Official educational materials skip key events that may
embarrass the Communist Party
Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
May 8, 2005
When Li Xuanyao, a student at Beijing's No. 55 Middle School,
wants to learn about the Great Leap Forward, she has her work
cut out for her. Mao Tse-tung's disastrous 1950s policy, which
saw 30 million Chinese die of starvation, is relegated to a few
paragraphs in her 163-page history textbook.
The text blames bad central planning for its failure and is
quick to add: "During the Great Leap Forward, every village in
China built its commune. Members of the commune could eat in its
dining hall free of charge."
Although Xuanyao's history teachers have taught her a lot about
Japanese atrocities, she said, they are reluctant to talk about
the Great Leap Forward. And they never mention the deadly
Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
"Studying Chinese history is very important because it helps
increase our knowledge and our patriotism," said Xuanyao, 16,
dressed in purple jeans and a matching backpack. "I wasn't
taught anything about Tiananmen. But what the Japanese did,
particularly the Nanjing massacre, is unforgivable. Remembering
this is very, very important for our national pride."
China has criticized Japan in recent weeks for whitewashing its
militarist history, focusing in particular on a junior high
school textbook recently approved by Tokyo. A wave of
anti-Japanese protests swept the world's most populous nation.
A close look at China's corresponding textbook, "Chinese History
-- Textbook for Junior High School," however, finds several
areas where China's official history appears to have gaps of its
"Yes, what Japan did in World War II is horrible," said Sam
Crane, Asian studies professor at Williams College in
Massachusetts. "But the embarrassing fact for the Communist
Party, and one that is not taught in Chinese schools, is that
the party itself is responsible for many more deaths of Chinese
people than those caused by Japanese militarism."
Historians and China scholars say an underlying theme in many
Chinese textbooks is the country's victimization at the hands of
foreign powers, particularly the Japanese. Although this is
true, they say, China tends to underplay the long periods that
it dominated its neighbors.
The focus on being a victim can easily spark social indignation
and the sort of emotional outpouring and violence seen in recent
weeks, some argue. Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura
echoed this theme last month on a TV talk show, accusing Beijing
of indoctrinating its students with an unbalanced view of the
"There is a tendency toward this in any country," he said. "But
the Chinese textbooks are extreme in the way they uniformly
convey the 'our country is correct' perspective."
Machimura added that Japan would consider mounting its own
review of Chinese history textbooks. According to a survey
released last month by Japan's Asahi newspaper, more than 80% of
Japanese believe that China's nationalistic education system
encouraged the recent protest, which saw Japan's embassy and
consulates attacked, Japanese cars overturned and businesses
In recent days, Beijing has moved to quell the demonstrations.
Last month, officials detained 42 anti-Japanese protesters, some
caught on security cameras hurling bottles, and paraded them on
television in a warning to the nation. The government,
apparently fearful that the protesters could turn their focus on
it, wanted to prevent further disturbances before the
historically significant May 1 and May 4 holidays.
In addition to ignoring the Tiananmen Square massacre, China's
main junior high history text makes short work of most of the
Under chapter subheadings such as "Great Achievements of
Socialist Construction," the text skips from Deng Xiaoping's
market-oriented policy after 1978 to the return of Hong Kong to
Chinese rule in 1997.
"These textbooks don't make any sense," said Jasper Becker,
author of "Hungry Ghosts," about the Great Leap Forward. "All
sorts of things are brushed under the carpet."
The "Chinese History" textbook, the most popular of seven
approved by the Education Ministry for nationwide use, also
gives the Communist Party a disproportionate role in fighting
the Japanese in the 1930s and '40s. In fact, many historians
say, most of the heavy lifting was done by the Nationalist
Party, or Kuomintang, whose members fled to Taiwan in 1949 after
losing the civil war to Mao's forces.
Mao's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, a period of chaos marked by
purges and the tyranny of the fanatical Red Guards, does merit a
(five-page) chapter that concedes that Mao made a "wrong
analysis of the class struggle."
But much of the blame is pinned on Mao's fourth wife, Jiang Qing,
part of the Gang of Four, for trying to take over the party. Nor
is there any mention of the extreme suffering people endured.
The book also doesn't explain how modern China has chosen its
leaders, which until recently involved purges and intrigue. Nor
does it cover the 1951 occupation of Tibet or the exile of the
"Most Chinese end up believing this government view of history,"
said Dugarjab Hotala, an ethnic Mongolian who grew up in China's
far west before immigrating to the United States. "While a lot
of students don't take history seriously, unconsciously it
becomes part of your thinking."
Officials with the Education Ministry and the textbook publisher
could not be reached for comment.
Chinese historians, however, say the field is becoming more
objective. "No country has perfect textbooks, and China is no
exception," said Zhang Sheng, history professor at Nanjing
University. "But they are improving. While 30 years ago they
were based mostly on class struggle, now they're increasingly
based on facts."
Zhang said that three decades is not enough time for Chinese
historians to come to a definitive view of the Cultural
Revolution. "Those who experienced the Cultural Revolution drew
their own lessons, so you don't need a lot of words in the
chapter on this," he added.
Chinese history is a sensitive enough topic that the nation's
cyber-police block websites on key events, and history
professors worry about losing their jobs for expressing views
that don't follow the party line.
Bill Xia, head of a North Carolina-based company called Dynamic
Internet Technology, which allows Chinese to get around
government filters by using its system of rapidly changing Web
addresses, said he's seen a big increase in Chinese surfers
looking for "unofficial" views of Chinese history since the rise
of Sino-Japanese tensions.
"The Communist Party says the Japanese cover up their textbooks.
But when people get the real story, they see that Beijing is
covering up history, too," Xia said. "When people get more
information, they start thinking for themselves, which makes the
One historian, who asked not to be identified, said China used
the history issue as a weapon against the Japanese when it was
convenient. "It's useful as a diplomatic card, to cover up the
real issue: economic confrontation," he said. "Domestically, the
Communist Party has crafted its own version of history to
bolster its legitimacy. That's why it's still impossible to look
objectively at Mao Tse-tung, the Cultural Revolution or
The way junior high student Xuanyao sees it, the history that
Chinese learn in school helps unify them. The Great Leap Forward
was a good thing, she said, because it allowed China to develop
so quickly after years of Japanese occupation. "I really support
those anti-Japanese protesters," she said. "I think what they
did is great."
Yin Lijin in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this