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
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A table listed 12 key innovations in science and technology during the 19th century and noted that 4 were German, 3 French, 2 American, and one each from Sweden, Britain, and Italy. None was Chinese. “Why was it in Western Europe that science flourished?” the pupils were asked in an exercise. Modestly, the book omitted Xian and Beijing and other Chinese cities from its choice of world history’s three most notable imperial capitals; Rome, Istanbul, and Paris got the nod. The students were asked: “Why do no Chinese capitals make the list? If one were to be included, which would you choose and for what reasons?” The book gave more credit than Western leftists do to benefits from the Cold War’s “order for stability and peace,” even, very boldly for China, noting that it led to the “eventual democratization of the formerly oppressed.”

Defending his upbeat textbook, Su pointed out that because Marx spoke of progress in history, all progress can be said to be a fulfillment of Marx. The text’s stress on how experimentalism undermined theology in the history of Western science could be taken—probably was meant to be taken—as analogous to the post-Mao undermining of Marxism-Leninism in China by the policy of “seeking the truth from facts.” But left-wing nationalists rejected the whole notion of Chinese history as just one part of world history.

In the textbook’s account of World War II and its aftermath, Mao was mentioned only once, for his welcome on August 9, 1945, to the Soviet Union’s declaration of war on Japan, at the eleventh hour before Japan’s surrender. But room was found for two lyrical paragraphs about Christmas Day, 1914, when on the Western front German and British soldiers “laid aside weapons, shook hands, sang Christmas carols, exchanged gifts, played soccer together, and took photos of each other.” The textbook remarked poignantly: “The Christmas Day ceasefire did not endure and ferocious fighting resumed, but for a season these enemies deep in a chasm of hatred built a bridge to their common human feelings.”

As Internet debate raged, one opponent of the new text was unexpectedly insightful: “If pupils do not understand the rise and fall of Western nations, they cannot understand China’s modern humiliations; if they do not study the Bolshevik Revolution and the French Revolution, they will not understand the concrete record of Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong.” The last name jumps out like a red light on a German freeway. In China you must not link Hitler with Mao! Nor are you allowed to analyze the link between Mao’s actions and the political system of China!

Defending his book against the left, Su reached for an amusing backhanded compliment to Mao: “During the 20th century, Mao from the start recognized the historical realism of Deng Xiaoping.” True, Mao did not kill Deng. But he did twice purge him, in 1967 and 1976, as blandly as if swatting away a mosquito.

Left-wingers continued their potshots. In one of 39,200 items posted on the Internet about the book up to September 2009, a teacher complained, “Where is the cruel story of colonialism? It seems in future students will have to go to a museum to learn the humiliations of China’s modern history.” Another disagreed: “Stressing the history of colonialism doesn’t help cultivate pupils’ talents.”

One admirer of the new text said, “Here is the full shape of history.” Another declared, “A textbook cannot refrain from either affirming or rejecting our actual way of life.” But a critic laid down, “Cultivating patriotism is the most important goal of history education.”

To change the historical emphasis, as the Shanghai educators attempted, from tyrants and wars to people and societies, from national stories to a story of civilization, was reasonable. I live in the primarily black Roxbury section of Boston, where schools stress white racism and African cultures, and Zinn’s virtually anti-American book is popular. Some of us try to explain the connection between such syllabi and the difficulty young African Americans have getting jobs. I applaud the Su-Zhou textbook for downplaying great moments in the Chinese farmers’ rebellion and Chinese resistance to imperialists in favor of understanding historical forces that flavor the present.

Yet amnesia about Mao’s destructive leftism would be disturbing. The textbook’s accounts of his utopian Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s and the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s were perfunctory. A decade from now, the six-year-old grown to be 16 should be taught more about Mao than that he “made errors” and that his “wildly ambitious” wife and defense minister led him by the nose to “orchestrate ten years of chaos.” How could a Communist party—still in power in 2010—produce and for decades tolerate a Führer?

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