SHANGHAI, Dec. 5 – The history teacher maintained a blistering pace, clicking from one frame quickly to the next, during a lecture on China’s relations with the world from 1929 to 1939 in one of this country’s most selective high schools.
There was Hitler, shown on parade, his hand lifted in the Nazi salute. The teacher mimicked the gesture, to brief laughter, announcing the year the dictator came to power, with no pause for a discussion of fascism. Pushing ahead quickly, he said the United States was exploiting Canadian and Latin American resources, while Britain fed off India. Wherever it could, France, which was dismissed in barely a sentence, mostly followed Britain’s example.
Getting to the meat of the lesson, the teacher said Japan decided to pursue its own longtime desire for a continental empire, and attacked China. The presentation lingered on a famous 1937 picture of a Chinese baby sittng in the middle of a Shanghai road amid the Japanese aerial bombing of China. Then, moments later, the teacher announced plainly, “America’s attitude toward the Japanese invasion of China stopped at empty moral criticism.”
This country has made a national pastime of wagging its finger at its neighbor, Japan, which it regularly scolds for not teaching the “correct history” about Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930’s, straining relations between Asia’s biggest powers.
However, a visit to a Chinese high school classroom and an examination of several of the most widely used history textbooks here reveal a mishmash of historical details that many Chinese educational experts themselves say are highly selective and often provide a deeply distorted view of the recent past.
Most Chinese students finish high school convinced that their country has fought wars only in self-defense, never aggressively or in conquest, despite the People’s Liberation Army’s invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the ill-fated war with Vietnam in 1979, to take two examples.
Similarly, many believe that Japan was defeated largely as a result of Chinese resistance, not by the United States.
“The fundamental reason for the victory is that the Chinese Communist Party became the core power that united the nation,” says one widely used textbook, referring to World War II.
No one learns that perhaps 30 million people died from famine because of catastrophic decisions made in the 1950’s, during the Great Leap Forward, by the founder of Communist China, Mao Zedong.
Similar elisions occur in everything from the start of the Korean War, with an invasion of South Korea by China’s ally, North Korea, to the history of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as an irrevocable part of China.
“The Anti-Japanese War finally succeeded, and Taiwan came back to the motherland,” another leading textbook states, referring to Japan’s defeat in World War II and the loss of its colonial hold on Taiwan.
“The closer history gets to the present, the more political it becomes,” said Chen Minghua, a 12th grade history teacher at the No. 2 Secondary School in Shanghai. “So for things after the founding of the People’s Republic, we only require students to know the basic facts, like what happened in what year, and we don’t study why.”
Although some defend the curriculum, many academics say the way history is taught in China forces even the best teachers to bob and weave around anything deemed delicate by the country’s leaders and leaves students confused about their own country’s place in the world.
Asked what they made of the discussion of the 1930’s, one student at the Shanghai high school eagerly volunteered that China had prevented Japan from taking over much of the world. Another said war was inevitable. And a third, who approached the teacher after class to pursue the discussion, said the war had not been a bad thing, since it had prevented Japan from becoming a world power.
Defenders of China’s curriculum say that whatever its shortcomings, history education has vastly improved in recent years. There is more choice among textbooks, even if all textbooks are carefully screened by the government, and once taboo subjects, like the Chinese Nationalists’ contribution during the war against Japan and even the Cultural Revolution are being mentioned, if only cursorily, in more and more textbooks.
Asked why Chinese textbooks do not mention such matters as Tibet’s claim to independence at the time Communist troops invaded, Ren Penjie, editor of a history education magazine in Xian, said: “These are still matters of controversy. What we present to children are less controversial facts, which are easier to explain.”
Others said such events were too recent to be seen with objectivity, or that the facts were still coming in, both of which are common explanations offered by Japanese historians who defend the lack of candor about Japanese atrocities in World War II.
For his part, Mr. Ren, who took part in the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, which ended in a military crackdown that left hundreds of civilians dead, counted that event as being far too recent to touch upon.
One 1998 textbook that alludes to the demonstrations calls them a “storm” created by the failure of leaders to stop the spread of “bourgeois liberalism,” adding vaguely that “the Central Committee took action in time and restored calm.” The most recent edition of the same textbook is vaguer still, speaking only of thoughts fanned by a small number of people whose aim was to overthrow the Communist Party, with no mention of the lethal aftermath.
Some Chinese history specialists were less inclined to make excuses for the evasions, however.
“Quite frankly, in China there are some areas, very sensitive subjects, where it is impossible to tell people the truth,” said Ge Jianxiong, director of the Institute of Chinese Historical Geography at Fudan University in Shanghai and a veteran of official history textbook advisory committees. “Going very deeply into the history of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and some features of the Liberation” – as the Communist victory is called – “is forbidden. In China, history is still used as a political tool, and at the high school level, we still must follow the doctrine.”
Taking the long view, though, Mr. Ge, 59, who taught high school during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when teachers were beaten and education became hyper-politicized, said things were gradually getting better.
Su Zheliang, a historian at Shanghai Normal University, who is himself the author of a new textbook, agreed.
“Sometimes I want to write the truth, but I must take a practical approach,” he said. “I want my students to learn, and I’ve put out the best book that I can. In 10 years, perhaps, China will be a much more open country.”
HOWARD W. FRENCH is chief of the Shanghai bureau of The Times.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company