Monday, October 5, 2015

Quotable: Helen Gao on understanding China's historical narrative

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Public Diplomacy practitioners often work in environments where a government has propagated – in schools, textbooks, films, radio, television, and leadership statements – a certain historical narrative.  Some narratives rest on flimsy and selective use of history.  Others promote an active sense of grievance.  Some go beyond fostering patriotism to inculcate a narrow nationalism.  Nationalist narratives may go so far as to enhance a xenophobia. 

In a reflective op-ed on her education in China and her subsequent schooling in the United States, Helen Gao, a graduate student in East Asian Studies at Harvard, asked “Why Parrot Beijing’s Line?”  Her essay appeared in The New York Times on August 28, 2015.  Here’s an excerpt:

After going to America for college, my understanding began to change. Western discourse on Chinese history, with its focus on events like the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution, provided texture to the national traumas that are heavily censored in domestic discussion. But it was not until graduate school, where I delved into Western scholarship on China, that I began to understand the subtler ways in which Chinese education has shaped the minds of my generation.

In Chinese classrooms, historical narratives are placed in incomplete context and follow a retrospectively imposed logic that precludes alternative interpretations. Ancient history, for example, is presented in China as dynasties uniting under the mystical “Chinese civilization,” being ruled by the nebulously defined “Chinese people.” Absent are the perspectives of ruling minorities like the Mongols and the Manchus, which, as Western studies show, tell a more complex story. The May Fourth movement — a pivotal event named after a mass protest in 1919 that helped usher China into the modern era — was described in my high school textbook as an “anti-feudal and anti-imperialist patriotic movement.” The influence of Western enlightenment thought, central to the movement, received little acknowledgement.

Another failure of the system is the Chinese method of rote learning, which ill prepares Chinese students for the task of critical inquiry. Despite their awareness of the biases in Chinese history lessons, students accustomed to parroting authoritative accounts possess neither the mental habits nor the analytical skills to investigate them.

As a result, while many students would readily admit the political motivations behind Chinese history education, when challenged by unfamiliar viewpoints, they instinctively fall back onto the statements we chanted as mantras since childhood. The tendency can be heightened by a sense of national pride when the perceived challenge comes from foreigners.

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