The controversy over school textbooks in South Korea, where government-revised teaching materials have been criticised for whitewashing the country’s mid-20th century autocratic rule, is a familiar story in East Asia. Neighbouring Japan is notorious for watering down its barbaric invasion and colonisation of parts of Asia in its textbooks. And, closer to home, the “national education” issue lingers in Hong Kong.
The founding Hongwu Emperor of the Ming dynasty used thought control to strengthen his authority and ensure loyalty to the dynasty. He decreed that scholars could study only a prescribed list of books and lecture on only certain schools of thought, all of which centred on neo-Confucianism.
In 1381, he conferred the Four Books and Five Classics, the canon of Confucian thought, on some schools, proclaiming that they were “like the five grains, indispensable in every family”. By the mid- 1400s, cracks began to appear in the monolithic intellectual milieu. Scholars started to reject the state orthodoxy and several “heretical” schools of thought emerged. The Taizhou School, for example, criticised and derided Confucian norms. One of its leaders, Li Zhi, was sceptical of the Four Books, believing they were error-ridden and should be subject to scrutiny, and that the values of the present day should take precedence over those of Confucius’ time.
Alarmed by his dangerous views, the government arrested the 75-year-old Li in 1602. He died during torture.