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China Adds Culture and Subtracts History in New High School Books

By Joseph Kahn
THE NEW YORK TIMES


BEIJING

When high school students in Shanghai crack their history textbooks this fall they may be in for a surprise. The new standard world history text drops wars, dynasties and communist revolutions in favor of colorful tutorials on economics, technology, social customs and globalization.

Socialism has been reduced to a single, short chapter in the senior high school history course. Chinese communism before the economic reform that began in 1979 is covered in a sentence. The text mentions Mao only once — in a chapter on etiquette.

Nearly overnight the country’s most prosperous schools have shelved the Marxist template that had dominated standard history texts since the 1950s. The changes passed high-level scrutiny, the authors say, and are part of a broader effort to promote a more stable, less violent view of Chinese history that serves today’s economic and political goals.

Supporters say the overhaul enlivens mandatory history courses for junior and senior high school students and better prepares them for life in the real world. The old textbooks, not unlike the ruling Communist Party, changed relatively little in the last quarter-century of market-oriented economic reforms. They were glaringly out of sync with realities students face outside the classroom.

But critics say the textbooks trade one political agenda for another. They do not so much rewrite history as diminish it. The one-party state, having largely abandoned its official ideology, prefers people to think more about the future than the past.

The new text focuses on ideas and buzz words that dominate the state-run media and official discourse: economic growth, innovation, foreign trade, political stability, respect for diverse cultures and social harmony.

J.P. Morgan, Bill Gates, the New York Stock Exchange, the Space Shuttle and Japan’s bullet train are all highlighted. There is a lesson on how neckties became fashionable.