Watered down version of Chinese history taught in schools will leave children poorer

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 May, 2009, 12:00am

In the past few years, the role played by Chinese history in the local school curriculum has shrunk so much that it has been dubbed the 'twilight subject'.

Chinese history teachers are frustrated by the truncated and piecemeal way the subject is taught now. This worrying situation is happening in about 10 to 20 per cent of local secondary schools.

As opposed to the past practice of teaching Chinese history as an individual subject, such schools have assimilated the subject into integrated humanities or liberal studies together with such subjects as geography and western history.

With only 20 to 30 per cent of lesson time of integrated humanities devoted to Chinese history, the teaching of the subject in those schools is nothing more than a formality.

At certain other schools, Chinese and western history have been combined into a single subject.

There are clear-cut rules laid down by the Education Bureau about how the subject should be taught in the junior secondary curriculum. Schools have to either devote one-quarter of the lesson time of integrated humanities to Chinese history or set aside two lessons per school week for the subject.

However, the bureau does not take any action against the flouting of the rules by schools.

Not only has the amount of lesson time set aside for the subject shrunk, many historical events of major significance to the development of Chinese history have been taken out of the curriculum. For example, students under the forthcoming new senior academic structure do not have to study the reign of the famed female empress Wu Zetian and the Three Kingdoms period. It is ludicrous that some students might not know who Liu Bei, the founder of the Shu Kingdom, was.

Instead of teaching historical events in a chronological way, some teachers skip topics, omitting the history of certain dynasties from the curriculum or focusing on contemporary Chinese history at the expense of age-old historical events. This will prevent young children from developing a continuous historical perspective.

The evolution of a country's history and culture is continuous. The failed policies of a dynasty and misdeeds committed by its leaders would affect how the subsequent dynasty's head of state enacts rules and lays down policies. The truncated way the subject is taught in some schools would leave students at a loss over the rationale behind imperial policymaking.

The number of students taking the subject in the two public exams has also been falling over the years. While some people might think that Chinese history is a turgid subject that requires much rote-learning and monotonous memorising of facts, the subject has actually undergone a lot of promising changes in the past few years.

I must praise the government for making the subject much more lively and relevant to students' daily lives than in the past.

With the addition of many case studies and scenario questions to public exams, students have to exercise their critical thinking and analytical skills when handling the exam questions. This is a great departure from past exam questions that required little more than regurgitation of historical facts.

Through analysing historical events and comparing past with current events, students will be able to form a value system of their own.

In spite of all these encouraging changes to the exam content, the subject still suffers from dwindling attention from both the government and schools.

Our organisation, the Association of Chinese History Teachers, plans to conduct more surveys in future and explore the reasons for the waning importance of the subject and identify the threats faced by the subject.

Some people might blame the government's lax supervision for the present alarming situation. However, they might overlook other reasons. For instance, maybe there are problems with the curriculum design or maybe teachers simply don't have much affinity with the subject. We are at a loss over the real reasons right now, so there's a need for us to conduct more surveys.

The proper teaching of Chinese history is of the utmost importance to the development of junior secondary students. Only through understanding the subject thoroughly will students develop their sense of identity and a sense of belonging with their country. There are also many historical figures whose rise to fame or downfall provide for inspirational or cautionary reading.

To help remedy the current troubling situation, I hope that the government will strengthen the monitoring of the teaching of the subject and implement the rules about lesson times for the subject more rigorously.

Henri Lee Wai-hung is the chairman of the Association of Chinese History Teachers. He is currently teaching Chinese history at Fukien Secondary School (Siu Sai Wan). He is talking to Elaine Yau.