Like Japan’s, Chinese Textbooks Are Adept at Rewriting History

Times Staff Writer

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 own.

“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 past.

“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 vandalized.

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 surrounding decade.

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 Dalai Lama.

“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 government concerned.”

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 Tiananmen Square.”

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 report.