Monday, October 30, 2006

Chinese History Textbooks

I've found recent discussions on the new Chinese history textbooks fascinating.

These textbooks are minimizing the role of Mao and the Revolution in Chinese history, promoting new views more in line with the present views of the Chinese government.

I have a lot of mixed feelings on this. On one hand, the cult of Mao isn't doing anyone any good. It doesn't really reflect modern China, it caused incalcuable damage to the nation and its people, and it is quite backward looking. On the other hand, how on earth can you discuss China since 1949 without Mao dominating the picture? You can't in any honest way. But the people writing these textbooks aren't interested in honesty. They are pushing a new form of social control rather than any real discussion of Chinese history.

What I find interesting is that, as Shanghaist points out, this is somewhat akin to Howard Zinn and other historians of the late 1960s and early 1970s debunking the great man theory in the United States. Leftists of the 60s and 70s always argued, at least rhetorically, that history needed to focus on the people rather than the leaders, but then again, they usually fell into the trap of glorifying Mao, Che, and others.

On the other hand, given that these books are commissioned by the Chinese government, it's hard to make that comparison to Zinn. These new books reflect new priorities of the government and a move away from anything that might threaten the new authoritarian capitalist order of China. Until Chinese history books are written by independent organizations or people, it's really hard to see a truly new interpretation coming to light. For this change isn't a new interpretation so much as it is a new form of propaganda.

The link above also has an interesting interview with Chinese historian Zhu Xueqin. Scroll to the bottom--it's short and well-worth reading.