identical underneath their superficially distinct ethnic costumes, to the image in the general preface of a beautiful world hosting a civilization whose harmony is propelled by written communication, it is clear throughout the book that the chief aim is to advance the cause of peace and understanding among the three nations.

The editors do acknowledge that this book does not serve as the final word on East Asian history. The information in the epilogue is closely tied to the present day, and hopefully will date the book rather quickly as progress is made resolving disputes. In situations where there exist differences of opinion or varying interpretations of the facts, such as the scale of the Nanjing Massacre or the divergent understandings of the Normalization Talks between Japan and the ROK, the editors have included contesting viewpoints.

Of course, contradictory viewpoints which to the participants may be the source of offensive controversy, to other observers may appear merely as part of the process of uncovering historical truths. It's telling that while in the United States there has been a heated debate over the true reason why the atomic bombs were dropped, this textbook summarizes the decision in one sentence:

The United States was anxious to drop the just-invented atomic bomb because it wanted Japan to surrender as soon as possible, so as to give it the upper hand in negotiations with the Soviet Union after the war.

For all the celebration of finding a "common ground", or arriving at a "unified recognition" of historical events, there seems to be an assumption that a presentation of history is valid only when it is written by the victims, or at the very least by the participants in that history. There were no North Koreans on the editorial panel; "Korean history" in the text is that of the peninsula up until the defeat of the Japanese, at which point it turns into South Korean history. Of Kim Il-sung there is not so much as a single mention, much less a photo. By placing an emphasis on telling students in other countries "our story," the attitude expressed in the three prefaces works to insure that the stories that belong to none of the three editorial groups do not get told.

As a supplemental text, the book is not required reading for students in any of the three countries. The Chinese publishers are looking for philanthropists to dontate copies to schools, but whether high-school students will want to take time out of college entrance exam preparation to read about another country's suffering is anybody's guess.

Perhaps this textbook will be the first of many to approach these sensitive issues with an awareness of multiple perspectives. Maybe there will be future panels of editors from additional countries who will reexamine other sensitive topics, like the Korean War or the Sino-Vietnamese conflict. Or maybe, just maybe, the success of this project will lead publishers to consider including viewpoints outside of the orthodox, nationalist perspective without having to convene an international panel.

The textbook 《东亚三国的近现代史》 is published in China by Social Sciences Academic Press. The table of contents and prefaces are available (in Chinese) on the website, from which the book itself may also be purchased at a discount.

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