Textbook Tensions

3 minute read
Anthony Spaeth

Careful the tale you tell, that is the spell,” sings the witch in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. “Children will listen.” Some students may snooze through history class, but most ordinary citizens get their understanding of the past in school. China and South Korea are bitterly criticizing Japan for its history textbooks that gloss over World War II brutalities and other historical misdeeds. There’s a dose of hypocrisy in that charge: China’s and South Korea’s textbooks are hardly models of historical accuracy.

The textbook issue first became a regional flash point in 1982, when Japanese schoolchildren were indeed denied a balanced historical perspective. The Japanese invasion of China was described as an “advancement”; the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, in which up to 300,000 people were slaughtered, was described as the result of “heavy resistance” from the Chinese army. After Korea’s and China’s protests, Japanese textbooks got a lot more accurate, but that process may be reversing itself. The single textbook at the center of the current row, which describes the Nanjing Massacre as an “incident,” is used in a mere 0.1% of Japan’s middle schools. But this year, thetextbooks approved by the Ministry of Education for middle schools have deleted the term “comfort women” (females forced into prostitution for the Japanese army), and highlighted Japan’s claims to Tokdo (or Takeshima) island, which South Koreans occupy.

South Korea’s history books—the government writes them for students through the 10th grade—are considerably more accurate than they were under authoritarian governments in the past, but they remain remarkably reticent on the subject of North Korea (in deference to Seoul’s “Sunshine Policy” of engaging Pyongyang). Textbooks don’t mention the North’s famines, gulags, or the fact that Kim Jong Il is a dictator.

China, as can be expected from a Communist state, has the most strictly controlled history lessons. Much is made of the perfidy of outside powers, Japan and the West, but there is scant mention of the estimated 30 million Chinese who died during Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, the 1962 war with India, or China’s 1979 invasion of Vietnam. These excerpts from an eighth-grade textbook give a flavor of the way China, like its Asian rivals, smoothes history’s rough patches:

“During the Great Leap Forward and collectivization, natural disasters occurred over the course of three years … severe difficulties occurred with the nation’s economy, and the country and the People suffered major losses.”

From the corresponding teacher’s manual: “This textbook does not describe the circumstances surrounding these severe economic difficulties. The teacher need not elaborate.”

“1966 to 1976 were the ten years of turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. Lots of appalling events happened during these ten years: Chairman Liu Shaoqi was persecuted to death, conspirator Lin Biao launched a counter-revolutionary coup, the “Gang of Four” made a futile attempt to usurp the Party’s power.”

The teacher’s manual suggests: “The teacher can teach according to the text, and need not add or elaborate.”

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