September 1, 2006

Forget history.

Let's talk about economics, technology, social customs and globalization. The new Chinese history textbooks.
Socialism has been reduced to a single, short chapter in the senior high school history course. Chinese Communism before the economic reform that began in 1979 is covered in a sentence. The text mentions Mao only once — in a chapter on etiquette.

Nearly overnight the country’s most prosperous schools have shelved the Marxist template that had dominated standard history texts since the 1950’s. The changes passed high-level scrutiny, the authors say, and are part of a broader effort to promote a more stable, less violent view of Chinese history that serves today’s economic and political goals....

The one-party state, having largely abandoned its official ideology, prefers people to think more about the future than the past.

It's strange, this idea of seeing history only in the future. It's good to avoid lying about the past, but it's a lie to think the past doesn't relate to the future.

27 comments:

Balfegor said...

On the one hand, abandoning Marxist dogma = good! On the other, this isn't really history anymore:

There is a lesson on how neckties became fashionable.

Okay, I guess that's "history," but it's awfully trivial.

And Zhou Chunsheng:

“History does not belong to emperors or generals,” Mr. Zhou said in an interview. “It belongs to the people. It may take some time for others to accept this, naturally, but a similar process has long been under way in Europe and the United States.”

Mr. Zhou said the new textbooks followed the ideas of the French historian Fernand Braudel. Mr. Braudel advocated including culture, religion, social customs, economics and ideology into a new “total history.”

Hah. Shades of The Toys of Peace.

However, I am glad to see that people are seeing this for the silliness this is:

“Would you rather students remember the design of ancient robes, or that the Qin dynasty unified China in 221 B.C.?” one high school teacher quipped in an online forum for history experts.

Hopefully they won't take him away and beat him black and blue with a rubber hose.

hdhouse said...

and we note that textbook content is largely driven by the texas school book "what is right" decisions. textbook authors have abandoned fact for "what sells" in instances rampant for years.

other threads on other entries demonstrate how little we know or chose to know about 20th century history. it is appalling.

David said...

The masses know the truth, having lived it! The thought of millions of peasants bearing down on the 'Forbidden City' with hoes, shovels, and scythes is always a worrying presence in the psychic shadows of the ruling class.

Can China pull it off or will the house of cards fall? You can only trot out the bogey man of Japan and Taiwan so many times on a cold winter's night and expect it to have the desired effect.

Goesh said...

We'll eat chop suey and like it. When the 3 Gorge dam is fully operational, it will have 9 times the electrical output of Hoover dam and not a single volt will be designated for OSHA and EPA type functions, or for that matter human rights, workman's comp or hug the whales type organizations. There'll be no power chairs for Chinese cripples, nope, nary a watt for them - it all goes mostly to industry. What with them holding billions of our dollars, we will be wearing Chinese made T-shirts too sold at Wally World while eating our chop suey.

Fritz said...

NYT “The emphasis is on producing innovative thinking and preparing students for a global discourse,” he said. “It is natural that they would ask whether a history textbook that talks so much about Chinese suffering during the colonial era is really creating the kind of sophisticated talent they want for today’s Shanghai.”

Good for them. If we applied this attitude in the US, especially the poison fed to black children, our curriculum could vastly improve. Too much of our history is a negative narrative of what was, rather than how far forward and enlightened we have become.

Richard Dolan said...

Jonathan Spence has shown that the willingness to airbrush history to fit the current interests of the State has a long tradition in China, stretching back to the earliest days of Chinese history. Ming and Qing emperors were masters of that particular art, but among Chinese rulers they were hardly its inventors.

Since the Communist takeover in 1949, the current regime has shown itself even more adept at the practice. In Search for Modern China, for example, Spence shows that the dizzying pace with which leading figures from the Long March generation were praised, then demonized, then resurrected, then denounced again during the period from the late 50s (Great Leap Forward, Hundred Flowers Bloom) through the early 80s (end of the Gang of Four, etc.) had pretty much destroyed whatever moral or suasive force Marxist/Maoist ideology had had in China. With each of those twists and turns, the official histories would be rewritten to drop, the insert, then drop again leading figures from the revolutionary generation.

This article points to the continuation of that tradition, along with the larger contradictions afflicting China today. The urban population is engaged in a headlong chase for the almighty dollar (still prized, but I've noticed that in current deals, Chinese companies are inserting clauses that anticipate a change in the exchange rate). With the possible exception of Hong Kong or Guangzou, you could not find a more consumer crazed, capitalist oriented city than Shanghai today. Yet at the same time, the Gov't tries to maintain a monopoly on political power, prevent the rise of any social institutions (unions, religious movements, you name it) that might serve as a rallying point for opponents, and increasingly, control and censor the distribution and availability of information, by whatever means necessary. (When I was in Nanjing and Shanghai on a recent trip, it was clear that the Chinese were trying to block access to sites like CNN, although it was easy to get around those blocks -- I was even able to access Ann's site.) To borrow a phrase, these contradictions in the objective social and economic conditions of the society cannot long continue.

While tried and true as a method of control in China, airbrushing history to fit the current line is not likely to solve any of those problems.

Balfegor said...

This article points to the continuation of that tradition, along with the larger contradictions afflicting China today.

The article also notes the most famous incident in that tradition -- when the First Emperor burned the histories of the other Chinese principalities. I understand that he ordered copies to be preserved in the imperial archives, but those copies have since been lost, in subsequent disorders.

Jake said...

The Chinese government is ashamed that they were responsible for the execution of 30 million people. The government might try to forget their crimes, but the people won't. Every family in China was touched by the government's atrocities.

Paul Zrimsek said...

This textbook clearly needs more pictures of minority children in wheelchairs.

George said...

The 2005 biography of Mao by Jung Chang

http://www.amazon.com/Mao-Story-Jung-Chang/dp/0679422714/sr=8-1/qid=1157123123/ref=pd_bbs_1/104-3515653-4919163?ie=UTF8&s=books

reports that Mao was responsible for the deaths of 80 million of his fellow countrymen. 80 million.

37383938393839383938383 said...

I was just reading this article. In fact, I just called one of my friends (who knows how to get foreign textbooks for cheap) to see if I could get one of these things. It sounds much better than my high school history textbooks.

Abraham said...

other threads on other entries demonstrate how little we know or chose to know about 20th century history. it is appalling.

Truly! Most people don't even know about Nixon's impeachment! Eh, Mr. House?

Der Hahn said...

I'll confess that it took me a moment to realize (without reading the article) that it was talking history texts books produced in China, for students in China. Thankfully I realized it before ripping off a really idiotic comment.

I know Texas is pretty big, and considered a 'red-state', but I doubt that they have much influence on textbook choices in China.

Jeff said...

Also worth noting is that Chinese culture practices ancestor worship- history means more to them than we can imagine.

Paul Zrimsek said...

Lemembel the Aramo!

altoids1306 said...

I guess I see this as a positive development - the Chinese government recognizes the indefensibility of it's actions pre-1979, and, rather than fabricating lies, chooses to ignore it and hope no one notices. A significant mental shift in the government and the populace.

I'm not too worried about the loss of history - it's impossible to speak Chinese (fluently) without some understanding of Chinese history. The written language has been a single monolithic entity for at least 2000 years, so history and language are completely entangled. And no one is going to forget the cultural revolution - there are a lot of defaced stone tablets, and a lot of big gaps in family trees.

The change in approach might be good too - Chinese history has always been analyzed from a "great man" perspective, there hasn't been much thought put into the societial undercurrents (the rise of Buddhism, for example).

I'm not saying the wholesale erasure of 1949-1979 is ok, I'm just saying it's not a big deal. Besides, most Americans go through life with a dismal understanding of history, and get along just fine.

SippicanCottage said...
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Theo Boehm said...
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jas said...

The old maxim that history repeats itself is true. A better way to understand it is that people do not change and have not changed in thousands of years. People generally react in the same ways to stress that they did in Caesars time. Our Consitution and system of government is merely a reflection of all the mistakes made in the past - mistakes due to human behavior. It is designed to protect people from their own stupid behavior.

If China forgets that Mao was bad and forgets how Mao rose to power. Then another Mao is around the corner.

Paul Zrimsek said...

Not to worry; all my stuff comes pre-denounced, just in case it turns out to be racist. Can't be too careful.

Tibore said...

I don't know how I feel about this. On the one hand, I think it's terrific that there's more emphasis on the world, technology, and economic reform, and less brainwashing about Communist theory. An education that includes more about the outside world, and is more reality based than older indoctrinal methods is a positive thing.

On the other hand, the idea that history should be rewritten in order to serve a goal is a bit odious to me. History is, and what I mean about that is that it has qualities and meanings separate from the agendas of those looking back in time at it. Being selective about what you highlight in the past in order to achieve a specific goal in the future is just too manipulative to me, plus you lose the details of those very qualities, meanings, and sense of goals, purposes, and ideals that drove people in the past. And on top of that, I'm not sure that the narrative that results would be history any more; it sort of becomes mythology at that point.

I've always felt it's necessary to separate the national mythology from the national history; one's reality, the other is an ideal, and there's much to learn about both yourself and your country from seeing the dissonance between the two. And on top of that, there's quite a bit to learn about seeing the convergences as well. Merging the history and mythologies into some unified creature might achive a point goal, but it doesn't do much to help people understand the realities of the world.

SippicanCottage said...
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Balfegor said...

Also worth noting is that Chinese culture practices ancestor worship- history means more to them than we can imagine.

I may be wrong on this -- I have heard that Confucian practices have been making a comeback in the past decade or two -- but I think the Communists stamped out most of that during their great slaughter earlier in the century.

And (and here my Korean-chauvinism comes to the fore), I am not sure how far back most Chinese can reliably trace their ancestors. I know most Japanese run into trouble after only a few centuries, and had generally assumed the Chinese were mostly the same way. Is this incorrect?

JDM said...
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JDM said...

I am not sure that "lies of omission" are a whole lot better than "lies of commission" myself, but its a start.

Imagine if German history books did not cover WWII at all, or if US history ignored the civil rights movement or Jim Crow.

Hmm, I wonder what was in that previous post? And would you believe me if I said I was simply fixing a typo?

Theo Boehm said...
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Theo Boehm said...
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