A Child Learns History in Hong Kong

In the post The Falsification of History in China, the subject was about how history is taught on mainland China.  What about Hong Kong?  I have not looked at the current history textbooks, but I will recount my own experience once upon a time in Hong Kong.

The time was in the mid-1960's.  At the time, Hong Kong was a British colony.

Here was the political situation at the time.  To the north of Hong Kong, there was "Red China" which was engulfed in the throes of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.  Nobody knew what was really going on there, but much of the news was frightening.  The United Kingdom was quite aware that its colony existed at the sufferance of China.  Given the circumstances under which Hong Kong was originally ceded (namely, the Opium Wars), nobody can blame China for taking back the place, by force if necessary.  The United Kingdom was also aware that China does not even have to use military force; just cutting off the food and water supply would bring the almost 3 million inhabitants down on their knees.  There were also large number of pro-Beijing patriots in Hong Kong, especially in the labor unions.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom's nominal ally was "Free China" based in Taiwan.  This Republic of China was one of the four great powers that won the Second World War, and was then given a permanent seat at the UN Security Council to represent all of China.  There were also large number of pro-ROC loyalists in Hong Kong, especially the refugees who came before and after the takeover of China by the Communists.

That was the political situation, with the two 'Chinas' facing each other off in Hong Kong.

My Chinese history textbook was a two-volume set taught over two years.  The text materials were organized in chronological order, beginning with the ancient times.  Learning history consisted of memorizing the historical facts: names, dates, figures, etc.  There was little discussion or interpretation going on in class, as the teachers were only interested in making sure we memorized the facts.  We were not asked to think about the meaning of history; we were only asked to remember who killed whom to steal the imperial throne, who brought in the Buddhists and slaughtered the Taoists, who killed dissenting intellectuals, which alliance defeated which other alliance, and so on.  Although Hong Kong was under British rule, no quarters were given about the Opium Wars and other imperialistic impositions from the western powers. 

Towards the end of the second year, we reached the end of the second volume and we were now in the twentieth century.  But then we realized that the book abruptly ended at 1911, the year when the Manchurian dynasty was toppled.  After 1911, nothing.  Chinese history ended at 1911.

Why?  Because to go past 1911 means having to deal with the tricky issues of modern China.  Given that the "Red China" and "Free China" each have different spin about the same events, someone (or both of them) could be antagonized by whatever text is written down.

You say, just tell the truth and deal with the consequences.

That's noble, but what is the truth?  For example, we all know that Xi'an incident was a pivotal turning point in the war of resistance against the Japanese.  But what really happened there?  Was Chiang Kai-shek forced by the young Marshal Zhang at gunpoint to join with the Communists?  Did Chiang try to escape by climbing out of his window in his pyjamas and minus his shoes?  Different principals have said different things, and some of them must be lying because they contradict each other and even themselves over time.  What will you write?

Consider the next question: Why did the numerically superior and much better equipped Nationalist army of Chiang Kai-shek lose battle after battle to the Communists?  More generally, why did Chiang Kai-shek lose China?  If you say "corruption," you will upset the pro-Taiwan elements and you may get riots in the streets.  And you won't even please the other side, because they insist that they won due to the brilliant leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

Consider another question: Why did China enter the Korean war?  If you don't say that it was to "resist the Americans and support the Koreans," you may get pro-Beijing street demonstrations as well as unpredictable reactions from the highly volatile Chinese government.

And it goes on and on for every single historical event past 1911.

Can you blame the Hong Kong Educational Department for not wanting to get past 1911?

So where does that leave those children?  Most of them grew up feeling that they were missing a part of their own history, and the most important part at that.  In yesterday's post about Hong Kong polls on Japan, 50% of the survey respondents agreed that the secondary school curriculum in Hong Kong does not present enough about contemporary Chinese history and 83% agreed that they need to learn more about contemporary Chinese history.

Of course, it was always possible to learn on one's own, if not back then but certainly now.  In my case, I read as much as I could.  But lacking a systematically organized study course, my reading was opportunistic and fragmented.  Thus, there are some areas in history that I know in great detail (e.g. the great Nationalist-Communist battles of 1948-1949) while other areas are complete blanks.

Why was there no systematic text anyway?  You may want to think of this as a marketing problem of a book publisher.  Since book publishing is controlled by the state in China, there was no opportunity for anyone outside China to enter.  Hong Kong is an island with fewer than 3 million inhabitants at the time.  A history book was likely to sell just a few hundred copies.  Therefore, Taiwan was the largest book market, and anything that deviated from the Nationalist line was banned.  So we mustn't expect miracles in the form of a fair and accurate history under these circumstances.

But there are many other books, some of which are non-fictional depictions of specific historical events (such as the Xi'an incident) and some are biographical in nature.  Many of these 'non-fictional' books are clearly fictional.  My favorite memory is the book about the Battle of Huaihai, during which Chiang Kai-shek was said to be on the telephone with his general, screaming "娘希匹!" at him for not doing better.  I doubt that the author was actually listening in on this telephone call, so this must surely be a creative device.  But "娘希匹!"?  I had never encountered the phrase before, so I went to ask my parents.  They regarded me with sad eyes that seemed to be asking themselves, "What have we done to raise such a bad child!" and they said nothing.  I had to go ask the chauffeurs in the building to find out what this Ningbo-dialect phrase meant.

In the end, I was disadvantaged by not receiving a full history education about contemporary China.  But any such history would be incomplete and biased anyway in a matter of degree (exercise: take any history textbook from any country and enumerate the omissions and misstatements).  What I got instead was exposure to many sides of various issues and episodes, together with a healthy skepticism.  You will never ever convince me that you hold the absolute historical truth about anything.  In fact, if you claim so, you are automatically suspect for delusion or deception.

Related post: How Taiwan Robbed My Childhood