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Zhongjie Meng is a Chinese associate professor for world history at East China Normal University (Shanghai) and visiting scholar at the University of Augsburg. He conducted research at the Georg Eckert Institute for the whole of April 2013. In 2006, he received his doctoral degree at East China Normal University with a dissertation about the history of the law on works councils (1920-1934) in the Weimar Republic, after a one-year stay at the University of Bremen. Since then, he has worked as lecturer and since 2009 as associate professor in the same faculty of the university. His research focuses on three fields: (1) German Social History, in which he published three monographs and numerous articles; (2) Global History (he is director of the department of world history and co-editor of Global History Review in Beijing); and (3) History Theory and History Didactics. He has translated several German books and treatises into Chinese and works as an author for school textbooks and also as a specialist for the university entrance exams in Shanghai. He is a member of the International Society of History Didactics (ISHD).
Representation of modern China (since 1949) in textbooks of German Gymnasium in comparison with the early description
The topic I researched at the GEI is the representation of modern China (since 1949) in textbooks of the German Gymnasium in comparison with the early description. It is not surprising that more and more people in Europe and USA are talking about the rise of China nowadays. As a rising global player, China has become one of focuses of TV shows and daily newspapers. However, is there enough information about the process and reasons as well as perspectives of modern China (since 1949) in school textbooks for the next generations who will be faced directly with a new China in 20 years? Are there any changes, compared with the early portrayals of China before 1970s? What are the basic characteristics of narratives of China in textbooks? Are there any problems with these and how could the narratives be modified?
The reasons why German school textbooks for Gymnasium have been selected as my object are: firstly, my interest in German social history and history didactic; secondly, the fact that Gymnasium as the highest level in the school system in Germany deserves thorough consideration, if one wants to know more about the condition of elite education in Europe. In order to keep the material limited enough to allow for analysis, I decided to focus on certain states (Bayern, NRW, Baden-Württemberg, Berlin-Brandenburg, Thüringen).
By reading and analyzing hundreds of textbooks since 1949, I have found the following characteristics in narratives of modern China:
- The length of content has changed a lot, from a few lines in the books of the 1950s or 1960s to bigger sections or even an independent chapter after the 1990s, although there are still some textbooks which seem to lose sight of the existence of China altogether.
- Some points in the history of Modern China appear in each textbooks containing an independent chapter and sections of China: the establishment of the new People’s Republic of China in 1949; reforms of the Chinese communist party under Mao with the aim to change the structure of Chinese society which led to disasters in the years from 1949 to 1976 (Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution); the role of China in certain international wars (in Korea and Vietnam); thorough changes under the pragmatist Deng after 1978 both in the economic and diplomatic areas; the events of Tian’anmen Square in 1989; China under globalization since the 1990s. Corresponding with it, several pictures were selected to be used in different textbooks over and over again, such as the trial of the landlords in the beginning of the 1950s, the building of dams in the period of the Great Leap Forward, posters or pictures which reflect a cult of personality (Mao); classic pictures of the events of Tian’anmen Square (ordinary people against tank); contemporary sightseeing in Shanghai or Shenzhen etc.
- The majority of arguments in the narratives are negative or at least skeptical towards China, and certain aspects are not explained in detail. The textbooks normally give no reasons for the result of the war between the Communist Party and Nationalist Party, or completely attribute the success of the former to the support from Russia in the narrative structure of Cold War. Only the negative results from the series of reforms in the 1950s and 1960s are focused on and positive developments such as the growing economic independence of the population are ignored (the one exception that is noted positively is the strengthening of the position of women). Furthermore, some disasters could be traced back to the isolation of China through Western countries allied to the USA so that China had many difficulties with international trade before the 1970s. Question such as “China: A coming superpower?” are often used as headings for chapters and sections about modern China in textbooks published since the year 2000. Only one textbook uses an affirmative clause to refer to the same topic. Human rights seem to be a most important factor of history consciousness in German textbooks after the 1990s on account of which it is easy for authors to criticize Modern China, for instance for the death penalty. Other reasons for criticism are the political system, pollution, China’s competitive trade power because of lower salaries, infringement of WTO-regulations etc. Meanwhile, no book likes to encourage German students to ponder the reasons why China holds different views on those issues.
All in all, German school textbooks for Gymnasium are still based on the Eurocentric standpoint, in spite of the fact that positive changes in the narrative of modern China seem appropriate. The perspective of global history has not been reflected in the structure and story-telling of German textbooks; their authors do not seem to care how Chinese historians assess the development since 1949 (in fact, few articles in the textbooks come from Chinese historians); some judgments reflect current European views, even though the focus is on a different country and a different time when certain values were not applicable. Furthermore, Ungleichzeitigkeit der Gleichzeitigkeit (simultaneity of the nonsimultaneous) has not been an aspect in the teaching of the history of modern China. To be frank, criticality in German textbooks should be learned by Chinese writers as a valuable characteristic, but it is not a smart tactic to show students only one (negative) side of a phenomenon without explaining the historical and cultural background and current pressures. For example, when the textbook discuss the effects of globalization since the beginning of the new century, China (or India) are chosen as “culprit” for the fact that so many people in Germany have lost or will lose their jobs, sometimes accompanied by a picture of a demonstration in Berlin. It seems to tell a true story but in fact leads students to a wrong logic: lower salaries and then the violation of human rights destroy the splendid life of Europeans. In fact, this is only one side of the argument because it ignores the fact that Europeans have lower costs for everything imported from developing and newly industrializing countries and do not take into account the hardships China had to undergo over the last 20 years (bad working conditions, low salaries and pollution).
In brief, changing the perspective from Eurocentricism to global history in German textbooks seems to be quite urgent if we compare the current books with those of other countries such as the United Kingdom. One British textbook, for instance, extensively describes the different aspects of modern China, cites articles from Chinese specialists and encourages students to discuss the complicated reasons for each change in China after 1949. In the USA, a new curriculum attempts to modify the perspective towards the approach of world history. Such a shift would undoubtedly result in in a more balanced portrayal of the history of modern China. A great effort should be made to provide more objective narratives about modern China, which could at least give more comprehensive, dialectic and developmental as well as comparative information (pictures, documents, questions, etc.) for the young people who will be witnessing a rising China.
Finally, I would like to thank all of the GEI staff – without you, I would have had no possibility to find so many materials for both the topic outlined above and my further research on German social history; without you, I would have had no possibility to have such a memorable stay in the historical city of Braunschweig, the lion city; without you, I would not have met with so many young specialists from Germany, Finland, Sweden, India, etc.