In the spring of 1999, when I was in fifth grade, my teacher at my Beijing elementary school gave me an assignment one day after class. A week earlier, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the war in Kosovo, killing three Chinese reporters. Washington called the attack an accident, while the Chinese public believed it to be a deliberate provocation. I was to write a speech for a school meeting the next day, my teacher told me, that “condemns the hegemonic behavior of Western powers that had suppressed China for centuries.”
That evening I labored amid piles of newspapers, composing the speech by stringing together phrases lifted from front-page headlines. The efforts paid off the next day when the teacher nodded approvingly at the draft I handed her. It was filled with phrases such as the “century of humiliation” and “anti-imperialist struggles,” whose sounds quickened my heartbeat but whose meanings I didn’t quite understand.
When I got to high school, these words appeared again in my history textbooks, now as maxims we were required to memorize. “Building socialism in China,” I repeated to myself, “is the inevitable outcome of the course of modern Chinese history.”
But by my high school years these statements and many like them no longer intrigued me and my classmates, nor did their meanings sink into our consciousness. Chinese history, which seemed to consist of a list of treaties and campaigns sketched out in ideological jargon, felt elusive and hollow.
Yet the simplicity of the lessons was a blessing. Saved from the trouble of formulating complex arguments and reconciling baffling contradictions, we scored points in exams by repeating textbooks verbatim and recalling chronology with exactitude.
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.
Recently, over lunch with a friend who has chosen to study in Hong Kong and Taiwan in order to get, as he explained, “a fresh understanding of China,” he confessed that the experience only hardened his attitude toward these societies. The protesters in the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong were likely instigated by “foreign forces,” he argued. Otherwise, how could they “not see for themselves the benefit of China’s stable and efficient political system?”
In other cases, students who diligently memorized for exams the textbook statements they did not believe in continued to see learning as primarily a means to a personal end. The Western ideal of the pursuit of the truth affords little benefit in China. In a cutthroat environment that places a low premium on originality and integrity, students learn to justify, under the pressure to succeed, the using of work that represents neither their honest opinions nor products of their intellectual labor.
While I was in college in America, my school abruptly canceled a joint academic program with Peking University, one of China’s top education institutions. Among other controversies, an American biology professor in Beijing complained of the rampant plagiarism among students at the university. My friends who went there readily admitted that the cheating existed, but argued that the students were simply being practical. “We swap test answers and share papers for classes like Marxist political philosophy, so we can have more time to focus on the subjects that actually matter,” one told me.
Last winter, when I turned on the television in Beijing to watch a popular speech contest organized by a state channel, I saw a high school friend standing on stage. With a solemn expression, he delivered a speech accusing Western media of waging a “cultural war” against China that “attacks the confidence and dignity of the Chinese people.” In the next round, he donned a Mongolian robe and declared his heartfelt wish for the long lasting of China’s territorial unity.
Eventually, my friend won the contest, prompting a chorus of congratulation from our classmates on social media. I recalled the time we had spent together in high school after class, griping about the monotony of the curriculum and mocking the irrelevance of the test questions. It was hard to settle those memories with his performance on television.
A few weeks ago, I ran into him at a class reunion. I approached him, hoping to bring up the contest and ask for his true thoughts about politics: Did he really believe what he said on television? I paused. Out of nowhere, the speech I had written in fifth grade, after the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, entered my mind. I swallowed my words.
Helen Gao, a native of Beijing, is a master’s student in East Asian Studies at Harvard.