Community & Education HKFP Voices Politics & Protest

Can Hong Kong’s revived Chinese History curriculum serve to cement a national identity?

No, it can’t, and there is no need to cram another vehicle of national self-congratulation into our children’s crowded timetables.

As expected, in her Policy Address announced on Wednesday, Carrie Lam finally confirmed the wish of conservative, pro-Beijing lawmakers to make Chinese History an independent compulsory subject for pupils aged 12 to 14.

Obviously, this policy treats history teaching as an ideological weapon that could beat down the anti-Chinese sentiments for Hong Kong independence. We don’t know whether it is an effective antidote or not, but it echoes Xi Jinping’s pathological desire to tighten control over all aspects of social life in China and wipe out dissidents at all costs. Carrie Lam is merely his poodle following the whistle.

Carrie Lam

Carrie Lam. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

We know that the new Chinese History curriculum will be “enriched” on the basis of the existing syllabus, in the rather impossible hope that Hong Kong pupil and teachers will, one day, “appreciate and inherit the splendid Chinese culture.”

So the rationale is not pedagogical but patently political, i.e. to foster a blindingly patriotic, triumphalist sense of Chinese identity. Pupils and teachers need to identify themselves as Chinese and love their “motherland,” no matter what. Never mind that most senior officials keep their children overseas or in international schools!

Will the new syllabus brainwash our children or should we give policymakers the benefit of the doubt? Well, it is way early to say that our children in Hong Kong will be easily indoctrinated with nationalistic ideologies as we see in China where political censorship is prevalent and freedom of speech is brutally suppressed.

However, we should remain sceptical about this new curriculum. This time, it is not Joshua Wong or other social activists that politicise education. (“Keeping politics out of education” is the boring mantra we often hear from the powerful elite).

By revitalising a curriculum with heavy prescriptions of political history, the government is turning on its head and actively pursuing an agenda of politicised education.

Chinese history textbooks

Chinese history textbooks. Photo: In-Media.

In fact, if we take a quick glance at the trajectory of Chinese History curricula in Hong Kong since the 1950s, it is not surprising to see how contentious the subject has been. Unlike other countries, history education in Hong Kong is anomalous: we have History and Chinese History as two independent subjects, rather than one.

Throughout the years, Chinese History has always been the site of political contest amongst various factions in Hong Kong society. As early as the 1920s, Governor Clementi encouraged conservative Chinese scholars to deliberate a depoliticised, backward-looking, moralising school curriculum in order to clamp down on anti-colonialist sentiment.

At that time, Chinese medium education was minimally supported by the colonial government, and most history education textbooks were published and circulated in Mainland China. As told in a report from a Chinese Studies Committee formed within the Education Department in 1953,”…one purpose of teaching Chinese History to Chinese children would be to get rid of this complex by reviving what is good in Chinese culture, thereby instilling fresh confidence into, and restoring the self-respect of, her people. This, however, must not be identified with the promotion of anti-foreignism” (Education Department, 1953, p.33).

It is not until the post-war period from 1950s to the early 70s that the contour of the current Chinese History curriculum was more clearly defined. The current syllabus presents Chinese History through a highly traditionalist, chronological, Han-centred approach with a broad sweep of 24 dynasties and political events over the centuries.

The early version of the Chinese History curriculum just covered the period from the Sui Dynasty (A.D. 581) to the Ming Dynasty (A.D. 1644), which is often glorified as the zenith of Chinese civilisation.

It intentionally left out the late Qing Dynasty and the Republican period for fear that episodes of Western and Japanese imperial aggression in the modern period after the late 19th century might fuel hatred against British colonial rule.

red house taiwan taiwanese republic of china national day

Pro-Republic of China politicians and activists wave flags in Hong Kong on October 10, 2017. Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

Critics always accuse this approach of historiography as dull and in lacking pedagogical rigour since most examinations just require students to recall and regurgitate dry facts instead of critical analysis of historical sources and their interpretation.

Nevertheless, the intentional neglect of contemporary political events in the Chinese History curriculum and a celebratory account of the Sui, Tang, Sung, Yuan and Ming dynasties dovetailed with the colonial authority’s desire for a de-politicised education in Hong Kong.

However, from 1974 to 1996, Chinese History became what history education scholar Edward Vickers calls an “untouchable subject.” In 1973, A. G. Brown, the chairman of the newly established Curriculum Development Committee formed within the Education Department, attempted to integrate Economic and Public Affairs, Geography, History and Chinese History into one subject, Social Studies, in the junior secondary education curriculum (ages 12 to 14).

This proposal was vehemently resisted by the pro-Chinese nationalistic teacher community. Szeto Wah, the political titan of the pro-democracy camp and also a well-known teacher unionist in Hong Kong, commented: “This integration… is another form of colonial education. In weakening students’ knowledge of China and their nationalist sentiment, the government aims at transforming Chinese into Hong Kongese.”

Szeto Wah

Szeto Wah. Photo: Flickr/k-ideas.

If Szeto Wah was still alive, he would surely endorse the new policy given his strong pro-China nationalistic stance in his political career. The Hong Kong government’s position on the Chinese History curriculum, therefore, has always been ambivalent and in tension, particularly after the sovereignty transfer in 1997.

On the one hand, it realises the importance of knowledge economy and the fact that the style of rote-learning adopted in history teaching in the past no longer works. On the other hand, it attempts to inculcate a sense of national identity in Hong Kong students, who increasingly feel estranged and alienated from China.

Meanwhile, policymakers are walking on a tightrope, trying to keep at bay sensitive topics such as Liu Xiaobo, Falun Gong, Tibet, Tiananmen Square Massacre and others by removing them from curriculum documents.

How will the new Chinese History curriculum foster this Chinese national identity? Again, we have no clear answer at the moment but my bet is that it will incorporate the once-removed portion on contemporary Chinese history.

Chinese history textbooks

A page in a Chinese history textbook. Photo: In-Media.

To evoke nationalistic emotions, the narrative may go like this: the “unequal” treaties signed between the British and the Qing Dynasty, the Western imperial aggression against China in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Nanking Massacre, and so forth.

The subtext of this victimised narrative of national humiliation is clear: students will be sympathetic towards their poor motherland. Love thy neighbour! Don’t complain! This jingoistic tone just sounds too familiar to our ears.

I pray that this narrative won’t be the only version prescribed in the new Chinese History curriculum. But if it turns out to be the case, the upshot is that the subject will bore students and teachers to death since the current approach of Chinese History is passive consumption rather than active critical engagement.

Will the new curriculum fire up imaginative interpretations? For example, how will the policymakers assess the interpretation offered by the Japanese historian Toshio Takashima who portrayed the founding emperors since the Han Dynasty to Mao as bandits rather than heroes?

As Cambridge historian Sir Richard Evans argues, “history is by its nature a critical, sceptical discipline. Historians commonly see one of their main tasks as puncturing myths, demolishing orthodoxies and exposing politically motivated narratives that advance spurious claims to objectivity.”

Chinese history textbooks

Chinese history textbooks. Photo: In-Media.

Will the new Chinese History curriculum empower students and teachers to interrogate myths (for example, the notion of “Chinese national identity” and the very first statement in the Basic Law that “Hong Kong has been part of the territory of China since ancient times”)?

Will teachers and students be allowed to confront the not so splendid features of Chinese culture such as the oppression of women, slavery, public displays of torture, and forced castration of men to serve as eunuchs in imperial courts? These themes certainly interest students but again, policymakers won’t pluck up the courage to include the embarrassing topics in the new syllabus.

Children aren’t empty vessels to be filled with nationalistic myths and therefore identify themselves more as Chinese. It is time for the government to stop bullying our children with its pathetic fetish for mind control.

Can Hong Kong's revived Chinese History curriculum serve to cement a national identity?