Educating China

Kenneth Kai-chung YUNG

Peter Zarrow’s Educating China is a comprehensive study of Chinese textbooks from the late Qing period to early Republican era to the Nanjing Decade in the 1930s. Utilizing textbooks at various levels, from the lower primary to the higher middle schools, and supported with interesting pictures and drawings from them, he has presented excellently how textbook writing in the first four decades of the 20th century played a crucial role in shaping or modernizing Chinese students’ concepts of their nation, history, culture, ethnics, morality, hygiene and even their position in the globe. 

In seven chapters, he traces the origins of the modern state school system in the early 20th century, explores its structure and development at different levels and provides specific case studies on several popular subjects in the Chinese education system. He also examines in detail how the sociopolitical background of each period influenced the perspectives adopted by the authors in writing the textbooks.

Writing textbooks for national revival in three periods

In an era when China was facing both domestic political instability and foreign imperialism, most textbook authors considered that they had a mission to stimulate the national self-awareness of the children and teenagers through education. Some of them may also see textbooks as a tool to serve the government’s propaganda needs, whether it was the Qing or the Nationalist governments. Zarrow demonstrates nicely how textbooks were written to fulfil these aims. In addition to adopting a clear and thematic approach, he wrote each chapter in a chronological way. Thus, it is easy for readers to understand the evolution of Chinese textbook writing from the late Qing period to the Nanjing Decades. Moreover, Zarrow has compared in detail textbooks of the same subject published in the same period. This does reflect, to a certain extent, the diversity of textbook content in the pre-1949 era as opposed to state-controlled textbook writing under Communist rule afterwards.

Relevance to contemporary textbook writing

The chapters on history textbook are particularly impressive. Zarrow intends to trace the emergence of modern Chinese history textbooks, explains the approach Chinese history was written in the textbooks and discusses how history is used in the textbooks to promote nationalistic feelings among Chinese students. But these chapters may also shed light on contemporary Chinese history textbooks published in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Having been born and received education in Hong Kong, I am quite surprised that the interpretation of premodern Chinese history as reflected in these late Qing and Republican-era textbooks is very similar to the interpretation I have been taught since my primary school years. In other words, Zarrow is not merely studying modern Chinese textbooks in the pre-1949 years, but also providing an explanation of how the content of contemporary Chinese history textbooks in Hong Kong and Taiwan comes from. In this sense, Zarrow’s book is important to experts in the educational history of Hong Kong and Taiwan. His book is also a must-read if one would like to understand the formation of the history syllabus in high schools in contemporary Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Zarrow’s book may also lay a good foundation for further study, especially in the field of educational history in Hong Kong and Taiwan after 1949. Clearly, the aims of raising students’ national self-awareness and teaching them about China’s position in the modern world did not end in 1937. Publication of Chinese textbooks probably continued in China-controlled areas during the Sino-Japanese War and after the surrender of Japan in 1945. On the eve of the Communist takeover in 1949, a certain number of textbook authors and publishers must have fled to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Chinese-populated areas in Southeast Asia and continued their work there. Further room for research, therefore, lays in the continuity of specific perspectives on various ideas and concepts, as reflected in the pre-1949 textbooks, outside the Chinese mainland in the Cold War era, and to what extend contemporary Chinese textbooks in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Southeast Asia can be seen as a legacy of the pre-1949 textbooks.

Possible exploration of individual authors’ personal experiences

Having demonstrated the diversity of Chinese textbooks before Japanese invasion, Zarrow could have looked more deeply into the backgrounds and personal experiences of the textbook authors. In what ways did the personal experiences of each author shape his/her presentation of the subject in the textbooks? And how far the textbooks were a product of interaction between the authors’ personal experiences and the sociopolitical circumstances? If these questions had been addressed, additional contribution could have been made by the book.

Having said that, Zarrow’s book is still an innovative study in the fields of Chinese cultural, intellectual and educational history. As a historian specialized in Chinese emigre intellectuals during the Cold War, I am delighted to read the book. It is not only an important contribution to the study of the late Qing and Republican China, but also the study of the history of Hong Kong and Taiwan, as the Chinese textbooks examined in this book may find its legacy in Cold War and contemporary Hong Kong and Taiwan. The book would definitely inspire further research on textbooks in China’s peripheral areas after 1949.