Weekly Standard

Teaching Taiwan

Revisions in Taiwanese textbooks cause a stir.

by Abigail Lavin

16 February 2007

A FEW YEARS AGO, statues of Sun Yat Sen began disappearing from Taiwan's public parks. In 2004, the Taiwanese government announced it would remove questions about Mainland Chinese geography from its general knowledge exam for civil servants. And last fall, the government renamed the country's largest international airport. Once named for the Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai Shek, it is now simply called Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, after the county where is it is located.

The ruling Democratic Progressive Party's latest initiative has ruffled more feathers of officials on the Mainland and in the KMT opposition bloc: Revised high school history textbooks will for the first time devote an entire volume to "Taiwanese" history. The People's Republic of China, previously referred to in classrooms as "our country," "this country," or "the mainland," will be identified as "China," and its history will be condensed from two or three volumes down to one.

The changes don't stop there. The island nation's 50 years of Japanese rule is no longer an "occupation," but an "administrative period." The 1911 Wuhan Uprising that brought an end to imperial rule in China will now be called a "Qi Shi" or riot, which carries a less righteous connotation than the old term, "Qi Yi," or revolution.

The new textbooks, which will reach classrooms in March, even go so far as to address the taboo subject of Taiwanese independence. One version reads: "Taiwan's future remains a big question mark. Will Taiwan independence bring war? How to protect Taiwan from being swallowed?"

CHINESE OFFICIALS have taken umbrage at the changes, calling the DPP's "De-sinicization" a provocative attempt to politicize education. A February 1 editorial in the PRC-controlled China Daily began: "History is made by man but not man-made. Such a truth foretells the doomed Taipei secessionist attempt to rewrite the island's history through promoting pro-independence culture."

But in a nation with a history as contested as Taiwan's, there is no neutral version of events. Every word choice suggests a bias, real or perceived, regarding Taiwan's status as a nation. Different versions of Taiwan's history have been competing since 1949, when Chiang Kai Shek's provisional government in Taipei and Communist forces on the mainland both claimed sovereignty over China. The cross-strait tug-of-war has intensified since 2000, when the independence-minded President Chen Shui-bian and his Democratic Progressive Party ascended to power. The DPP has undertaken an aggressive campaign to emphasize Taiwan's national identity as distinct from the People's Republic of China in public museums, parks, and schools.

Domestically, the new textbooks underscore the polarization between the Pan-Blue political coalition, which favors unification with China, and the Pan-Green coalition, which advocates eventual independence. Leaders of People First, a party under the Pan-Blue umbrella, have called for the resignation of Tu Cheng-Sheng, the Education minister who oversaw the changes. "This whitewash of history cannot be tolerated," said Jacob Chang of the KMT-PFP Representative Office in Washington.

The DPP characterizes the changes as an apolitical effort to teach Taiwanese children about their heritage. Past generations of Taiwanese students were required to study obscure railway routes and names of rivers in Mainland China. For today's Taiwanese teenager, who probably has no relatives living in China, such information is increasingly irrelevant. "The revision of textbooks is unrelated whatsoever to the independence/unification issue," Eddy Tsai, a spokesman for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Washington, said in an email. "The revisions were made based on a respect for the status quo . . . and historical accuracy."

But even analysts who support independence for Taiwan admit that the DPP's decision was fueled less by a passion for the truth than by political considerations. With parliamentary elections coming up in December and a presidential election in 2008, the DPP is trying to shore up support among its base of independence-minded voters.

On the mainland, officials are up in arms about the changes. At a news conference on January 31, a spokesman for Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office accused Taiwanese authorities of playing "tricks" to deny that "Taiwan is an inseparable part of China." The PRC passed an anti-secession law in 2005, asserting its intention to use "non-peaceful means" should Taiwan declare independence. Critics of the Ministry of Education's decision portray it as a politically-motivated act of defiance against the PRC.

But aside from their symbolic import, the new textbooks will have a practical effect on Taiwanese students. "The real question is, what do you want the children of Taiwan growing up learning," says John Tkacik, an Asian studies expert at the Heritage Foundation. "Do you want them learning Chinese history and thinking that Taiwan doesn't matter? Because that's what's been going on for the past 50 years."

Indeed, during more than 50 years of control, the KMT revised history textbooks many times, always giving short shrift to Taiwanese history. While the regime never allotted more than a few chapters to Taiwan alone, volumes of "National History" indoctrinated students with the glory of KMT goals. The most recent KMT-sponsored revisions in 1995 included a section on the country's future stating that, "the ultimate goal is to unify China." By contrast, these first DPP-sponsored revisions leave questions of Taiwan's future open-ended.

The most controversial change in the new books is the removal of the honorific "Guo Fu," or "Father of the Country" to describe Sun Yat Sen, a cofounder of the KMT. Sun's political philosophy forms the basis of Taiwan's constitution, but the "Guo Fu's" practical impact on Taiwan varies widely depending on who you ask. "Sun Yat Sen had zero impact on the formation of Taiwan," says Tkacik. But Shelley Rigger, a professor of East Asian politics at Davidson College, believes that downplaying Sun Yat Sen's importance is a "decapitation" of historical facts. She compares the textbook revisions to a U.S. history course that doesn't mention the Framers of the Constitution: "Trying to purge anything that doesn't accord with a particular version of events . . . is a very dangerous way to teach history."

But removing Sun's grandiose title is not the same thing as removing all mention of the man himself, just as distinguishing Chinese history from Taiwan's is not the same thing as striking it from the record. While the timing of the changes is no doubt politically motivated, the content of the changes is less ideologically charged than previous revisions. And it is the content itself, not the recent fracas it has ignited, that will shape the national identity of Taiwan's young people.

Abigail Lavin is a staff assistant at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.