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Where's Mao?

The Chinese leader is disappearing from the country's new history textbooks, which downplay socialism altogether.

By Joseph Kahn in Beijing


This year, high school students in Chicago will likely learn more about Communism than students in Shanghai: The new world- history textbooks just introduced in China's biggest city have dropped Communist revolutions and socialist theory in favor of colorful tutorials on economics, technology, and globalization.

Socialism has been reduced to a single chapter in the senior high school history course. Chinese Communism before the economic reform that began in 1979 is covered in a single sentence. The text mentions Mao Zedong, the Communist leader and revolutionary considered the father of modern China, only once—in a chapter on etiquette.

Almost overnight, the country's most prosperous schools have shelved the Marxist template that had dominated standard history texts since the 1950s. The changes, the authors say, are part of a broader effort by the Chinese government to promote a more stable, less violent view of Chinese history that serves today's economic and political goals.

"Our traditional version of history was focused on ideology and national identity," says Zhu Xueqin, a historian at Shanghai University. "The new history is less ideological, and that suits the political goals of today."

The old textbooks, not unlike the ruling Communist Party, had changed relatively little in the last quarter-century of market-oriented economic reforms. They were glaringly out of sync with realities students faced outside the classroom.

Trading Agendas

But critics say the new textbooks trade one political agenda (Communism) for another (economic progress). However friendly the new emphasis seems to Western ideals, the Chinese government is still controlling the books' content.

In a sense, the new textbooks do not so much rewrite history as diminish it: Having largely abandoned its own Communist ideology, China's one-party state prefers people to think more about the future than the past.

The new text focuses on the same ideas and buzzwords that dominate the state-run media: economic growth, innovation, foreign trade, political stability, and social harmony.

J.P. Morgan, Bill Gates, the New York Stock Exchange, the space shuttle, and Japan's bullet train are all highlighted. There is a lesson on how neckties became fashionable. The French and Russian revolutions, once seen as turning points in world history, now get far less attention. Chairman Mao, the Long March, and colonial oppression of China are taught only briefly.

The books still present a government view of history, just a different version now. So far, the changes are limited to schools in Shanghai, China's most economically advanced and sophisticated city. In the past, textbooks introduced in Shanghai have followed elsewhere.

Deng, Not Mao

Zhou Chunsheng, a professor at Shanghai Normal University and an author of the new textbook series, says his purpose was to make people and societies the central theme. "History does not belong to emperors or generals," he says.

Students now study Mao—still officially revered but no longer regularly promoted as an influence on policy—only in junior high school. In the senior high school text, he is mentioned fleetingly as part of a lesson on the custom of lowering flags to half-staff at state funerals, like Mao's in 1976.

Former President Deng Xiaoping, who began China's market-oriented reforms, appears in the junior and senior high school versions, with emphasis on his economic vision.

The Shanghai textbook revisions do not address many domestic and foreign concerns about the biased way Chinese schools teach recent history. Like the old textbooks, the new ones play down historic mistakes or atrocities like the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the army crackdown on peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989.

The new textbooks also de-emphasize peasant struggle, ethnic rivalry, and war, some critics say, because the Chinese leadership does not want people thinking that such things matter a great deal. Officials prefer to create the impression that the Chinese through the ages cared more about innovation, technology, and trade relationships with the outside world.

But some teachers have criticized what they see as an effort to minimize history.

"The junior high textbook [weakens] history," a Shanghai history teacher wrote in an online discussion, "while the senior high school textbook eliminates it entirely."