The High School History Textbook Debate in China


Mr. Hayford is Visiting Scholar, Department of History, Northwestern University.

Japan is not the only country in which high school text books occasion a debate over history and politics. In China, Li Datong, once an activist in the 1989 democracy movements, was fired as the editor of Freezing Point (Bingdian), a weekly supplement to the newspaper China Youth Daily . The occasion for his firing was the January 11 publication of an article,"Modernization and History Textbooks," by Yuan Weishi, a professor of philosophy at Zhong Shan (Sun Yat-sen) University. Authorities charged that the article “attempted to vindicate the criminal acts by the imperialist powers in invading China; it seriously distorted historical facts; it seriously contradicted news propaganda discipline; it seriously damaged the national feelings of the Chinese people; it seriously damaged the image of China Youth Daily and it created bad social influence.”

The article is translated, apparently in its entirety, from which the quotes above and below are taken. The site is a section of the excellent blog EASTSOUTHNORTHWEST, which tracks current controversies in China.

Professor Yuan’s article begins by observing that after the Cultural Revolution people explained their violent excesses by bitterly commenting "we grew up drinking wolf's milk." But in looking through middle school history texts, Yuan was stunned to find "our youth are still drinking wolf's milk!" The textbooks' treatment of key nineteenth century incidents make his point. The authors present the Taiping rebels and the Boxers as patriotic and heroic precursors of revolution. The crimes of the British in the Second Opium War (1858-1860), such as the burning of the Summer Palace in 1860, are correctly characterized, he says, but the texts fail to hold the Qing government responsible for its own obstinate and criminal acts, which are simply described as patriotic. Yuan concludes that these views are not in the true spirit of China’s revolution but represent the “poisonous residue of the vulgarization of revolution.” He exorts his readers:

You should not underestimate the consequences of this mis-education. It is against commonsense and rationality to distort the historical truth in the name of the "revolution" ... the direct ill effects of praising the Boxers were exposed during the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guard setting fire to the British consulate is the replica of the Boxers' action; the mania to eliminate all foreign things in the "Anti-Four Olds," "Anti-Imperialism" and "Anti-Revisionism" campaigns had the same logic as the Boxers' desire to destroy the foreigners.

He goes on:

The logic presented in the above textbooks is no different. Their common points are: 1. The current Chinese culture is superior and unmatched. 2. Outside culture is evil and corrodes the purity of the existing culture. 3. We should or could use political power or the dictatorship of the mob to violently erase all the evil in the field of cultural thinking. To use these kinds of logic in order to quietly exert a subtle influence on our children is an unforgivable harm no matter what the objective intent was.

Over the last ten years Freezing Point published many other challenging articles. The EASTSOUTHNORTHWEST site includes "The Three Formal Bows by the Chairman," by Lung Ying-Tai (November 23, 2005). The article reports the extraordinary public apology from Ma Ying-jeou, chairman of Taiwan's Nationalist (Guomindang) Party, for the "White Terror" of the 1950s, when the island was under martial law. Clearly readers are expected to contrast Ma's apologies with the Party's reluctance to talk about 1989.

There has been a significant follow up to the firing of Li Datong. A group of retired officials sent a letter, written on February 2 but only made public later in the month. The group included Li Rui, who had been Mao Zedong's secretary in the 1950's and thirteen others. The letter characterized Li’s firing as "totalitarian" and charged that only a totalitarian regime would need to use totalitarian tactics, which are in violation of China's constitution.

On February 15, it was announced that Freezing Point would resume publication, but with new editors. One further condition was the publication of an article by Zhang Haiping, entitled, "The Main Theme in Modern Chinese History Is Anti-Imperialism/Anti-Feudalism." Zhang, a distinguished historian at Beijing’s Institute of Modern History, extensively reviews the events of the nineteenth century and comments:

There is a fashionable saying: all history is contemporary history. Or perhaps all history is the history of thinking, or everybody thinks that he is his own historian. If all history is written by contemporary thinkers, then the above sayings mean something. But I believe that when contemporary people study and write about history, they should be guided by materialism.... If the histories inside everybody's heart are written, then everybody will have their say and we lose the original face of history. If we use this kind of history to educate the youth, it will mislead the youth.

“History,” Zhang concludes, “is not a girl who can be dressed up at will.” (These quotes are also from the EASTSOUTHNORTHWEST blog mentioned above.)

In an February 26 interview with Mary-Anne Toy of The Age, a Melbourne paper, Li Datong laughed and concluded that he had won an incredible victory because “this time individuals have paid less of a price than normal, and people recognise that they can fight for their rights no matter how strong the other side is.” The article is available at AsiaMedia: Media News Daily, a useful site maintained by the UCLA Asia Institute.

A little background may put this all in perspective. After Mao’s death in 1976, the Chinese Communist Party repudiated the policies of the Cultural Revolution and rehabilitated former "enemies of the people." The Party published official accounts of “leftist” mistakes and popular media debated the causes of the violence and authoritarianism. Many intellectuals blamed China's tradition of patriarchal authoritarianism which, some pointed out, the reform policies did not bring to an end. After the "Beijing Incident" of 1989 the Party turned defensive but the economy boomed. Still, you could publish almost anything as long as you didn't directly criticize the government. Conflicting trends of economic boom, social inequality, intellectual liberalization, government insecurity and repression, foreign respect and disrespect, and popular nationalism produced a pattern of swings and lurches. Many younger intellectuals turned nationalist, especially after the 1999 American bombings of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the spy plane incident in the spring of 2001. September 11, 2001 brought the United States and China together and the awarding of the Olympics in 2008 made up for the indignation over having been denied in the previous round.

On the one hand, China today is indisputably more politically stable, intellectually diverse, and open to the world than at any time in the last two hundred years. But if, as is almost inevitable, there is some further international incident, popular anger will surely flare again. The “wolf’s milk” nationalism which alarmed Professor Yuan in the high school texts is by no means manufactured or imposed by the Party. The fate of the next Li Datong is unpredictable.

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 4/2/2006

Their high school history texts will be worth reading when they describe Mao as a satrap surrounded by hot and cold running girls, which he was. His private life was outrageous, and his public life was murderous. His solution to food shortages was selective starvation of whole provinces. His "cultural revolution" was tens of thousands of young thugs running wild, killing anybody they felt like killing. It is hard to get interested in any history of 20th century China which sweeps the basic horror of Chinese communism under the rug, and, without reading the links you provide, it doesn't sound like anybody has been working to clean it up lately.