For most of the past three years, I have helped run a program for high school students in Hunan Province, China, who wish to study in American universities. During this time, the China Dream propaganda campaign has been in full swing. It touts virtues such as “harmony,” “democracy,” and “patriotism,” plastering twelve such “core socialist values” on what seems like every blank wall in China. The patriotic theme is to be expected. After the Tiananmen affair, Chinese leaders recognized that alongside growing prosperity, citizens were best diverted from talk of internal change by appealing to outside threats that require redoubled solidarity. But at the same time, the government pushed a contrary theme, one that casts China in a “we are the world” plotline. Here, the Chinese self-image evinces a universalist meaning.
I was curious to see how the Chinese government reconciled these emphases: China as patriotic homeland facing geopolitical rivals and China as leading a universalizing movement. How does she make this dual identity clear and rational to her youth? To answer that question, I borrowed an eleventh-grade history text from one of my students and plunged in.
History Three is part of the standard curriculum in Chinese schools. A 126-page “outline of history,” it carefully combines the stories of China and the West. The textbook contains twenty-four brief chapters grouped into eight units: traditional “mainstream” Chinese thought; the origins and development of “humanism” in Greece; ancient Chinese art and technology; early Western science; three units on “intellectual liberation” in China as she began to interact with the West and develop politically, scientifically, and artistically; then a final unit on modern Western science, art, and literature. The back cover reprises key acts in this drama. A five-page chart compares events in the “world” (the West) and in China, summarizing the storyline students are meant to absorb about the two great and complementary civilizations.
The front cover of the book reinforces the overall thrust. It features two men—Confucius and Albert Einstein—along with two inventions, an old-fashioned film projector and a primitive Chinese compass made of gold.
The image of Confucius is unexceptional. Over the centuries, the mainstream of Chinese culture has been Confucianism, and it has distinguished China from other civilizations. The “outline of history” gives passing mention to Latin America and Africa (there are brief treatments of Tagore and Gabriel García Márquez, both popular in China), but the crucial story of humanity involves the merging of two streams, ancient Greece (the “West”) and Confucian China. For this reason, Einstein, the paradigmatic representative of modern science and the culmination of the Western part of the story, is matched with Confucius on the cover.
In this telling, superstition sometimes leaches into both streams from encircling swamps. Still, the pure currents of enlightenment, Confucianism and Western reason, ultimately merge, properly channeled by a post-Maoist party to produce the Marxist-liberal synthesis that is contemporary orthodoxy. The strong influence of Buddhism on neo-Confucianism in the Song dynasty is honored in passing, but the textbook’s account of the development of global civilization is otherwise uncomplicated by any mention of Buddha, Moses, Muhammad, or Jesus.
Nor is the happy harmony of Chinese culture and Western rationality disrupted by traditional communist talk of revolution. “Prosperity” and “friendship” are among China’s “core socialist values.” One can find them in red adorning a wall two dozen paces from our classrooms—and all around China. In keeping with this amiable spirit, History Three expresses no particular animosity towards America or even Japan. One finds, however, a pervasive patriotism, which assumes that when China is at odds with the world, the world must be wrong.
Lesson 19, for instance, asks students to consider two conflicting perspectives on whether China should have developed nuclear weapons. First, there’s the fact that “China is a country with a deep love for peace, while the hydrogen bomb is a terrifying weapon for killing people.” Yet “research and development of nuclear weapons was necessary under special circumstances.” The United States had an extensive arsenal, “seriously threatening Chinese security.” During the 1960s, too, students are vaguely informed, a nuclear-armed Soviet Union “treated China with animosity.”
The conclusion students are encouraged to draw is clear: There is no conflict between peace and hydrogen bombs. Because of China’s nuclear weapons, “Soviet and American superpowers didn’t dare bully us.” The image of a peace-loving country only reluctantly stockpiling nuclear weapons is reinforced with a photo of the father of the Chinese green revolution, Yuan Longping, on the facing page. He is bending down in a field and lovingly holding a stalk of rice.
That this “peaceful” China in the post-revolution years invaded Korea and Tibet, tussled with India as well as the Soviet Union, and bombed offshore Taiwanese islands goes unspoken. The geopolitical facts that do come up are stated fairly objectively. In any event, most mentions of the United States in this text involve inventors (Thomas Edison) or entertainers (Elvis Presley, Louis Armstrong), and the emphasis does not fall on them as American. They are random daisies blossoming in a meadow of human creativity, one also graced by such figures as Shelley and Tolstoy, whose roots are not traced to any particular nation-state. In all of this, East and West are recognized as fundamentally compatible.
There is a villain in this history, however: religion in general, and the Christian Church in particular. The villain pops up often in History Three, which casually accepts a crude “Enlightenment” caricature of religion as an enemy of Western progress. Initially, we read, the ancient Greeks committed the error of imagining the world as created. But in due course, “a few scholars turned their attention from the gods (or God) towards man, and tried to explore the universe and the origin of nature and the things in it.” Empiricism triumphed.
A resurgent religion ended the progress inaugurated by the ingenious Greeks, however. “In the thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire,” students learn, “under the rule of Christianity, humanist thought was suppressed.” But all was not lost. After “passing through a millennium-long Dark Age called the Medieval Period,” Europeans looked back to the empirically minded humanists of the ancient world and “discovered a system of thought that was full of life and the light of human character, and began to break asunder the bonds of the Church.”
In other words, progress came as reason escaped from the theological dungeon of Christian faith. Once freed from religion, Westerners recognized that creating wealth “beat worrying about imaginary theological concepts.” It was not an easy struggle, though. The Church “controlled cultural thought” and “demanded that people obey the plan of God.” But the struggle continued and reason eventually won, giving the world the great boon of modern science.
Anyone who has scanned the mystic effusions of Kepler or read Newton’s theological speculations can only shake his head. The authors repeat the popular myth that Europeans were executed for daring to do science. Chinese youth even meet Michael Sevetus, whom the authors seem to think was killed by the Catholic Inquisition (not by Calvin) for precocious scientism, not theological heresy.
I was not so very surprised. I’ve taught in classrooms in the state of Washington, and this simple-minded history of the West—and the animus against Christianity—almost made me feel at home. Though History Three does strike a discordant, politically incorrect note by failing to praise Islam while denigrating Christianity, as do some of the texts I have reviewed while teaching in the U.S., the anti-Christian historiography is familiar, even some of the specific clichés.
Another parallel to the relentlessly secular mentality of many textbooks in America is that History Three never mentions the most famous man in history. The content of Christian beliefs is never described. Newton’s “dwarfs on the shoulders of giants” statement is quoted, yes, but the giants themselves (Bacon, Buridan, Grosseteste) and the theology that nourished them go unmentioned, as does Newton’s own inquisitive piety.
Units five to seven deal with China’s response to Western influence. The first two “leading (Chinese) scientists” the text mentions are Xu Guangqi and Li Zhizao. They were among the three “Pillars of the [Catholic] Church” in China, but their faith goes uncredited. A summary sketch of the Ming and Qing dynasties treats Xu’s The Complete Book of Agricultural Administration, but neglects to note that he was the most famous disciple of the great Jesuit Matteo Ricci. That’s like an account of the first Thanksgiving that fails to mention any Pilgrims.
Needless to say, the role missionaries played in introducing modern medicine and education, raising the status of women in China, and advancing a thousand other reforms isn’t anywhere noted. Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao are praised for leading nineteenth-century reform in China, but the fact that they were deeply influenced by Protestant missionaries Timothy Richard and Young John Allen is left out. Sun Yat-sen, beloved in Mainland China and Taiwan alike for his role in founding modern China, is praised at length, but without a word signaling his Wesleyan conversion to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Four hundred years ago, Ricci drew a great map of the world and hung it on his wall. The Chinese had yet to hear of the Americas or Australia, so Ricci’s map shocked many. Xu and Li were so impressed by the broader mapping of reality that Ricci introduced that they converted to Christ and helped initiate the renaissance of Chinese civilization that it is the underlying purpose of History Three to celebrate.
The concluding chart that summarizes Western and Chinese history overlooks a feature familiar to Western students. The period from Plato to nearly 600 years “after the Common Era” is conspicuously blank on the Western side. Instead of marking information on the origins of Christianity, the single most influential aspect of Western culture, the chart shows nothing. The next four centuries in Europe refer merely to “the fetters of feudal theology.” Then it goes blank again until 1368. As is the case in so many textbooks in the West, the narrative vaults from Greece to the Renaissance, avoiding Christianity as much as possible.
The story History Three tells Chinese high school students is patriotic, but not particularly jingoistic. This accords with my general experience in China. The Middle Kingdom does not presently feel the need to claim an exclusive title to advanced civilization. For that we should be grateful. But in so doing, China has adopted a very Western prejudice. The map of the past we now draw for our children has withered, for fear, it seems, of dragons beyond the borders of the emerging humanist orthodoxy. And the Chinese, too, are now drawing that map.
French literary anthropologist René Girard believed that peace is often made when warring factions pick a scapegoat on whom to channel their wrath, a cursed but divine figure to bear accumulated wickedness. That History Three reflects Western anti-Christian prejudice is, perhaps, a mark of ignorance, a blind copying of history textbooks in the West. Alternatively, one may also conclude that the secularism of Chinese Communism is making common cause with Western secularism. Both are materialist, and both find history more manageable when one great complication is eliminated.
Christianity is growing in China, and the present regime has taken to toppling crosses from churches where growth has proven too vigorous. Out of sight, out of the public consciousness of impressionable youth. That’s not all that different from the mentality of many who run our schools and universities in America.
Rudyard Kipling said, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” until, he continued (we forget), they finally join “at God’s great Judgment Seat.” But presently, pedagogues in East and West meet in a conciliatory godlessness that agrees to keep the crucified savior hidden from the eyes of schoolchildren.
David Marshall is author, most recently, of Jesus Is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels.