Bring back history
Chinese History should become a required subject in schools of Hong Kong.
When I attended primary school and secondary school in Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s, Chinese History was a required subject, as was British History. I learnt about the almost 5,000 years of Chinese History: beginning with the legend of Pangu, who supposedly created heaven and earth, all the way up to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
After the legend of Pangu, there is the period of the Four Shi’s–Youchao-shi, Suiren-shi, Fuxishi and Shennong-shi, who invented the dwelling, the use of fire, fishing, hunting and the domestication of livestock, and the growing of crops and Chinese herbal medicine respectively. This period was followed, according to the historical records of Sima Qian, by the Five Emperors: Huang Di, Emperor Zhuanxu, Emperor Ku, Emperor Yao, and Emperor Shun, dating back to approximately 2600 BC. Emperor Shun was succeeded by Emperor Yu, who founded the Xia Dynasty (c. 21st century16th century BC) around the date of the first available written Chinese historical record.
I also learnt about the heroes of Chinese history, such as Jing Ke, Zhuge Liang, Yue Fei and Wen Tianxiang, and its villains, such as Cao Cao and Qin Hui, the great poets, such as Li Bai and Du Fu of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), and the great seafarer, Zheng He of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). In learning about these historical figures, I also learnt to understand and appreciate traditional Chinese values. Of course, I also learnt about the Opium War (1939-1942), which was called the Commercial War in British History, a war fought over the rights of British merchants to sell an addictive and debilitating drug to the Chinese people, and how Hong Kong became a British Crown Colony as a result of Chinese defeat in the war.
However, upon my return to Hong Kong in 2004, I was shocked to find that Chinese History is no longer a required subject in Hong Kong schools and neither is British History. If Hong Kong as a colony required Chinese History to be taught in schools, there should be even stronger reason for Chinese History to be taught after its return to Chinese sovereignty. In the UK, in the US and in Japan, indeed, in every country in the world, the national history is always a required school subject. Hong Kong should be no exception — it is part of China — and its citizens should know their history. Chinese History should once again be a required subject in all publicly funded primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong.
And we should not just stop there. We should also make the History of Hong Kong part of the history subject requirement, so that future generations will learn how Hong Kong came into being, how it was governed by the colonial government, how under the British rule local people benefited as well as suffered discriminatory treatment, such as not being allowed to live above Mid-Levels, or own Rolls-Royces, or in the Hong Kong Club, at one time. They will also understand better why the British colonial government preached positive non-interventionism in Hong Kong whereas the British government practises socialism at home.
One may raise the question: If we were to reintroduce the requirement of Chinese History in Hong Kong schools, up to which date should we teach it? A safe and non-controversial choice would be 1911, the year of the demise of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Another safe choice would be 1949, the year of establishment of the People’s Republic of China. However, there is also merit in taking it all the way to the present, so that students would learn about the Great Leap Forward, the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), the reform and opening up of China, etc. Only by knowing the depth of suffering experienced by our fellow countrymen during the “cultural revolution” period is it possible to comprehend the fear of chaos and the desire for stability in present-day China. Only by knowing past failures, is it possible to understand and appreciate the tremendous progress that has been made since the mainland undertook economic reform and opening up in 1978.
The entire 20th century constitutes only 2 percent of known Chinese history and in the overall scheme of things, it does not really matter how the 2 percent is presented, even though it may be controversial and sensitive. The important thing is to make sure that the other 98 percent is faithfully taught, to the best of our current knowledge. History, especially current history, is constantly being revised in the light of new evidence. What most people assume is true today may not turn out to be so tomorrow, and vice versa. Only time, and perhaps time on a historic scale, can tell.
Last year I had the opportunity to visit the National Museum of China in Beijing. In one of the exhibition halls, there were two oil paintings of the scene of Chairman Mao Zedong, with the leaders of the new government behind him, announcing the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on the top of Tian’anmen on Oct 1, 1949. The two paintings looked the same from a distance. But upon closer inspection, one could see that some of the participants had been air-brushed out of one of them. There was an explanation beneath one of the paintings to the effect that during the “cultural revolution” period, some of the participants were omitted for political reasons, but they have since been restored in the other painting, as they appeared in the original. Both versions of the painting were exhibited side by side. I was quite touched by the honesty. Ultimately, one must be true to history.
One reason that has been advanced for dropping Chinese History as a required subject is the introduction of Liberal Studies as a required subject in schools. However, even though I support the introduction of Liberal Studies in schools, it is not altogether an adequate substitute for the teaching of national history in any country. The current Liberal Studies curriculum adopted in Hong Kong has very little Chinese History content. Moreover, if there were a Chinese History requirement in Hong Kong schools, it would have served more or less the same purpose as national education, and there would have been no controversy. No Chinese parent would object to the teaching of Chinese History in schools. And no self-respecting Chinese who knows about the history of Hong Kong would have waved the old Hong Kong colonial flag in demonstrations today. It is a gross failure of our educational system that our young citizens can grow up without knowing the history of China and the history of Hong Kong. With all due respect to the well-meaning educators who decided to replace Chinese History with Liberal Studies, it was a huge mistake. Let us bring back Chinese History as a required subject in our schools! The author is Ralph and Claire Landau professor of economics, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Kwoh-Ting Li professor in economic development, Emeritus, at Stanford University.