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New Taiwan textbook flap: Forgetting Nanking?

A new textbook flap is brewing on Taiwan, this time over the omission of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre by one publishing house and other publishing companies making only brief references to the event. This latest incident, involving as it does the always sensitive issue of the Japanese atrocities at Nanjing, has added new energy to the recent storm over history education in the ROC.

In an op-ed piece for the Apple Daily (posted and translated by ESWN), history teacher Tsai Wei-chun writes:

The questions were basically these kinds: Do you feel that the textbook should eliminate the narrative on the Nanking massacre? Will the elimination of the description of the Nanking massacre affect the historical memories of the students? The logic behind these questions is: historical memory is related to history education, and history education can strengthen or weaken historical memories. To put it more explicitly, history education is linked to national self-identity. My thoughts were quite the opposite: it is the political positions, the national self-identity and the popular feelings that are influencing history education, instead of history education changing political positions, national self-identity, popular feelings or historical memories.

Although everybody says that politics should not intervene in education, the fact is that everybody uses politics to influence history education. The blues and the greens each have their historical viewpoints that they want to influence history education with. Many citizens use their own beliefs about politics, nation and people to construct a “correct” history education Even the history scholars put on a cloak of history professionalism (when they don’t understand anything about history education) to conceal their own political positions and freely discuss the so-called history education and textbooks (in Europe and America, “history” and “history education” are two different academic fields).

During the course of teaching, the few lines in the textbook that describes the Nanking massacre might as well as not be there. The teacher is usually pressed by the schedule and most of them can only just mention it briefly. Even if the textbook does not have it, the teacher can design a related activity. The only people who think that it makes a difference are politicians, scholars and citizens who have accepted a certain set of history and therefore this offends their “historical sentiments.”

Teacher Tsai then suggests using the ‘documentary collection’ style of textbooks that are becoming more popular in England and the United States. These books collect primary materials in sections that ask students important historical questions and force the readers to think about the materials critically and draw their own conclusions. Obviously such collections are also subject to biases, but I agree with Tsai that the pedagogical focus should be on students thinking critically rather than simply regurgitating dates and other people’s interpretations. This is a hard sell anywhere but especially in China where control over historical interpretation has always been an important tool in the service of the state.

Should the Nanking massacre be discussed? If you want to discuss it, you should spend a lot of time on it and enter into the conditions in 1937. If you don’t want to talk about that, you can talk about the massacre that occurred when Zeng Guoquan intruded into Tiandu (Nanjing) and killed just as many people.

As a historian and a teacher, I definitely think the Nanjing Massacre should be included in history textbooks, as should the Holocaust, the Atlantic slave trade, and Hiroshima/Nagasaki to name but a few items. But students should be led by good teachers to reach their own conclusions. The evidence is already there, the “correct” interpretation shouldn’t have to be shoved down their throats.

3 Comments on New Taiwan textbook flap: Forgetting Nanking?

  1. Michael Turton // February 14, 2007 at 8:00 am //

    The textbooks reduce the amount of material on Nanking so they can make space for other important stuff. The local government is reforming the educational system to make it more Taiwan centered. They don’t suffer from the delusion that Taiwan is part of China; hence, they are eliminating that standpoint entirely. Nanking is not “disappearing” but mention of it merely being reduced, since it is an important event that happened 60 years ago in another country.

    The flap over this is part of the deeper resistance among the pro-China forces in Taiwan to any furthering the island’s own unique identity.


  2. I’ve a request. Would you mind expounding on what you think of the phrase, “The correct interpretation”? I see this particular phrase sometimes in Chinese media or hear it from Chinese educators and generally take it to mean “the government approved status quo.”

  3. 花崗齋之愚公 // February 15, 2007 at 12:02 am //


    I’m with you on the Taiwan issue, a point of debate that has gotten me kicked to the sofa on more than one instance. In terms of the post, I was speaking about history education in general, not quite as much about Taiwan specifically.

    But, speaking about the textbooks on Taiwan for the moment: I disagree with Teacher Tsai that it needs to be covered in great detail at the high school level, but I do think it rates a mention in the curriculum.


    “Correct interpretation” depends on where you are. In the PRC, it does mean the government/party approved interpretation of events. In the US, it has meant not challenging or besmirching beloved figures of the republic (i.e. Jefferson/Sally Hemmings). In Japan it has meant recasting the “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” as primarily a force directed against European imperialism. In general, the “correct interpretation” seems to be the one that supports whatever contemporary political views are held by the group doing the interpreting.

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