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Time to correct wrongs in Oxford history books

By He Meilan and Mazhar Alam | China Daily | Updated: 2022-08-13 08:35
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A volunteer teaches children how to paint at a community center in Luanzhou, North China's Hebei province on July 24, 2021. [Photo/Xinhua]

When it comes to China-Pakistan relations, almost all Pakistani and Chinese people know slogans such as "Long Live Pakistan-China Friendship", "iron-brothers" and "Pakistan-China friendship is higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the oceans and sweeter than honey".

But what do Pakistani school textbooks say about China? And how do Pakistani students view China? We have observed that Pakistani students, in general, take keen interest in China. But they obtain most of the information on China from traditional media and social media. They know that China is a rising global power, though.

Yet when reading history and geography textbooks, the students encounter a somewhat different China.

Pakistani middle school textbooks include Oxford History for Pakistan (Books 1-3) and Geography Alive (Books 1-3) authored by Peter Moss. The history textbooks integrate sub-continental and world histories, and are used to teach Pakistani students both inside and outside the country.

The two sets of books present an overall picture of China from ancient times to the present. But the history textbooks are far from being sequential. The Oxford History for Pakistan (Book 1), for instance, is on ancient Chinese history starting from the Yellow River Valley Civilization about 6,000 years ago to the era of Confucius. This part of the Chinese history is well covered by the book.

But the Oxford History for Pakistan (Book 2) jumps to the Song Dynasty (960-1269), giving a miss to the Silk Road, which represents ancient Chinese history, and the Tang Dynasty (618-907), considered the high point of Chinese civilization. The ancient Silk Road connected the Chinese civilization with other Asian and European civilizations. So how can a history book ignore it?

Besides, it is wrong to say that "China was basically ruled by foreigners between Song and Manchu dynasties, and Chinese people turned inward and tried to shut themselves off from the rest of the world", because the Mongol and Manchu people, who respectively ruled China during the Yuan (1271-1368) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, were not foreigners; they were (and still are) members of ethnic groups in China.

Interestingly, however, the author also says:"Song period was a time of great culture", and "during Ming dynasty, there was great prosperity with land cultivation and simple industry. Overseas trade soared".

The evaluation of China during the medieval and early modern periods by the author of the Oxford History for Pakistan (Book 3) is reasonable. The book says China was a more advanced civilization than the West in the 16th century only to become a relatively backward country by the 18th century. It also paints a true picture of the Opium Wars, saying "the British government declared war on China and invaded under a false pretext".

Why do Pakistani school textbooks have such narratives on China?

First, the textbooks have been revised and updated after long gaps, or not revised at all.

Second, the author, Peter Moss, is an Englishman, so his nationality and British educational background (Western view of history) could have influenced his writing.

And third, the current Pakistani education system, English-medium private schools in particular, can be seen as a continuation of the British school system. Being under British colonial rule for about 150 years, Pakistani upper and middle classes have inherited a lot of traits from the British social and educational systems.

As such, the narratives on China's history in Pakistani textbooks do not represent the views of the Pakistani government and people. But there is an urgent need to prevent Pakistani children from being influenced by such narratives about China, especially considering that students of private English-medium schools come mainly from middle- and upper middle-class families which form the core of Pakistani society and will likely become the most vital social force in the coming 20-30 years.

Textbooks help shape students' outlook on history and their views on different countries. We cannot say whether Western ideology-influenced narratives on China will create misunderstandings about China and the Chinese people among the Pakistani people. But we can say that some of the China-related accounts will not help Pakistani children develop a fair understanding of Chinese history and society.

Fortunately, China and Pakistan both are confident that such narratives cannot damage bilateral relations. Connected by the Silk Road in ancient times, the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1951 and have become all-weather strategic partners. Yet Pakistan needs to find ways to present an objective picture of China in its textbooks, which in turn will help consolidate their friendship and enable them to more closely work together to build a community with a shared future for mankind and contribute to global peace and development.

He Meilan is a senior researcher at Hebei Normal University, and writes on Pakistani history and China-Pakistan relations; and Mazhar Alam is an anthropologist, project director of a joint Sino-Pakistani archaeological excavation project in Pakistan and a visiting professor at the same university. The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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