The Magazine

Mao Zedong and All That

A telling battle over China’s history curriculum.

Aug 16, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 45 • By ROSS TERRILL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The millions visiting World Expo in Shanghai find no mention at the China pavilion of Mao Zedong. Nor did those attending the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 encounter any mention of Chairman Mao. Yet while the Communist government tries to present an apolitical and cosmopolitan face to the “international community,” the balance sheet on the PRC’s founder is hotly disputed among Chinese educators and officials.

Mao Zedong and All That

Photo Credit: Newscom

Recently, a six-year-old Beijing boy, shown by his father an old magazine cover featuring Mao, said: “Yeah, I’ve heard of him! It’s Chairman Mao.” The boy knew Mao’s face from bank notes. “Certainly, I know of Mao,” the child added omnisciently. Actually, his knowledge of the dictator—like that of hundreds of millions of young Chinese—is close to zero.

Grandfather may have related stories of the Mao era (“my three years feeding pigs in the countryside”). Father may have told the boy of farmers clutching pictures of Mao as a talisman in the surging flood waters of the Yangtze River in 1991. But the child regularly sees more images of Colonel Sanders, Yao Ming, and Kobe Bryant than of Mao. Isn’t Mao, who died in 1976, a dead issue? Hasn’t China joined the world of the G-20 and the WTO? Not quite.

In Shanghai, a high school textbook, History, painstakingly crafted a mile or two from the Expo site and launched at schools in 2006, suggested what reformers think should await the six-year-old. Here Chinese history is less conflicted and more “harmonious” (a tactful nod to President Hu Jintao’s favorite term for his governance) than in previous Chinese textbooks. There is less about political leaders, battles, and China’s past sufferings, more about technology, economic forces, religion, environment, and social behavior. 

The deputy editor of the volume, Zhou Chunsheng, told a Chinese newspaper, “We want pupils to understand the background of what they see around them outside the classroom.” What Shanghai pupils see around them includes World Expo pavilions, cranes expanding the city’s size by the month, foreign businessmen hopping out of limousines, China’s manned space flights returning to earth, and shops where a pair of Italian shoes goes for $500. Professor Zhou, praising the Western Enlightenment, rejecting struggle and mayhem, asserting “knowledge is power,” predicted that “the 21st century will bring a ‘Battle of the Talents.’ ”

Following the French historian Fernand Braudel, the authors of History deemphasize the nation state. The violent unification of China in 221 b.c. by strongman Qin Shihuang, a hero of Mao’s, is not dwelt upon. Nor are famous peasant rebellions and Machiavellian coups that brought down dynasties. Indeed, as the textbook’s title implies, this is not Chinese history at all, but the story of civilization, with China spliced in to illustrate its themes. Globalization impinges, naturally giving a lesser role to nativist Mao. Said chief editor Su Zhiliang, “We hope our book reflects mankind’s actual existence.”

But, revealingly, History was canceled in 2007 and hurriedly replaced by a more politically correct and nationalistic text. Attacks on the book had rolled in from the left (“Bill Gates has replaced Mao Zedong,” “Where is Marxism?,” “Where is class struggle?”). Pathetically, Su defended himself: “Putting Chinese history together with world history under the banner ‘Civilization’ avoids much repetition.” But three years of pilot use and repeated prepublication consultations with Beijing did not save his textbook. Su remarked bitterly of his aborted child: “This must be the shortest life of any textbook in the six decades of the PRC.”

The hot potatoes of Mao and Chinese nationalism doomed History. It is not easy to discuss Mao, but it is unacceptable to omit him, especially if left-wingers are watching. Prosperous post-Mao China adjusts to the international community—or does it?

A joke used to circulate in the Soviet Union: “The future is certain; only the past is unpredictable.” The quip mocked the cockiness of Marxist historical optimism and Moscow’s faking of the Stalinist past. China, wrestling with its past, limns its future.

The Su-Zhou textbook had asked excellent questions of the pupils at the end of each chapter. “Compare and assess the contribution of Arab, Chinese, and Ancient Greek cultures to modern science.” It introduced the 19th century not with Western imperialism against China, but with Western leaps in science and technology. It hailed inventions in electricity, mechanics, and other fields as “advancing mankind.” The account of Einstein spoke of this “American contribution to the age of nuclear energy.” The book was full of an excitement at the West’s modern progress conspicuously lacking, for example, in Howard Zinn’s dismal People’s History of the United States.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers