It’s time to right the wrongs in the Oxford history books

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A volunteer teaches children how to paint at a community center in Luanzhou, north China’s Hebei Province, July 24, 2021. [Photo/Xinhua]

When it comes to Sino-Pakistani relations, almost every Pakistani and Chinese people are familiar with slogans such as “Long live Pakistan-China friendship”, “Iron brothers” and “Pakistan-China friendship is higher than the ‘Himalayas, deeper than oceans and sweeter than honey’.

But what do Pakistani textbooks say about China? And how do Pakistani students view China? We have observed that Pakistani students, in general, are keenly interested in China. But they get most of the information about China from mainstream media and social media. They know, however, that China is a rising world power.

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

Pakistani college textbooks include Oxford History for Pakistan (Books 1-3) and Geography Alive (Books 1-3) written by Peter Moss. History textbooks incorporate sub-continental and global histories and are used to teach Pakistani students inside and outside the country.

Both sets of books present a comprehensive picture of China from ancient times to the present day. But history textbooks are far from sequential. The Oxford History for Pakistan (Book 1), for example, covers ancient Chinese history from the Yellow River Valley civilization around 6,000 years ago to the era of Confucius. This part of Chinese history is well covered in the book.

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

Also, it is wrong to say that “China was basically ruled by foreigners between the Song and Manchu dynasties, and the Chinese turned inward and tried to cut themselves off from the rest of the world”, because the peoples Mongol and Manchu, who respectively ruled China in the Yuan (1271-1368) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties were no strangers; they were (and still are) members of ethnic groups in China.

Interestingly, however, the author also says, “The Song period was a time of great culture”, and “during the Ming dynasty there was great prosperity with land cultivation and simple industry. Trade overseas exploded”.

The assessment of China in medieval and early modern times by the author of the Oxford History for Pakistan (Book 3) is reasonable. The book says that China was a more advanced civilization than the West in the 16th century to become a relatively backward country in the 18th century. He also paints an accurate picture of the Opium Wars, saying that “the British government declared war on China and invaded it under false pretence.”

Why do Pakistani textbooks contain such stories about China?

First, textbooks were revised and updated after long gaps, or not revised at all.

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

And thirdly, the current Pakistani education system, especially English private schools, can be seen as a continuation of the British school system. Being under British colonial rule for about 150 years, Pakistan’s upper and middle classes have inherited many traits from British social and educational systems.

As such, accounts of 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 since students in English-speaking private schools come mainly from middle and upper-class families who form the core of society. Pakistani culture and become the most vital social force in the next 20 to 30 years.

Textbooks help shape students’ view of history and their view of different countries. We cannot say whether narratives influenced by Western ideology about China will create misunderstandings about China and Chinese people among Pakistani people. But we can say that some stories related to China will not help Pakistani children to develop a proper understanding of Chinese history and society.

Fortunately, both China and Pakistan are convinced that such stories cannot harm bilateral relations. Connected by the Silk Road in ancient times, the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1951 and have become strategic all-weather partners. Yet Pakistan must find ways to present an objective image of China in its school textbooks, which in turn will help solidify their friendship and enable them to work more closely together to build a community with a shared future for humanity and contribute to world 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 visiting professor at the same university. Opinions do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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