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Turn-of-the-century school
Official patriotic classes for children was introduced in 1994 to support one party rule but had been around in one form or another since the Communist take over of China. In school, children are taught beginning at an early age that the party rescued China in 1949 from poverty, chaos and humiliation and saved Tibet from feudalism and backwardness. History classes emphasize the humiliation that China endured ay the hands of Europeans after the Opium Wars and the Japanese before and during World War II but have little or nothing to say about the Cultural Revolution or Tiananmen Square.

Confucian and Taoism are taught in school.In December 2008, the government announced that beginning in primary school students would study “ethnic unity.” The move was response to unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang the previous months. The Chinese Community Party has traditionally imposed tight control on school curriculums, with textbooks highlighting Chinese communists achievements while omitting events such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests. Sinc Xi Jingping came to power in the early 2010s, it has also warned against the spread of “Western ideas” in classroom and calling on universities to serve the party rule. In 2015, Yuan Guiren, China’s education minister, ordered a closer examination of foreign textbooks and said that those that promote Western values should be banned from classrooms.[Source: Viola Zhou, South China Morning Post, October 23, 2017]

Chinese Ministry of Education curriculum guidelines in 2021 included labour education "to cultivate their hard-working spirit" and education on national security.“"Primary schools were urged to focus on cultivating love for the country, the Communist Party of China, and socialism. In middle schools, the focus was on a combination of perceptual experience and knowledge study, to help students form basic political judgments and opinions," state media outlet Global Times reported. "In college, there will be more emphasis on the establishment of theoretical thinking," it added. It wasn't always that way. A pilot program was started to the mid 2000s, using Chinese translations of American earth science and life science textbooks in 10 elementary schools. [Source: BBC, August 25, 2021]

Teacher’s Thoughts On What He Was Taught in Chinese Schools

Fan Meizhong entered Peking University in 1992 after getting the highest score in Sichuan Province on the university entrance exam. At university, he was shocked to see the great gap between himself and his more knowledgeable urban peers. He chose to immerse himself in books, as he wrote in an impassioned article “Seeking Meaningful Education” as a middle school teacher. [Source: Candy Zeng, Asia Times, July 18, 2008]

But the more he read, he came to realize that what he had been taught might largely be untrue. More importantly, he had never been trained to think independently. He decided to teach and influence young students at middle school and thus returned Sichuan after graduation.

As an educator, Fan regularly ignored history textbooks and introduced Chinese and Western philosophers and ideologists to broaden the vision of his students. He lost his first teaching job after some parents complained to the school board. Then he worked in schools and media in Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Beijing, Hangzhou and Chengdu, each for less than three years.

On his blog Fan wrote: “I have been extremely [hurt] for not being born in a free country such as the United States which respects human rights. [This has led] to my suffering [for] more than 10 years after my graduation [from university] and from the 17 years [of] awful education. I asked god repeatedly: why do you put me in dictatorial and dark China while giving me a soul devoted to freedom and truth?”

Reading and Writing, Chinese Style

Chinese spend much of their childhood memorizing and writing characters. By the time a student is 15 he or she has spent four or five hours a day over nine years learning to write a minimum of 3,000 characters.

According to the New York Times: Proficiently reading and writing in Chinese requires knowing thousands of characters. Copying them repeatedly is often seen as a necessary step in learning how to write them. In addition to being tested on individual characters, they may also be asked to transcribe a literary text from memory — an assignment usually dreaded by students. Like Bart in the opening sequence of “The Simpsons,” students can also be punished by being made to write out texts repeatedly; unlike Bart, they are often ordered to copy whole textbook chapters, not just single sentences. Chinese curriculums in both the sciences and humanities prize rote memorization. [Source: Daniel Victor and Tiffany May, New York Times, January 21, 2019]

There was some pushback in 2017 about including the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) book Di Zi Gui (students' rules) in the curriculum of elementary schools in 2025. The book, which contains only 360 sentences, explains how to be a good student and child, and tells readers to follow a traditional Confucian moral code. “It says that "when my parents instruct me, I will listen respectfully. When my parents scold me, I must accept and obey them." Some experts criticized the decision, saying that the book will simply "teach people to be obedient." “One expert said the book has been used by pyramid schemes to brainwash members. In April 2016, police in Hefei in Anhui Province arrested members of a local pyramid scheme, and found every member had a copy of Di Zi Gui. [Source: Global Times, February 9, 2017]

Math Curriculum in China

Kan Wei of Beijing Normal University wrote in The Conversation: Chinese students begin learning their maths facts at a very early age: maths textbooks begin with multiplication in the first semester of second grade, when children are seven years old. In order to understand multiplication, pupils have to memorise the multiplication rhyme: “four times eight is 32, five times eight is 40” and so on, which was invented by ancient Chinese scholars 2,200 years ago. Stemming from this tradition, most classrooms have few concrete teaching materials for maths lessons. The cultural traditions of Chinese maths education lead people to believe that routine practice is the most efficient way to learn. This continues today. And as a result, schools in Shanghai have scored highly in recent years on international tests of maths ability. [Source: Kan Wei, Associate Professor, Beijing Normal University, The Conversation, March 25, 2014]

“The Chinese curriculum in maths is a nine-year programme divided into four mathematical stages, running from primary school to grade 9, when a child is 14 years old. The curriculum sets out four teaching periods a week for maths in primary and junior high schools. However, most schools arrange more than five periods each week. “A new compulsory mathematics curriculum was introduced in 2001 and revised in 2011, setting out standards for “number and algebra”, “space and graph”, “statistics and probability” and “practice and applications”.

“The goal of maths education in China is to develop conceptual and procedural knowledge through rigid practice. In comparison, the UK maths curriculum is less focused and consistent. China uses whole-class instruction, engaging all students in the material and prompting feedback. This is different to the UK model teaching of maths, which is more focused on small groups and individual attention.

“A typical teaching period in primary schools is approximately 40 minutes, extending to 45 minutes in secondary school. Teachers often set at least half an hour of homework every day for primary school pupils and more for secondary pupils. So it’s normal for Chinese pupils, particularly secondary and high school students, to spend more than 15 hours per week on maths both in and outside the classroom. Chinese students are taught to understand numerical relationships and to develop and prove their solutions to problems in front of the whole class. This means students understand whole concepts of maths, allowing them to apply previous knowledge to help them learn new topics.

Because of China’s standardised curriculum and teaching, the national exam system, and the one child policy, teachers and parents in China have big expectations for their students from early on. There is a high degree of parental involvement and parents prioritise their children’s education, especially in maths, which is one of three core curricular in national exams.

Learning English in Chinese Schools

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China has incorporated English into its primary and secondary school curriculum. Adam Minter of Bloomberg wrote: “Indeed, in China, it’s not unusual to meet high school and college students who have, say, mastered the intricacy of the English past participle but can’t order in English at McDonald’s. This phenomenon, widely known as “dumb English,” was described and assailed in a 2002 paper by Lin Lin, then an associate professor at the Foreign Language College of the Chinese University of Political Science and Law in Beijing: “It’s high time we remedied the phenomenon of ‘deaf English’ and ‘dumb English’ (when students can read, but cannot speak English fluently, or understand what people say). Some students said their vocabulary was probably larger than that of some native speakers, but they could not express themselves in English. After ten years’ English learning, they were still ‘deaf and dumb.’”

“More than a decade after Lin’s declarations, the situation hasn’t improved much. It’s arguably grown worse as the competition for admission to Chinese colleges has increased, the benefits of education have become more obvious, and the desire to find a test-taking edge has grown more powerful. The irony — that China’s pursuit of educational excellence may actually be damaging its educational institutions — has not been lost on senior government officials.

““We do not want students to devote too much time to the repetitive learning of English grammar,” a spokesman for Beijing’s Municipal Education Commission told China’s official Xinhua News Agency. “This kind of learning process makes students weaker in their spoken and listening ability. That means the English education method and the entire structure of assessment programs needs systematic reforms.”

Replacing Tibetan and Mongolian Language with Chinese at Tibetan and Mongolian Schools

Chinese has displaced Tibetan as the main teaching medium in schools despite the existence of laws aimed at preserving the languages of minorities. Young Tibetan children used to have most of their classes taught in Tibetan. They began studying Chinese in the third grade. When they reached middle school, Chinese becomes the main language of instruction. An experimental high school where the classes were taught in Tibetan was closed down. In schools that are technically bilingual, the only classes entirely taught in Tibetan were Tibetan language classes. These schools have largely disappeared.

These days many schools in Tibet have no Tibetan instruction at all and children begin learning Chinese in kindergarten. There are no textbooks in Tibetan for subjects like history, mathematics or science and tests have to be written in Chinese. Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan writer in Beijing, told the New York Times that when she lived” in 2014" in Lhasa, she stayed by a kindergarten that promoted bilingual education. She could hear the children reading aloud and singing songs every day — in Chinese only. Most Han Chinese teachers know little or no Tibetan. They teach their classes either in Chinese or English. At one school a Chinese principal who didn't speak one word of Tibetan told the Washington Post, "Tibetans don't have a vocabulary for science. Some science terms that are two words in Chinese, like 'electrical resistance,' when you translate then into Tibetan come up with a whole long string that you can't even write on the blackboard." Tibetan middle school and high school teachers are supposed to teach in Mandarin although many teach in Tibetan.

A policy announced on August 2020 ahead of the start of the new school year, required schools to use new national textbooks in Chinese, replacing Mongolian-language textbooks. Associated Press reported: In 2017, the ruling Communist Party created a committee to overhaul textbooks for the entire country. Revised textbooks have been pushed out over the last few years. The new policy for Inner Mongolia, affects schools where Mongolian has been the principal language of instruction. [Source: Huizhong Wu, Associated Press, September 2, 2020]

“Literature classes for elementary and middle school students at the Mongolian-language schools switched to a national textbook and be taught in Mandarin Chinese. In 2021 the politics and morality course also switched to Mandarin, as did history classes starting in 2022. The remaining classes, such as math, will not change their language of instruction.

History Curriculum in China and Anti-Foreigner Sentiments

The Chinese government has been very critical of the Japanese government for whitewashing it militaristic activities in World War II and the occupation of China in their school textbooks. But Chinese textbooks also leave a lot out. Chinese history represented in Chinese textbooks ignores the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward and events that make the Chinese Communist Party look bad. They mention the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in passing but not the atrocities and of death associated with them. There is nothing about Tiananmen Square but there is plenty about Japanese atrocities, the Nanjing massacre and the Opium wars, which highlight China’s humiliation at the hands of foreign oppressors, a view Beijing likes to push..

Julia Lovell, author of “The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China” has accused the Chinese government of imbalance when it comes to teaching history in schools: “The problem with these Chinese textbooks is not one of accuracy, per se, but of balance”, she says. “China’s education system spends far more time remembering the Opium Wars than the traumas of Communism, such as the man-made famine that killed tens of millions, and the crackdown of 1989. It offers a skewed sense of history.” [Source: Maitreya, Hidden Harmonies China Blog, July 30, 2012]

In September 2018, Reuters reported: China launched a wide-reaching campaign to remove foreign influences from education, including efforts to ban foreign history courses, outlaw self-taught material and revise textbooks to focus on core Communist Party ideology. The effort, which included follow-up checks and random inspections at schools, is designed to promote “patriotism” and “core socialist values”, reflecting a “love for the motherland”, China’s education ministry said at the time. [Source: Cate Cadell, Reuters, August 13, 2019]

A local media report in June 2022, said new textbooks for Hong Kong schools would state the territory was never a British colony. The BBC reported: Instead, the books declare the British “only exercised colonial rule” in Hong Kong – a distinction drawn to highlight China’s claims of unbroken sovereignty. China has always asserted it never gave up sovereignty and its surrender of Hong Kong to the British was due to unfair Opium War treaties in the 1800s. The new textbooks take pains to explain the differences between a colony and colonial rule – with the texts declaring that for a country to call an external territory a colony it needs to have sovereignty as well as governance over the area.[Source: Frances Mao, BBC News, June 15, 2022]

Marxist Education in China

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Students inspired by Lei Feng

As it is spelled out in Article 3 of the national education law, classes in Marxist philosophy are compulsory in Chinese schools. From kindergarten to high school students are required to take two classes a week in ideological education. In college they must take two more courses. The article states “In developing socialist educational undertakings the state shall uphold Marxism-Leninist, Mao Zedong thought and the theories of constructing socialism with Chinese characteristics as directions and with the basic principles of the Constitution."

According to the Wall Street Journal: “Classes on Marxism philosophy are mandatory for Chinese college undergraduates, and the government has also further launched a campaign in recent years to deepen belief in the country’s “core socialist values” through a series of specially written songs and plays for elementary and middle school children. [Source: Te-Ping Chen, China Real Time, Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2016]

The “political education” that students receive includes the history of the Communist Party, and its victories over cruel landlords, Imperial powers and Chang Kai-shek. Atheism has also traditionally been part of the curriculum. These days the ideology classes often touch more on nationalistic themes and ethical behavior than class struggle and dictatorship of the proletariat. A education official told the Los Angeles Times, “Before there was a lot of indoctrination.” Now “we stress a lot of traditional virtues, like respecting teachers and respecting the elderly. Especially now, we stress honesty.”

In April 2016, Xi Jinping launched the “Two Studies, One Action” campaign to “strengthen the Marxist stance” of Communist Party members and keep them in line with the party leadership in “ideology, politics and action.” According to The Economist: Ideology has always mattered to the party’s leaders. University students endure lessons on “Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought”. Soldiers have to spend hours a week studying the party’s history and the military writings of its leaders. Applicants for party membership undergo rigorous indoctrination. Chen Xiaojie, a 25-year-old official, recalls weekly classes on party theories and having to write a 1,500-word essay every three months on the latest doctrine. “When you’re in the party, you’ll join a group at least every month to learn about the latest thing they’re promoting.” Officials take regular refresher courses at party schools. [Source: The Economist, April 24, 2016]

At university-level Marxism classes students read the newspaper, fiddle with their cell phones and make no effort to hid their boredom.. The teacher of one such class told the Los Angeles Times, “It’s a big challenge.”

Nationalism and Patriotic Education in China

Many link China’s strong sense of nationalism to what kids are taught in schools. After Tiananmen Square, Deng Xiaoping declared in a speech to China’s military leaders that the cause of the unrest was the result of political education being ignored. After that new textbooks were created that emphasized China’s cultural achievements side by side with the humiliations experienced by China at the hands of foreigners, often in lurid detail, aimed at bolstering feeling of nationalism inflaming feeling against foreigners.

After 21-year-old Cai Yang was arrested in September 2012 for beating a man with a bicycle lock during an anti-Japanese protest, his mother said, “The education at school always instils the idea that Japanese are evil people and if you turn on the television most of the programmes are about the anti-Japanese war...“How can we possibly not resent the Japanese?” [Source: Jamil Anderlini, Financial Times, December 23, 2012]

According to the Financial Times: In the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and the fall of the Soviet Union, China’s leaders concluded that the Communist party needed to improve its “thought work”. So they launched a new “patriotic education” campaign that continues to this day. The selective teaching of history – emphasising the brutality of foreign invaders and ignoring atrocities or mistakes by China’s leaders, is intended to boost the party’s legitimacy by cultivating a nationalistic, anti-western victim mentality among young Chinese.This campaign replaced the historical narrative of class struggle eventually won by the Communist party with a strong focus on China’s struggles with foreigners.It transformed China from a glorious victor into a weak and persecuted victim. To the rest of the world, China looks like a huge and scary juggernaut intent on bullying smaller countries. In the minds of many Chinese, theirs remains a poor, weak and humiliated nation. How can you be a bully if you are the one who has always been picked on? Young Chinese are also taught that their country has always been peace-loving, never expansionist. It is a highly distorted view that overlooks the country’s history, including a border war with Vietnam as recently as 1979.

The patriotic education curriculum is designed to serve the needs of the ruling regime more than it is to educate students. In the mid 1990s, the Chinese government began emphasizing patriotic education focusing of love of country and the loyalty to the Communist Party. An immigrant from Inner Mongolia to the United States told the Los Angeles Times, “Most Chinese end up believing the government view of history. While a lot of students don’t take history seriously, unconsciously it becomes part of your thinking.”

Students are taught to hate Japan and the United States. They are taught that 300,000 Chinese were killed by the Japanese in 1937 Nanjing Massacre. Americans are criticized for meddling in the affairs of other countries. Patriotic education also spills into television, film and the news media. In many ways its message and getting ahead economically have replaced Marxist-Leninism as the guiding ideologies of China as Communist ideology has become dated and irrelevant to what is happening on the ground in China.

Chinese Textbooks Get Redder as Foreign Content Is Expunged

In 2017, new textbooks introduced for first-year primary and middle school in China were more patriotic than ones in years past. Sixth Tone reported: Written by the Ministry of Education, the new national editions will replace a number of different versions on the market for three subjects — Chinese language, history, law and ethics — with added focus on traditional culture, revolutionary history, and ideology. Assistant minister of education, Zheng Fuzhi, said that the new textbooks would reinforce the will of the nation and the “Core Socialist Values” — a set of 12 ideological tenets promoted in the country since 2012. Zheng is also the director of the ministry’s textbook bureau.

“The core values will be embodied in the flesh and blood of the Chinese language [subject],” Wen Rumin, the editor-in-chief of the Chinese textbooks, said at the press conference according to a report by financial news outlet Caixin. It added that the new Chinese language textbooks include dozens of articles about revolutionary heroism, such as Mao Zedong’s well-known piece “Serve the People.” Students will also learn more classic Chinese literature compared with the widely used previous book from People’s Education Press. [Source: Qian Jinghua, Sixth Tone, August 29, 2017]

“Two of the new history textbooks chronicle the development of the Communist Party since its formation, naming more than 40 revolutionaries. Students will also be taught that Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, the Diaoyu Islands, and the South China Sea islands are historical and inseparable parts of China, The Beijing News reported.

In 2018, China’s education ministry launched a “comprehensive” inspection of school textbooks to remove unapproved alterations or foreign content, state media reported, amid a push to combat Western influence in China’s schools. Reuters reported: “The sweep by China’s education ministry will “correct and dispose of” illegal foreign or self-written courses used instead of state-approved materials in China, the official Xinhua news agency said. “Recently, it has been discovered that some companies that write and publish textbooks have without permission altered the content of certain textbooks, and certain schools are using their own textbooks in the place of national textbooks,” the ministry’s teaching materials bureau told Xinhua. [Source: Reuters, September 19, 2018]

Xi Jinping Thought Made Part of the Chinese School Curriculum

In 2017, Xi Jinping’s ‘thought’ became a compulsory part of the school curriculum. Textbooks were updated with it and teachers were trained how to incorporate it into their lesson plans. Viola Zhou wrote in the South China Morning Post: “Education Minister Chen Baosheng said the new ideology, unveiled at the start of the party’s national congress, would be incorporated into curriculums across the country. The thought will “go into textbooks, into classes, and into the brains” of students Chen said. ““We will design specific teaching methods that combine texts ... of various grades and subjects.” [Source: Viola Zhou, South China Morning Post, October 23, 2017]

“Textbooks will now have to be revised to redefine that contradiction as “between unbalanced, inadequate development and people’s ever-growing needs for a better life” – the definition Xi outlined last week. Beijing is already in the process of standardising the country’s political ideology textbooks for first to ninth grades, gradually replacing those published by provincial authorities with a new set produced by the Ministry of Education. A person familiar with the process said officials working on the new texts had been told to increase “explicit expressions” of socialist values and party leadership. “The source also said Xi’s ideology was likely to be taught at fifth or sixth grade. “Such a complicated concept needs to be turned into something children can appreciate,” the source said. “For example, you explain the ‘new era’ by asking them to identify what’s new in their hometowns.”

"Spooky and Sexually Suggestive" Chinese Math Textbook Pictures

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Cultural Revolution Book
In March 2022, Austin Ramzy wrote in the New York Times: A little boy pulling up a girl’s dress. Another grabbing a classmate from behind, his hands across her chest. Bulges protruding from male students’ pants. Suspiciously pro-American images. The illustrations can be found in a Chinese state-run publisher’s mathematics textbooks for elementary school students — books that have been used for years. They set off a furor in China after they were flagged on social media last week by angry commenters as crude, sexualized and anti-China. [Source: Austin Ramzy, New York Times, May 31, 2022]

Tang Jiafeng, an education writer, wrote on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform, that he felt “shocked, disbelieving, sad, and angry” about the math book illustrations. Primary school textbooks are the foundation of the country and the nation, and an important guarantee for the formation of children’s outlook on life and values,” he wrote. “It is impossible to overstate their importance.” He called not just for corrections and apologies, but also for an investigation and for those responsible to be held accountable.

The math books, published by the People’s Education Press, a large state-run company controlled by the Ministry of Education, have been around for about a decade, according to Chinese news reports. The illustrations were approved in 2013 for students in first to sixth grades, the reports said. Just how the problematic drawings evaded scrutiny all these years is unclear. Some social media users highlighted the images in May 2022, prompting parents and educators to voice their outrage. People’s Education Press offered no explanation for how the illustrations had been selected. But they were attributed to the studio of an artist named Wu Yong, who was attacked online and accused of harming China.

Some of the drawings are odd or silly, like children sticking out their tongues. But others show children appearing to grope classmates on a playground. Another showed a schoolgirl with her underwear exposed as she played a game. Many critics said the drawings made the children look ugly, with wide-set, droopy eyes.Others argued that the schoolbooks also had anti-China messages, such as an incorrectly rendered Chinese flag. Still some found allegedly pro-foreign images, like a boy flying in a biplane similar to Japanese and American planes. Some even pointed to images of children wearing clothes with what looked like stars and stripes in the colors of the American flag. “As a father of a child, to be honest, I am really worried,” Li Yuguo, head of the sports institute at Beijing Oriental University, wrote on Weibo.

China's Global Times newspaper described some of the illustrations showing a boy with "what looked like a tattoo on his ankle", a girl in a "bunny outfit" and children with "the US flag on" as being "ugly, racist, spooky and sexually suggestive". The controversy prompted the textbook publisher to apologize. In August 2022, The BBC reported: China replaced the cartoons in several primary school books. It took a team of 350 specialists to go through some 2,000 books to make sure the material was appropriate. Thousands of books have now been reviewed and several illustrators and publishers reprimanded or sacked. The China Daily newspaper said that 27 people in total have been punished in some way. [Source: Kerry Allen, BBC Monitoring, August 23, 2022]

Image Sources: Wikicommons; Nolls China website; Columbia University; University of Washington; Bucklin archives ; Asia Obscura

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2022

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