Revising history in the Chinese classroom

I enjoyed this article in the NY Times that looks at how history is being taught to Chinese high school students.

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.

Read the article, which starts with a rather precious description of an actual lecture on World War II to Shanghai high schoolers.

Of course, if my own country keeps heading in its current direction and starts teaching Creationism as an alternative theory to how man came to be, then I won’t be able to complain much….

The Discussion: 19 Comments

u should cut & paste stuff from sites you need to pay to access like NYT.

many of us in china are poor.

December 7, 2004 @ 8:33 pm | Comment

You can access the NY Times for free, even in China. Just fill in your name and address where they ask for it, and then you can see the articles. It only takes a minute. (The NYT was blocked for a while back in 2003, but I’m pretty sure you can access it now in the PRC.)

December 7, 2004 @ 9:08 pm | Comment

If you still have trouble, send me an email and I will send you the article.

December 7, 2004 @ 9:08 pm | Comment

valid point but pls remember this is not america and it’s not risk free to register, even for free to a site that prints anti party material like the one you describe. This is still the PRC.

It could put you in jail.

December 7, 2004 @ 9:13 pm | Comment

I think you can safely register to read the NYT — if they were worried about it, they would simply block it. I am very sensitive to the CCP’s censorship policies, and I think registering for the NYT would be fine. Just don’t speak out about what you learn there, and don’t write Internet essays or even emails about the material if it is very critical of the CCP. Always be careful.

December 7, 2004 @ 9:18 pm | Comment

While I welcome eforts to correct history books in China, I don’t think that China will readily let go of the anti Japanese sentiment in its history books, or that Beijing will ever accept the view of this period of history as taught in America and Europe. It will also require reforms of the media and gagging of right wing politicians, which isn’t going to happen in the forseable future.

Just as America needs Islam to provide a face to an otherwise faceless enemy, and to explain why people don’t like it, so China needs to provide its people with something to struggle against, and it appears to have chosen the memory of the Sino-Japanese war.

I also can’t see China facing the 1898 pro democracy campaign or its intervention over North Korea any time soon. If a county blocks blogs for discussing these issues, there is little chance that its leaders will relent to freeing the constraints put on its school books.

The recent move against oublic speaking scientists and experts who disagree with Beijing shows us that it is still trying to control peoples thoughts.

December 7, 2004 @ 11:30 pm | Comment

First of all, for all of you who want to use free registartion sites, check out (and it’s ingenious firefox-extension, or ie bookmarklet) – it relieves you from having to sign up ever again (does not work on paid services).

Secondly, the rather lengthy but very insightful posting of EastWestNorthSouth about this article is a must-read:


December 8, 2004 @ 8:43 am | Comment

This is not new: 1989, Tianjin Institute of Foreign Trade. I remember my students earnestly informing me that the United States dropped both atomic bombs on Japan after Japan had already surrendered to the Chinese Communist forces. According to them, America nuked the two cities just for revenge.

December 8, 2004 @ 5:36 pm | Comment


The students’ comments made to you is not due to CCP’s propaganda, but simply those students speculation. I can testify that this kind of knowledge is not from CCP.

However, NYtimes does have a good point that CCP greatly exaggerated its role in Japanese defeat. Even in high school, we all know that, without US, there is no way Japanese can be defeated, and CCP’s force is just a small potato. Actually, I think the contribution from Russian is actually is the largest. But I guess Americans tend to avoid mentioning that.

EWNS’s comments reflects exactly my thought when I read NYtimes article. As a middle-aged man brainwashed by CCP and totally dissolusioned in 1989, I agreed with NYtimes that CCP twisted history. However, I am also very bothered by the way western media present its case.

In my opinion, CCP is simply stupid to prevent Chinese from reading western media. In fact, most people will be actually more sympathetic to CCP’s position after experiencing the “unfairness” in western media.

Western media may try to be fair. But I think people’s sense of fairness is affected by his past experience, background and percention.

I was brought up as an atheist. The first time I met a true christian who is a scientist, I was totally shocked. In my mind, only illiterate and superstitious people will actually believe Man is created by Almighty. On the other side of the coin, that guys probably pity me for being an athiest. I guess a fair way to say it is that both of us are brainwashed.

December 8, 2004 @ 6:33 pm | Comment

“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 article seems to be implying that the above is another fabrication in CCP’s version of history, but as far I know, this is what actually happened and I thought it was not in dispute. What’s the new American version of history in this case?

December 8, 2004 @ 7:35 pm | Comment

Thanks to Stian for the link to the EastWestNorthSouth article, very well worth a read. That link again:

December 8, 2004 @ 8:42 pm | Comment

Well, I think Steve makes some good points. However, I would take exception with his comment that the Russians played a larger role than the US in the Pacific theater of WWII. If he is referring to their role in Europe, I would say that they were capital. But I have never heard of any historian (Chinese or Western) who lauded the role of the Russians in defeating the Japanese. And having lived in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, I am sure I would have heard of some great Russian role in the Pacific before now. I am not talking about hearing an opposing viewpoint and dismissing it. I am referring to not even hearing of such a viewpoint at all. So which great battles did Russia win in the Pacific?

December 8, 2004 @ 9:13 pm | Comment

The Soviets started fighting Japan just two weeks before WWII ended. Many historians saw this as an opportunistic move when it was clear which way the war was going, to facilitate a land grab. They were successful in seizing the Kuril island chain from Japan and expelling its inhabitants. Prior to that, the USSR had a neutrality treaty with Japan, so presumably they wouldn’t have been going into major battles with the Japanese over Chinese occupied territories.

December 9, 2004 @ 8:33 am | Comment

about the russians. you don’t have to engage in battle to have an impact. did you think the japanese trusted the russians to keep their word? i suspect that the japanaese must have kept hundreds of thousands of troops in the northeast in the event that russians might rush down. that is every bit as good as fighting a real war.

December 9, 2004 @ 9:38 am | Comment

Russia and Japan did fight a battle in 1939, and Japan’s defeat in that battle is the reason why she kept the majority of her best troops in Manchuria throughout the war.

December 9, 2004 @ 11:43 am | Comment

I teach European History to kids of East European ambassadors and I’d actually used this article to complement an earlier lesson that week about Japanese history taught in Japanese (and post Cold War E. European) schoolbooks. I was gratified to read that the NYTimes article mentioned that the reasons the Chinese distort history are for the very reasons the Japanese do as well. Just imagine if British high schools went on about the Germans like that after 6 decades. Oh yeah, they do!

December 9, 2004 @ 3:56 pm | Comment


thats an interesting point to be made from a newspaper that recently spilled so much ink doing its damndist to convince americans that attacking Iraq was in self defense. I mean really… there’s more than one person in the room with their pants on fire.

Of course the point of the article is valid- China, like most countries, is dishonest about its own history and lies the loudest when it comes to war.

That is not to defend the Chinese government, but to drag the governments of Japan, which still doesnt talk much about the rape of Nanjing and medical experiment on civilians, and the US, where my high school teachers didnt talk a lot about the use of Chemical warfare and torture in that altruistic little excersion in Southeast Asia a while back, down closer to their levels.

December 9, 2004 @ 10:03 pm | Comment

And isn’t it ironic that when Americans travels to Vietnam, even North Vietnam, there is very little animus towards them from the Vietnamese?
As oppossed to the Chinese towards the Japanese.
Why do you think that is?

December 11, 2004 @ 7:40 am | Comment

That is true, but from what I understand there’s still a very strong hatered of both the Chinese and Japanese in Vietnam.

When I told a Vietnam student that I was surprised that nobody hated me for being American his reply was, “No, of course not. We won that war. Right now everyone really hates the Chinese.”

I wonder what they think of the French.

December 12, 2004 @ 3:21 pm | Comment

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