On Jan. 27, the Ministry of Education rushed through its review of the senior-high school history curriculum to be able to pass it before the Lunar New Year holiday. The ministry may have called the changes it made “minor” legal adjustments, but that claim does not stand up to scrutiny.
History deals with collective memory and identification. Simply put, it defines who we are, where we come from, where we are and where we are headed. It is this that makes history education so important for all countries.
During Taiwan’s authoritarian era, the government monopolized the right to interpret history, so no Taiwanese above the age of 40 has learned the complete history of Taiwan. Taiwanese have only been fed the view that Taiwan has always been part of China and that it is the base for a cross-strait counterattack.
It was only in the 1990s — following the democratization of Taiwan — that spontaneous calls began to be made for a history for everyone, focused on the people and based in Taiwan. Then, in 1997, the textbook Getting to Know Taiwan was published. It was the first to describe Taiwanese history from prehistoric times until today.
When the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) came to power in 2008, it began to restore its national historical view. Legislators who took an active interest in controlling the direction of the curriculum based on a “Greater China” awareness said openly that they were “putting things back in order.”
The writing of history textbooks deals with collective memory and collective identification and should, naturally, be in line with a people’s mainstream perception of who they are. That the ministry today, at a time when public opinion polls have repeatedly shown that 70 or 80 percent of respondents identify themselves as Taiwanese, adjusts the curriculum and forces through the historical view that Taiwan is part of China completely ignores the mainstream view.
Even if the issue of a Taiwanese identity is controversial, the considerations that go into writing history textbooks should also include the views of academic experts, educational organizations and teachers as well as public consensus. Although this should be the basic approach and understanding of a democratic government, it has been completely ignored by the ministry.
Who is directing the adjustments to the history curriculum? According to the information available on the ministry’s Web site, the person in charge of the task force for social and linguistic review is Wang Hsiao-po (王曉波), an adjunct professor of Chinese philosophy in the Chinese department at Shih Hsin University.
The other members of the task force are Wu Lien-shang (吳連賞), a geography professor at National Kaohsiung Normal University; Chu Yun-peng (朱雲鵬), an economics professor at National Central University; Hsieh Ta-ning (謝大寧), a professor in the department of Chinese Literature and Application at Fo Guang University specializing in Chinese philosophy; and Pan Chao-yang (潘朝陽), a professor in the department of East Asian Studies at National Taiwan Normal University studying Confucian philosophy.
Of the five members, three specialize in Chinese philosophy and none is a historian. The task force completely excludes Taiwanese historians. This is an obscurantist and anti-intellectual version of education.
To say that this adjustment to the curriculum is intended to bring history textbooks in line with the Constitution is deceitful. The Republic of China Constitution was adopted in 1947, but Aborigines speaking Austronesian languages have lived on Taiwan proper for thousands of years. How can this be made to comply with the Constitution? Japan ruled Taiwan for 50 years, both making mistakes and aiding its modernization. How does this relate to the Constitution?
If textbooks were to be written in accordance with the Constitution, the nation would have to return to talk about “the Communist rebellion” and “opposing the Communists and restoring the nation” of 30 years ago, and President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) talk about “one China, with each side having its own interpretation” would be unconstitutional.
Even more alarming, the ministry claims that the “minor adjustments” to the curriculum are a routine measure, but Chou Wan-yao (周婉窈), a history professor at National Taiwan University, has shown that of the 2,013 Chinese characters in the Taiwanese history curriculum, 734 characters have been changed. That is 36.4 percent, more than one-third of the total. How can such a change be called a “minor adjustment”? By comparison, of the 3,278 characters in the Chinese history curriculum, a mere 114 have been changed, or 3 percent.
It should be clear to everyone what the ministry is attempting to do with the “minor adjustments” to the Taiwanese history curriculum.
In addition to the adjustments to the history curriculum, the Chinese language and the civic education curricula are also being changed on the sly. Only now is it becoming clear that in democratic Taiwan the specter of the party-state lives on, surreptitiously trying from time to time to restore the old order.
As the masters of a democracy, should Taiwanese continue to tolerate this bullying and domineering attitude?
Chen Tsui-lien is a professor of history at National Taiwan University and a member of the board of Taiwan Democracy Watch.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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