Bring back his­tory

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - LAWRENCE LAU

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.

Lawrence Lau

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