From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Primary Sources—Introduction (d) Education in Hong Kong and Taiwan

Students in the Republic of China in Taiwan follow the same general pattern of education as students in the People's Republic of China. They attend six years of primary school, three years of middle school, and three years of high school. Over the course of the past sixty years, the most significant issues separating students in Taiwan from those in the People's Republic have been language and politics. As in the People's Republic, the language of education in Taiwan is Mandarin, but students all learn traditional characters. This means that even when they read the same story about a Chinese cultural figure, the language used is different enough that two primary school students from Beijing and Taipei might well be confused to read the other student's text.
[a] Shanghai today RF
Over time, students in the People's Republic become acquainted with many of the traditional characters. The situation in Taiwan is somewhat different. The only people who become thoroughly acquainted with simplified characters are those doing business in China or advanced students studying scholarship written by contemporary academics in the People's Republic. It is important not to overstate the issue, however. Language policies in the two systems have created a gulf, but it is far from insurmountable, as business people from Taiwan manage to work effectively in China, and classical scholars are able to read traditional texts in the People's Republic.

A larger issue in Chinese education lies in politics. The island's peculiar political situation has played an enormous role in the education of its students during the past sixty years. During the 1950s and 1960s, in particular, the Republic of China described itself as the legitimate source of political power in China, even though it happened to possess only the single province of Taiwan. In the world of diplomacy, such an assertion needed to be couched and modified. In the world of primary education, the message was anything but subtle. A perusal of textbooks used in Taiwan in the 1970s and 1980s reveals distinctly political themes—many of which we will see in this series. Inserted alongside the standard teachings on social cooperation, harmony, family life, and student diligence (many of which echo the themes of traditional education we saw in Section B) are a large number of readings showing a Chinese (not a Taiwan-based) identity. The 1985 second grade reader makes the identity issues clear, even before the reader looks at the illustration of two children and a large Republic of China flag beneath the text.

[b] Taipei today RF
     I am Chinese.
     My roots are in China.
     I love China
     With a love that runs deep.[1]

It is perhaps less surprising that we find many stories about he founding heroes of the Republic in these textbooks. There are stories about Sun Yat-sen in his youth, and several about Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek), the president of the Republic until his death in 1975. One shows a young Jiang in army school standing up for his homeland when a Japanese teacher criticizes China.

The contents that outside observers might find most startling, however, are the directly political stories that are included in every grade level. For example, the 1985 third-grade reader shows an emaciated man surrounded by skulls and a sign that reads "People's Commune." The text is titled "The Place Where There is No Sun," and describes life for our "unfortunate brethren on the mainland." Another third-grade text shows a large drawing of two children giving away piggy banks. The text begins:

          In December 1978, American President Carter suddenly broke ties with
          our country; every freedom loving Chinese (citizen) was enraged.[2]

[c] Kaohsiung today RF
It goes on to tell the story of two primary-school children who, upon hearing the news, contributed their savings to a fund-drive at National Taiwan University in order to protect the country.

Despite the directly political educational messages during the first four decades of Republican rule in Taiwan, the texts were no less serious for that. Even today, after major curricular changes (none of the stories mentioned above survives in today's elementary school readers), adults who grew up with the older books often say that they were tougher and did a better job of teaching language, history, and culture. Be that as it may, the clear message is that education has a great deal to do with creating identity, and the Ministry of Education in the Republic of China took that work very seriously back in the day (c. 1985). Even though the message is much more nuanced today, the work of identity creation—now with a greater emphasis on Taiwanese history, language, and culture—continues.

The educational situation in Hong Kong is very different, and has been buffeted by forces that are both similar and dissimilar to Taiwan and the People's Republic. Language and politics also dominate the educational challenges in Hong Kong, but the situation is much more complex. In the People's Republic of China and Taiwan, Mandarin Chinese is the first language of education, and English holds an overwhelmingly important position as the foreign language. Other languages, from French and German to Japanese and Korean, are a distant third in priority, and students often do not begin to study them until they are in a university or work setting. 

[d] Hong Kong today RF
In Hong Kong, however, three languages dominate, creating a difficult logistical situation for textbook writers, teachers, administrators, and students. English was integral to the curriculum for as long as the British were in Hong Kong, and the situation remains similar today, fifteen years after Hong Kong was returned to Chinese control. Cantonese has always been the Chinese language of instruction in Hong Kong, and has dominated the curriculum—as well as business and social life—throughout Hong Kong's modern educational era. The new wild card is Mandarin, which has achieved a very high level of influence in the past few decades, with business interests in the People's Republic streaming into Hong Kong, and vice versa. Some parents, in particular, fear that students will be at a disadvantage at British, American, and Chinese universities if students are unable to concentrate on a truly primary language.

Politically, Hong Kong textbooks have changed somewhat over the last few decades, but not nearly as much as those in Taiwan. The British influence from a century and a half of colonial presence (which only ended in 1997) can still be felt, but there is a distinct quality of Chinese cultural appreciation in the texts that was more muted in the past. Indeed, it can be said that today's textbooks in Hong Kong reflect the generally—but let's not push this word too far—positive attitude that many Hong Kong residents have taken toward Chinese stewardship. The attitude is not unambiguous, however, and the challenges for educators lie in building a Hong Kong identity that is both global—reflecting, in particular, the British past—and Chinese. 

[1] Guomin xiaoxue guoyu keben [國民小學國語課本], 1985, 2a.27.
[2] Guomin xiaoxue guoyu keben [國民小學國語課本], 1985, 3a.25.
[e] Wither... RF
Reading Zhuangzi one day, I dreamed of butterflies. Next thing I knew, I was buying textbooks. It's a long story.

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