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Reflections on state nationalism in Chinese historical pedagogy : accounts of the Second Opium War in Chinese middle-school history textbooks from 1912 and 2007 Grover, Caroline

Abstract

Scholars tend to assume the link between Chinese education and nationalism, without looking at the specific ways in which the connection is made. An assessment of the way in which the Second Opium War (1856-1860) is depicted in two Chinese middle-school history textbooks, one from 1912 and the other from 2007, illustrates how the historic event may be used to conjure nationalist responses to an event that brought China into a new world order of sovereign nation-states. Based on the research presented in this paper, it can be shown that since the founding of a public education system in 1902, the Chinese government — whether late imperial, nationalist, or communist — has used history textbooks to express a specifically “national” history that brings the Chinese together behind a strong state that portrays itself as the guardian of a nation’s sovereignty and cultural identity. This paper first assesses the importance of state legitimacy and the role of promoting a specific national narrative that supports the state’s authority in the creation of state-endorsed nationalism, then considers the role of the state in the establishment of a national education system and the production of history textbooks, and finishes with a comparison of passages about the Second Opium War in a textbook from 1912 and one from 2007. Whereas the 1912 passage reinforces the new Republic of China’s claim to legitimacy by focusing on the imperial government’s ineptitude at handling foreign incursion during the Second Opium War, completely overlooking the role of Western interests and aggression in China, the 2007 passage condenses the whole war to the looting and burning of the Yuanming Yuan in order to create a shared memory of humiliation that reminds students of the Chinese Communist Party’s historic victory over imperialism and that may impel Chinese youth to redress the problem of China’s inequality on the world stage. An analysis of the passages about the Second Opium War in these two textbooks demonstrates in a concrete way the role of teaching the country’s “imagined” past in inculcating a contemporary national identity that can then be used to legitimize those in power.

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