BY Matt Moir
It’s a sunny April afternoon and I’m standing at the front of a Grade 10 Canadian history class in southeast Beijing.
My Chinese students, about twenty-five 16-year-olds, are sitting in their seats as I begin to introduce the broad outlines of the Korean War. In terms of detail, I don’t get very far — the troops tasked with defending Seoul from Pyongyang hadn’t even yet landed on the Korean Peninsula — before a hand belonging to a clever, serious boy with the English name Jason, raises.
He informs me that the Americans — and, presumably, their allies — didn’t in fact arrive in Asia to defend South Korea from North Korea, but to launch an aggressive war to subdue China. I ask Jason to expand on his ideas, and he says that the United Nations force, which included 26,000 Canadians, was eager to invade his country, occupy the very capital whose cityscape stretches out just beyond our large classroom windows, and dismantle communist China. Several students nod in agreement.
It goes without saying that Jason’s version of the Korean War is not reflected in Canadian history classes.
To be sure, no one should be naïve enough to think that nation-states, including Canada, don’t construct self-serving historical narratives, or that those narratives aren’t reflected in history classrooms. But most educators would, I think, agree that provincial curricula do an admirable job critically interrogating many historical injustices — the Chinese head tax, for example, or the internment of Japanese-Canadians.
That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement. There is no shortage of disgrace in Canadian history, and it’s a fair point that curricula might be able to do a better job reflecting underrepresented voices and viewpoints.
But it’s hard to see where or how the Korean War fits into those types of debates. I’m not aware of any Canadian material anywhere that frames this country’s involvement in the Korean War as an act of imperialism, of villainy. Why would it exist? Canada’s Army, Navy and Air Force fought under the banner of the United Nations, with its almost definitional sense of legitimacy.
But plainly there are interpretations of UN-authorized campaigns that are very dissimilar to the average Canadian’s, and the Korean War is clearly one of them. Not everyone views it as an honorable fight; quite the opposite, in fact. The Chinese curriculum identifies the conflict as the very definition of imperialism, according to Chinese students and teachers, as well as East Asia academic experts.
Whether that particular interpretation is valid — its ultimate source is the Communist Party of China — is, of course, another matter.
The demand for a Western-style education in the Middle Kingdom has grown significantly over the past several years, closely paralleling the growth of China’s middle class. Currently, there are nearly 600 international schools in the country, and some analysts predict that number will shoot up to at least 1,000 over the next several years.
I teach at a large Beijing public high school with a small international program. That means that about 100 of the school’s 1,000 students spend half their day studying a Canadian curriculum, and the other half in the traditional Chinese system.
The program is small because it’s expensive; only families with significant means can afford to enroll their children. For those parents, though, the return on their investment is considerable. Graduates of the international program are awarded a Canadian high school diploma with all of the benefits that come with it, including the opportunity to gain direct entry into a Canadian university and, crucially, an exemption from gaokao, China’s infamous university entrance exams.
There are, unsurprisingly, substantial differences between the Canadian and traditional Chinese education philosophies. Each has its merits. The Chinese system relies heavily on note taking and repetition and, consequently, many Chinese students develop phenomenal memories and test-taking abilities. Canadian curricula, on the other hand, emphasize the importance of creativity and critical thinking skills.
In my experience, however, the most significant problem faced by international school teachers isn’t how lessons are delivered but the content of the lessons themselves.
Most foreigners in authoritarian China understand that it’s probably not a good idea to discuss the ‘Three T’s’: Tiananmen, Tibet and Taiwan. What are a little trickier to navigate, however, are issues that teachers might not know are controversial, or events teachers might not know are viewed very differently in China than in their own country.
I don’t think what I teach my students about the Korean War is particularly one-sided: the communist North Koreans, supported by the Soviet Union and China, wanted to control the entire Korean Peninsula, whereas the U.S.-backed South Koreans wanted the same. After the North invaded the South, the Americans and their Canadian, Australian and British allies came to help Seoul, and the Chinese stepped in to protect the North. A seesaw conflict ensued, and the two sides technically remain at war more than 60 years later.
The Chinese history curriculum’s coverage of the Korean War by no means resembles the North Korean brand of propaganda, cartoonish and vulgar. In fact, the Chinese curriculum reaches the same conclusion as Canadian curricula, it just takes a different path to get there. By that, I mean it recognizes the fighting’s oscillation, but it de-emphasizes the illegitimacy of the North Korean government, magnifies the authoritarianism of the South Korean government and casts the Chinese forces as the last line of defence against an enemy eager to dominate the Chinese mainland, according to the educators interviewed for this article.
There’s also more than a small dose of glory to the version of the Korean War’s history my students encountered in their Chinese history classes: the volunteer army — simple, committed revolutionaries — pushing back the world’s most fearsome fighting machine, pushing it back to the very edge of the Asian continent’s mainland.
I spoke to a Chinese history teacher about my students and their ideas on the Korean War. He told me that they must have been paying attention in their history classes because their beliefs — that South Korea and the U.S. instigated the war, that NATO was keen on invading China — mirror what he teaches his own students.
But he also said that all content in a Chinese classroom “must be taught with Marxism in mind.” He explained that most history teachers he knows don’t really believe much of what they learn in university nor what they end up teaching their own students. If they want a job, however, the party line must be towed.
Over the past several years, school boards from the U.S., to Israel, to Japan have been accused of using textbooks that whitewash inconvenient historical truths. Canada, too, hasn’t been spared controversy; Quebec’s Ministry of Education recently came under fire for a lack of cultural diversity in the province’s new history curriculum.
Debate among subject experts, parents, teachers and even students over curricula and textbooks is essential in creating a rigorous curriculum. Obviously, curricula and textbooks designed by bureaucrats in the employ of authoritarian China have a particularly robust illegitimacy.
Tao Zhang is a professor of culture and media at England’s Nottingham Trent University. He believes that history education in Chinese schools is a “huge problem” and that it stems from a political culture that is built on a foundation of anti-Western sentiment.
“It is immensely fascinating and frustrating to talk about the topic of school textbooks and education in China. Despite many changes, [like] big improvements in educational technology and the emergence of international schools and private educational institutions, the Chinese state education system suffers from continuing interference and manipulation by the propaganda and ideological apparatuses of the state,” says Zhang.
Propaganda plays a significant role in the way the Korean War is depicted in Chinese classrooms, according to China scholar Matthew Johnson, but so do academics with anti-Western views.
“There is a way in which the textbooks do reflect Chinese scholarship, which is to say at the level of scholarship, [the Korean War] is somewhat regarded as … American imperialism. In other words, the United States trying to impose through military means its political and economic will on East Asia,” says Johnson, a history professor at Grinnell College in Iowa, and an expert in East Asian history.
Chinese academic scholarship and high school curricula might have less overlap concerning the details of the Korean War; Johnson points to recent scholarship on prisoners and the elite politics of the war, noting that he’d “be surprised if those perspectives have made it into textbooks.” But scholars and textbook writers are in agreement when it comes to the broad strokes.
“History is seen as very important to maintaining national unity so it’s very important that there is a clear national perspective on historical events, and the framework for developing this perspective is mainly created by the propaganda department. To label it pejoratively by calling it propaganda isn’t necessarily my intention but I would point out the same authorities in China, who are responsible for everything from media control to the regulation of soap operas on television are … responsible for the regulation of textbook content.”
After completing several days’ worth of Korean War coverage, I pulled my student, Jason, aside for a conversation about what he was learning in my class.
He said he enjoyed taking the time to critically analyze historical events and being encouraged to develop personal opinions that might conflict with the dominant narrative.
In reference to the Korean War, he didn’t quite say that his mind had been changed, though he did mention our class studied aspects of the war he hadn’t been exposed to before. I got the impression he was ready to jettison some of the ideas he had learned in his Chinese history class.
But it’s impossible to say with any certainty. As I mentioned earlier, Jason is a clever student, and he knows who is marking his history exams.