Scholarship and education

Controversy over Chinese textbook revisions

The peasant uprising led by Li Zicheng.
Chinese history instruction is in transition. Moving away from the "class struggle" model that hit its peak during the Cultural Revolution, curriculum planners are attempting to bring a more nuanced narrative to secondary school history textbooks.

It's not progressing too smoothly, and there has been quite a bit of resistance to the break with the traditional narrative; a few years back, for example, people got upset at texts that redefined former "People's Heroes" as less absolute, more complex historical figures. The latest controversy accuses the curriculum framers of taking too much inspiration from this decade's political buzzwords: "unity" and "harmony."

In May, a middle school history teacher posted a rant exposing important topics that have been dropped from the latest editions of history textbooks:

Editors of the middle school history textbook, please go back to the era of Mongol rule!

by Foreleg Forward

Because I was forced to change fields to teach history[**], I have been getting more and more confused in the teaching process - what's up with the editors of this textbook? What do you want to do to the students?

First, aside from the peasant uprising at the end of the Qin dynasty, all major peasant uprisings throughout history have been deleted! Think of back in the day, all of the things in our texts that tugged at our heartstrings - "Don't die wastefully under Liaodong" [Wang Bo at the end of the Sui], "Unleashing this thing will upend the world" [end of the Yuan], and "The Roaming King does not demand grain" [Li Zicheng at the end of the Ming] - those are all gone! I ask the experts, what are you doing? This content concerning misgovernment driving the people to revolt, how has it offended you?!

Second, the word "autocracy" (专制), apart from its appearance in content about the Qin, can be found nowhere else! I ask the experts, what's with you? How has the word "autocracy" offended you?

Third, what I cannot understand is that in the textbook contents concerning the period of Mongolian rule, there is this question: Why were the Mongols able to achieve unity so swiftly? The first answer listed is the ambiguous, "The people hoped for unity"! And the important material in older textbooks outlining the four classes of citizens during the period of Mongol rule has been utterly excised! I ask the experts, what is with you?!!!!!

My dear experts, if you are Han, then I ask you, if you were there at that time, would you "hope for unity"? Hope for whom to achieve this unity? Living during that time, as a Han, which class of person would you be? As experts, you certainly are not unclear on this, right?!

Putting emphasis on national solidarity is correct, but you must not distort history! Or do you think that once children have finished middle school that they will all start work, and not continue schooling? There are plenty of them who will go to high school and college! Online, and in books outside of class there are historical facts! I will absolutely not be your scapegoat!

Please, experts, don't dupe the kids!

The post circulated swiftly, and was picked up a few days later in Singapore's Lianhe Zaobao which reproduced the complaints and cited some additional responses to the high-school freshman history text. There were also jokes, though this one's probably been around since the big Yue Fei-People's Hero scandal of 2002-2003:

Father: Son, what did you learn in school today?
Son: Today in history class the teacher told us about things in the Song Dynasty and the Yuan Dynasty.
Father: Oh? Then tell me about Yue Fei and Wen Tianxiang.
Son: The teacher said that Yue Fei rejected ethnic integration. He slaughtered multitudes of innocent minorities and committed monstrous sins. Wen Tianxiang couldn't adjust his thinking and refused to serve the country, so he deserved to die.
Father: So the teacher didn't tell you that Yue Fei is a People's Hero, or about Wen Tianxiang's lofty sense of the people?
Son: The teacher said that Yue Fei is a Hero of the Han, and Wen Tianxiang lost his life for so-called integrity, serves him right!

It's not as simple as the forum posts make it out to be, however. The latest issue of Phoenix Weekly explores in a bit more depth the motivations behind the new curriculum, and uncovers several major objections to the change in emphasis:

Shanghai's New Secondary School History Textbook Raises a Dispute

by Ni Fangliu / Phoenix Weekly

[first few paragraphs elided; duplicating material found above]

On 31 May, 2006, Phoenix Weekly interviewed professor Zhou Chunsheng of the Shanghai Normal University history department. Zhou is one of the planners of the new set of history texts. Faced with these questions, Zhou said that this involved many conceptual issues, and needed to be addressed from a general standpoint.

A complete "face change" for the framework

The new history textbook went into test use at 50 key secondary schools in Shanghai in autumn, 2003.

Li Chun (pseudonym) is a middle-school history teacher at a key school in Huangpu District who graduated from the history department of a university in Shanghai. At the start of the new semester, he picked up from the service department the first-semester Chinese History textbook for grade 7 (first year), and found the an astonishing new table of contents:

Unit 1: The beginnings of Chinese civilization
Lesson 1: The dawn of Chinese civilization
Lesson 2: The formation of primitive agriculture
Lesson 3: Birth and development of the state
Lesson 4: Shang and Zhou civilization .......

Li had already taught more than three years of middle school history, and could recite the table of contents of the old edition with his eyes closed:

Chapter 1: The beginning of our country's history
Chapter 2: Clan communities
Chapter 3: Kingdoms of the slave system - Xia, Shang, and western Zhou .......

Li Chun told PW that the framework of the new and old versions was completely different. No longer did it use the five-step progressive development of primitive society, slave society, feudal society, capitalist society, and socialist society to narrate history; rather, it used the history of civilization as its main thread. The narrative technique had also changed. Discarded was the traditional date/event-based narrative model, and by replacing the general with the particular, logical coherence was seriously weakened. For example, the first lesson, "The dawn of Chinese civilization," depicted the entire primitive society through two stories, "Peking Man" and "Yandi and Huangdi."

What was more confusing to Li and his colleagues was that while they could accept that ancient material like the Yuanmo Man, the Lantian Man, the Hexian Man, the Upper Cave skeletons, the Banpo clan, and the Hemudu clan had been deleted, major historical events and background material throughout 2000 years of feudal history, particularly the process of dynastic changes, had been ignored or toned down, and this was difficult to understand. At the same time, things that were only weakly historical, like poems, calligraphy, clothing, food, housing, and travel - "social culture history" and "economic life history" - had been written into the narrative of the lessons. At the end of each unit was a special lesson, and this made up about one third of the book's content.

Li Chun brought the two texts, new and old, to PW, and pointed out to this reporter where he believed the problems lay:

--- Apart from Chen Sheng at the end of the Qin, the Wu Guang uprising, and the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom movement at the end of the Qing, no other "misgovernment driving the people to revolt" or "peasant rebellion" was mentioned at all. The Wagang Military Uprising at the end the Sui, for example, the Huangchao Uprising in the later days of the Tang, the Red Turban military uprising at the end of the Yuan, and Li Zicheng's rebellion at the end of the Ming had all disappeared from the text.

--- Separation and wars among the ethnic groups was only minimally described. For example, the Spring & Autumn and Warring States periods, the two Han periods, the Northern and Southern Dynasties, and the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms had all been subject to reductions and were passed over quickly - the Northern and Southern Dynasties were summed up in a "knowledge bite." However, the folk interactions and and national solidarity during these periods, such as Princess Wencheng going to Tibet, were given their own chapters and segments, only for some reason the journey of Wang Zhaojun to the border during the time of Han Wudi was not mentioned.

--- Reform and opening "stand-out content." The Shang Yang Reform, Xiao Wendi's reformation, the Silk Road, Ban Chao's mission to the west, the Japanese mission to the Tang, Jianzhen's journey to Japan, Zheng He's journey to the western ocean, Matteo Ricci's arrival in China, and other content is described in detail. But Wang Mang's land reform is not described.

Li Chun said that the middle school portion still basically follows a chronological plan, while the high school texts, which caused the most debate this time around, do not divide Chinese history from world history - there is no distinction of dynastic history and national history. "Knowledge of the world" is divided into six major topics: "early human civilization," "human life," "human culture," "cultural exchange and conflict," "toward the civilization of an era of global economy" and "the present reality of civilization and its future." In these, the majority of discussion concerns civilization outside China - he believes that this does not resemble a history text at all.

Fierce reaction from front-line teachers

Since the text is so different from earlier textbooks, and since there is still a lack of reference materials, some teachers have shown their lack of enthusiasm. Reportedly, one teacher who had taught freshman history for many years requested to be switched to either the senior curriculum or the middle school portion.

Criticism from outside did not stop with the book itself, but spread out in the direction of politicization. The "keeping pace with the times" of the book was felt to be "catering too much to the demands of political posturing" and questioned on that basis.

In this textbook that is currently undergoing test instruction, PW found that to the second semester of seventh grade's Modern Chinese History, a new portion had been added: "Unit 6: Reform, opening, and national revitalization" which was divided into three lessons, "Reform and opening," "One country two systems," and "Renew the nation through science." A photo of former president Jiang Zemin addressing the 16th congress and a photo of Reform and Opening architect Deng Xiaoping on his "southern tour" both appeared in the book. Most recently, Yang Liwei ascending the heavens in Shenzhou 5, and Yuan Longping's hybrid rice, both were described in special sections.

Li Chun said that the new history text had incorporated the historical theories of people like Braudel as well as the fruits of other new historical research that came up during its preparation. But when it ran into conflict with official ideology, the old pattern of thinking was what it carried out. In anti-Japanese War history, for example, there is still not much ink describing in a positive light the workings of the Nationalist Party fighting the Japanese army on the battlefield, and it even avoids certain basic facts.

In previous history texts, the anti-Japanese War and the war of liberation each received a separate chapter, totalling 49 pages. The new edition puts them together, with only 28 pages between the two. Li Chun believes that students cannot gain a complete sense of history from it. Against the current rise of the right wing's power in Japan and its distortion of historical facts and denial of an invasive war, Li said, "This looks bad, if we shrink this period of history in the textbooks, how will we commemorate history? Can we ask Japan to learn from historical facts again?"

Editor in chief denies catering to the government

Reportedly, the new Shanghai history textbook began percolating around 1999. In June of that year, the editors' guide to the new Shanghai history textbook - "Guiding Principles to secondary school history educational activities entering the 21st century" - was drafted by Shanghai Normal University history department vice-dean Zhou Chunsheng following collective discussion.

Zhou Chunsheng has written such works as "On the tragic spirit and the history of European intellectual culture," "Intuition and Eastern/Western intellectual culture," "A dialogue between man and God during the Renaissance," and "An outline history of civilization." He is one of the mainland's authorities on the history of western civilization. The conceptual system of "Guiding Principles" in one respect reflects the fruits of Zhou's own investigations, in that pre-agricultural civilization, agricultural civilization, industrial civilization, and post-industrial civilization forms the main narrative thread, replacing the older model based on the format of society: primitive, slave, feudal, capitalist, and socialist. This is the "main objective and breakthrough" of editing the new textbook.

After drafting "Guiding Principles," Zhou continued on to participate in the editing of the high school history text (two volumes), and it was these two volumes that touched off the greatest controversy.

On the evening of 31 May, 2006, Zhou accepted an exclusive PW interview in his study. Responding to the above questions and teachers' confusions, he detailed the inside story of the birth of the new history text.

Zhou said that editing the new textbook was not planned on the initiative of the government - it was not as complicated as outsiders believed - the opportunity was one he seized himself: "We were the ones who thought of editing in this way; it wasn't the government that wanted us to edit it like this."

"I've always been engaged in researching world history, and I've always thought about how to return the true face of history to history textbooks. The older set of history texts had outdated concepts and were too formulaic. Shanghai's education committee had just launched the second round of textbook revisions, and I thought that I could give to secondary school students a set of completely new-concept history textbooks, and to attain new breakthroughs in ideas."

Zhou's vision received the support of colleagues and the Shanghai Normal University leadership, which in 1998 set up a "secondary school history textbook group," and in 2001, a "history textbook research center," with Zhou as the vice-director. Zhou and one other professor looked up the history teaching office of the Shanghai city education committee and described to the people in charge their line of thinking for a history of civilization, and in the end received the government's approval and permission.

"Guiding Principles" took six months to finish; the entire set of history textbooks required a staff of several dozen editors several years to complete. The editing panel was formed by Shanghai's education committee, while the majority of the work was done by the forces of the history department at Shanghai Normal University.

"Editing a textbook in and of itself is an official action, so naturally the government had interest. If the government had not agreed with editing in that manner, even if you wrote it like that you couldn't publish. From concept to structure, textbooks undergo government review and experts' testimony, so of course it went through an approval process. As for whether it catered to the requirements of government whims and current political positions, at the time there was certainly no thought of that." Zhou denied the hypothesis that the editors had catered to certain requests when editing the textbook.

Another reason for deleting peasant uprisings

Zhou believes that past textbooks, especially those during the Cultural Revolution, were too formulaic; nearly all of them were histories of class struggle. But human history takes groups of people and examines the process of life on the planet and pursuit of development; peasant uprisings are just one part of humanity's process of creating civilization. He believes that peasant uprisings throughout history toppled one feudal kingdom only to replace it with another feudal kingdom; there was no material progress. De-emphasizing peasant uprisings in the textbook was done out of this consideration, since they do not fit in with the editors' concept of a history of civilization.

And preserving the two peasant uprisings in the first and last feudal dynasties - that is, the Chen Sheng Wu Guang uprising in the late Qin and the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom movement in the late Qin - was done because one occurred after the country had been unified, and the other occurred during the period when the West was forcing its way into China. Each has both particular and representative meaning.

Zhou said that deleting most of the "misgovernment driving the people to revolt" content about peasant uprisings was purely due to editing requirements; the connection that outside observers have made with the demands of constructing socialism and a harmonious society are baseless. As for the weakened depictions of periods of disunity in Chinese history, such as dropping the Wei, Jin, and Northern and Southern Dynasties, Zhou believes that it is not that they did not write anything, but that the perspective from which they wrote had changed. They talk more about ethnic fusion and interaction; from the perspective of history, splits are temporary, unity is lasting, and the textbook must discuss the mainstream.

Zhou said that some other reasons have to do with instruction times. In the past, ancient history filled up two semesters of lecture time, but now it has been compressed to one semester. Two volumes of material have been condensed into one, so some of the content naturally has been dropped.

Zhou believes that the new textbook represents a fundamental change to the structure, content, and narrative format of previous textbooks, and this certainly will bring about some conflict over concepts and ideas. The offense some secondary school teachers have taken is understandable; they are used to teaching the old textbooks, and the deficient dissemination of edited reference materials and multimedia materials for the new textbook has increased the instructional difficulty for teachers, as well as their preparation time and out-of-class workload. This requires a break-in period and a process of gradual adaptation.

Zhou explained that beginning in 2003, fifty of the city's key secondary schools started tests, and later the test base expanded to 100 schools. The new textbooks are revised and improved each semester. When the first edition came out, some experts suggested that the history text lacked historical flavor; subsequent editions have strengthened this.

Zhou revealed that this autumn, the new textbook will complete testing and will go into formal use in Shanghai's secondary schools, and in 2007, a final revised version of freshman history will be published. "This is an affirmation of the new textbook on behalf of the government. If there were problems, it would not have been able to go into testing in the first place, so at least the government believes that the content and editing concept is both innovative and reasonable."

No major breakthrough in political thinking

A senior historian in Shanghai who spoke to PW said that the publication of the new history textbook is definitely connected to the openness and vitality of the mainland government's consciousness. This is also the background against which the new textbook could be edited and published. That the new textbook could be published demonstrates progress in the culture and ideology of the mainland government. Zhou Chunli and some experts in the mainland history field agree with this point. Zhou explained that during the Cultural Revolution, a textbook that did not begin from the five modes of society and that deleted peasant uprisings would have been impossible, a political error.

However, the mainland has always been very cautious about the editing of history textbooks. Zhejiang University history professor Chen Hongmin, who has participated in many sessions to come up with questions for history exams, said that among all subjects on the college entrance exam, only history and Chinese are personally inspected by a vice-minister-level official from the Ministry of Education.

A knowledgeable source told PW that currently, apart from Shanghai's textbook reforms, things are also gestating in Beijing, Guangdong, and Zhejiang. But the direction of reforms has no specific goal; though there is a policy of "one outline, many texts" for Chinese textbooks, the process from editing to inspection is still very strict.

Chen Hongmin said that the ethical models, content selection, and narrative position in mainland history textbooks are still used for official guidance. For example, relationship between peoples must be described positively, and China's international relations must be handled correctly. The true situation of the Chinese Nationalist Party during its administration of the mainland and the anti-Japanese War is still set forth using the old rubric. The positive contributions of the Nationalist Army on the battlefield, despite being discussed publicly in academia and having been fully affirmed by Hu Jintao in a speech, may not be so boldly expressed when editing a textbook.

For this reason, academic circles believe that while Shanghai's new history textbook may break new ground in areas of editing concept, framework, and narrative technique, on the level of political concepts, there is not much breakthrough.

Note: The author was forced out of a position as a homeroom teacher and Chinese instructor after unleashing a storm of righteous anger upon visiting dignitaries. Anyone who's had to attend interminable outdoor meetings where identical officials drone on and on while the audience tries not to doze off too noticeably will likely find the teacher's account cathartic.

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There are currently 8 Comments for Controversy over Chinese textbook revisions.

Comments on Controversy over Chinese textbook revisions

I find the comments about textbooks regarding Japan, etc quite amusing.

Oh no! Now Chinese children will be brought up not hating the Japanese because they've had their head crammed full with what went on in the war. I mean, geez, teaching reconciliation rather than the false spectre of Japan becoming aggressive again... what a terrible idea............

Why not a section on post-war Japanese development and the fact it hasn't fired a shot in anger since 1945 towards another country? And an objective view of recent change in Japan, rather than pushing an agenda to say "JAPAN BAD, JADAN BAD! CHINA GOOD! CHINA GOOD!"

Reminds me of Orwell - "Four legs good, two legs bad."

Yeah, I did not know whether to be delightfully surprised that one teacher finally brought up that comparison with the Japanese textbook issue, or saddened that only one teacher brought it up.

Other thoughts:
-there is no reason for the teachers to get indignant because the new textbooks are only replacing one politically biased history with another politically biased history. Its still nice to see that there is a discussion out there. I like the quote, "some experts suggested that the history text lacked historical flavor." Basically an admission that history textbooks weren't about history.

-The textbook issue matters only in that it signals what will be on the test. Teachers will teach what is on the test, and students will be studying what will be on the test. Little else matters.

-I hope that (and I am sure there must be) a few teachers out there who do have a passion for real history. I always remember the teachers that really brought history to life, rather than the ones who just read off a book. I hope their students appreciate them too.

I should also add that those passionate teachers were also the ones that allowed, and often encouraged, you to disagree with them in class.

Shenzhou 5 in a history text? do schoolchildren have goldfish memories and have forgotten this event already? and they say this is not politically motivated?

Really enjoyed the post since I grew up memorizing the old history text books. I haven't read the new textbook. But from what I read here, the new one sounds a step in the right direction by moving away from a narrative of class struggles and dynasty changes and closing in on cultures, ethnic interactions and basically, people. Don't think there's a government conspiracy behind the changes. But then again, what do I know?

That the narrative still up-plays Party catchphrases like ethnic "harmony" while downplaying certain events(i.e. KMT involvement in WWII)is no surprise.

I'm with Loafer, though. Based on what little cursory knowledge we have of the changes, it seems like a step in the right direction. A more progressive and cosmopolitan perspective (i.e. de-emphasis of dynastic changes, increased focus on social and cultural history, etc etc) sounds good to me. Pity it comes 80 years too late (Chinese liberals have only been preaching this kind of education reform since the New Culture movement.)

Well, I guess it was not simply a challenge to professional historians, but to the disciple of history itself. There was no way to step out of such dilemma except the engagement of critical thinking, which was clearly not part of teaching task in any textbook.

To be frank, I am bored with the revisionist history, starting with creative thinking but ending up with a monolithic conclusion.

I thought only overseas Chinese like us are deprived of our culture and heritage through discrimination by the power-to-be. I cannot believe this SH*T is happening in modern China of which I view proudly as our (Chinese's) rising hope.

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