Copyright The South China Morning Post
The doctoring of Japanese school textbooks to omit negative portrayals of its wartime conduct has provoked an outcry in East Asia, but one doesn’t have to look far to discover that every nation has its own version of history.
It also becomes evident that the perfect place to sow the seeds of fervent nationalism is in the classroom with young impressionable minds.
This summer, new Chinese history textbooks for Hong Kong senior secondary school students have hit the shelves. For the first time the texts include events up to the end of the last century – including the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 – under the revised curriculum for Form Four and Five students. Previously, the Hong Kong curriculum only covered the years up to 1976.
Controversy erupted when the contents of the textbooks first came to light a few months ago, with educators accusing the authors of the Hong Kong textbooks of “distorting history” by failing to detail the bloody crackdown by the central government on pro-democracy protesters.
Scholars said this incident showed that textbook writers and publishers had shied away from touching on sensitive issues or producing material which ran against the thinking of the central government on controversial historical events.
But they also noted that the inclusion of at least some detail from the June 4 incident – which is totally absent from mainland textbooks – demonstrated a telling difference between education and textbooks in Hong Kong and across the border.
Siu Kwok-kin, a professor with the Chu Hai Post Secondary College’s department of Chinese, said the differences between the textbooks reflected the differences in the purpose of the teaching, the demands of the society and even examination requirements.
“The mainland may regard some incidents as inappropriate, but they are acceptable from the angle of our democratic system – for example the June 4 protest,” said Professor Siu, who has been invited to advise on several textbook publications.
Dr Joseph Siu Kam-wah, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Department of History, has conducted research on primary and secondary history education in East Asia. He said there were still similarities between textbooks in Hong Kong and across the border.
“Since 1997, history education in Hong Kong has emphasised the development of the students’ national identity and patriotism,” he said.
“This goal is similar to our mainland counterparts.”
Despite this, he noted that the presentation and portrayal of historical events were markedly different between them. A striking example was China’s war against Japan – from 1937-1945 – which he said was used as a means of instilling a sharp sense of patriotism in young mainland students.
“The mainland textbooks used sensational wording and bloody photos to recount the crimes the Japanese committed during the war,” he said.
In the unit devoted to the anti-Japanese war in the history textbook published by People’s Education Publications (Ren min jiao yu chu ban she) for senior secondary school students – the most popular textbook on the mainland – Dr Siu said the text focused on crimes committed by the Japanese through graphic words and pictures.
One paragraph reads: “Wherever the Japanese invaders went, they burned, killed, raped and looted, committing all crimes of sin. In February 1937, after the Japanese troops invaded Nanjing, they carried out a large-scale massacre of the residents of Nanjing. Within six weeks, they had massacred over 300,000 Nanjing residents and unarmed Chinese soldiers. They used various brutal means to carry out the massacre – some were shot, some were stabbed, some were buried alive and some were burned to death.”
In one of the exercises allocated to students, the textbook cited an incident in August 2003, when a worker was killed and more than 40 were poisoned by mustard gas abandoned by the Japanese during the second world war in Northeast China.
Dr Siu said this was aimed at reminding the students that the threat of Japanese militarism still existed today.
Instead of concentrating on the brutal crimes committed by the Japanese during wartime, Hong Kong textbooks focus on the background to the Japanese invasion of China, how the war broke out and the reasons for China’s success.
Chinese History, published by Modern Educational Research Society, and Exploring Chinese History, published by Ling Kee – two popularly used textbooks in Hong Kong schools – contain only one paragraph describing Japanese wartime crimes.
Instead of attributing China’s enhanced international standing after the war solely to its triumph in the war, Dr Joseph Siu said some of Hong Kong’s textbooks, such as Ling Kee’s version, suggested its enhanced standing was due to China’s co-operation with other allies, such as Britain and the United States, during the Pacific war.
Differences were also evident in dealing with the reform and modernisation of China after the Cultural Revolution.
The mainland text explained in detail how reforms under paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had improved people’s livelihood and strengthened the country. By contrast, Hong Kong’s textbooks mentioned the “rapid development” of the country, but also the problems stemming from those policies.
Chinese History outlined a series of these problems, including corruption, unemployment and the turbulent political scene which included two student protests, one in 1985 that led to the purge of former general-secretary Hu Yaobang, and the second one in 1989 – referred to only as the June 4 Tiananmen Square “incident”.
“The mainland textbooks choose not to mention the problems brought by the reforms because it would inevitably lead to the exposure of the discontent of the people and the student protests as well,” Dr Siu said.
Professor Siu, meanwhile, said the textbooks reflected the differences between the two societies. “The mainland version is more political and it emphasises politics and the nurturing of the students’ patriotism,” he said.
“Hong Kong is an international city and enjoys freedom – that’s why the textbooks have tried to be factual, impartial and the wording used is more neutral. From their [mainland] perspective, our national identity is not that strong.”
Dr Joseph Siu said Hong Kong texts were already objective in the portrayal of historical events, but he added: “They do try to evade the more sensitive issues and would not dare to run against the stance of the central government.”
He said that the books did not mention the bloodshed and some of the textbooks also used mild, or even positive, words to describe the central government’s move to “clear the square” in 1989.