Teachers shine welcome light onto textbook lies

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 November, 2009, 12:00am

Students around the world are taught that Thomas Edison, the 19th-century American scientist and businessman, invented the phonograph, the electric light bulb and the motion picture camera, among other marvels.

Read a Chinese textbook and you may be surprised to learn that at the age of just seven, Edison ingeniously set up a series of mirrors to maximise the poor light as surgeons performed an appendectomy on his mother.

All Chinese students are taught the story but three teachers from Zhejiang province hit the headlines last month when they asked a very simple question: why?

The teachers' concern was not with youngsters learning about Edison. Rather, it was that the story was entirely fictitious. No historical records offer evidence that the event took place, and the first appendectomy was not carried out for another 33 years.

'These bizarre proverbs were made to instil perceived good values, like creativity and family bonds in the Edison case,' one of the teachers, Guo Chuyang from Hangzhou, told China Youth Daily.

Tying in a historical figure like Edison was believed to help drive home the message, Guo said, 'but the fact that it was fabrication undermined whatever message it was intended to deliver'.

Textbooks play a crucial role in shaping how young people see the world. This is especially true in China, where big workloads mean children have little free time to spend on extra-curricular reading, and schools and teachers are not given freedom to select which textbooks they use.

It is not only foreign historical figures who come in for the treatment.

One commonly studied tract contains an apparently fictitious account of Chen Yi, a charismatic founding father of the People's Republic and a former foreign minister. According to the story, Chen paid a visit to his mother in remote rural Sichuan during the 1960s, despite a hectic official schedule. The story is intended to show the importance of family values, but a close examination of Chen's movements at the time suggests that no such visit took place.

These lies may seem relatively minor, particularly in an age when curious students can log on to the internet to learn an alternative version.

But behind them sits something far more deep-rooted - the government's obsession with shaping people's thoughts through what they read, watch and hear. The earlier the brainwashing takes place, the deeper the message sinks in, so textbooks form the perfect tool to equip mainlanders with suitably patriotic and correct thoughts.

Literature textbooks are the worst offenders. Instead of promoting the myriad social and philosophical lessons offered by great writers the world over, students are still served a one-dimensional diet of revolutionary texts that sanctify state-approved heroes. They play up the tribulations of the country before the communists took power in 1949 and the sacrifices made by China's saviours. Legitimising Communist Party rule often comes at the expense of the truth.

It is not just teachers like the three from Zhejiang who are fighting against this approach to education - so are the descendents of some of the 'villains' of Chinese history.

'Cock Crows at Midnight' was a fixture in primary school literature textbooks from the 1960s to the late 1980s.

It was an excerpt from the autobiography of a self-styled rural labourer called Gao Yubao, who wrote about the misery of working for an unscrupulous landlord called Zhou Bapi in 1940s Liaoning .

Generations of pupils learned that Zhou, who hired the teenage Gao on meagre wages, would stick his head into the chicken coop before dawn to stir the roosters and wake up his workers earlier than normal. A book published by one of Zhou's great-grand-nephews earlier this year tells a somewhat different story.

The author, a journalist by training, carried out a detailed investigation of the alleged despot's hometown. Witnesses and records all showed he was a compassionate man and kind employer. Gao, in his late 70s, said he was guided by communist propaganda authorities when writing the book and admitted it was 'larger than life'.

This liberal approach to the truth does not just involve additions to the historical record. Despite regularly upbraiding Japan over revisionism of its wartime atrocities in its history textbooks, many of the darker sides of the mainland's past are glossed over.

Little is offered about the millions of people who died during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, nor of the Stalinist purges of party cadres that took place in Yanan in the 1940s. The annexation of Tibet in the 1950s was simplified as the emancipation of an enslaved people and offers no mention of complaints against communist rule. The 1989 Tiananmen massacre, unsurprisingly, warrants only one line which characterises the pro-democracy protests as mere 'disturbances'.

While teachers and schools in Japan at least have a choice over which textbook to follow, on the mainland books are selected by local education officials. But they hardly have much of a say either, as all textbooks are produced by state-owned publishing houses that follow the official line.

If an independent-minded teacher wants to tell the students the other side of the story, he or she risks a dip in exam performance. Only standard answers and viewpoints in accordance with the communist version of history earn scores in tests and the all-important college entrance examination. There are no marks on offer for solid argument or analytical skills.

Guo and his colleagues deserve praise for exposing some myths in liberal arts education. But unless the government decides to lift its controls and allow a free debate on what is printed in textbooks, the curious myth of Thomas Edison and his mother's surgery will continue to be passed on to unsuspecting children.